Rather like The X Factor, they came in their hundreds, and one by one they were weeded out by the judges until only the best remained. Chris Losh looks at the finalists for this year’s Wine List of the Year
Now in its fifth year, the Wine List of the Year keeps on growing – and changing, too. With a record number of entries and the same number of Finalist places as last year, only 10% of entries made it through to the final round of judging. Aware that a number of great lists were going home with nothing, this year we introduced a Commended category.
Commended lists won’t be considered for the overall awards, but something raised them above average. Often they had several elements that were excellent but were let down by one ‘fatal flaw’.
Meanwhile, to prevent lists of proven greatness ‘blocking’ aspiring newbies from taking top spots, we also introduced a Hall of Fame for lists that have picked up awards for two years or more.
Our judging process was the same as last year. Every list was examined by at least two on-trade experts and marked against the following criteria: accuracy (10 marks); clarity/ease of navigation (20 marks); aesthetic attractiveness/creativity (20 marks); quality of wine (30 marks); relevance to market (10 marks); and value for money (10 marks).
This gave every list a score out of 100, plus detailed feedback from the judges in all these key areas, and, with a final round of ‘sweeping’ by Neil Bruce and Ronan Sayburn MS to ensure that nothing had slipped through the net, it made for a highly rigorous process.
It soon became obvious that ‘good but boring’ wasn’t enough to get through to this final stage. Lists needed to be intuitive to navigate, easy on the eye and (of course) stuffed with great wines. But our judges were always on the lookout for personality, too. Without it, a list was unlikely to succeed.
Neil Bruce, Studio Alto
Luigi Buonanno, Etrusca Restaurants
Christopher Cooper, consultant
Jo Eames, Peach Pubs
Martin Lam, consultant
Chris Losh, editor, Imbibe
Diana Rollan, Hakkasan
Ronan Sayburn MS, RS Wine Academy
Mark Thornhill, The Rockingham Arms
Agustin Trapero, Launceston Place
Charlie Young, Vinoteca
HALL OF FAME
The lists in these establishments are all examples of continual excellence that have picked up awards in this competition over two or more years. To recognise this, and also to prevent them ‘blocking’ great new arrivals from picking up prizes, we have allocated them a place in our Hall of Fame. Many congratulations to our proven star performers.
Cherwell Boathouse, Oxford (Pictured right) Trangallán, London
EatDrinkSleep Group (The Gurnard’s
Head/The Felin Fach Griffin)
10 Greek Street, London
On its own, the informal ‘main’ list for this Soho eatery is an impressive bit of work. Tightly chosen, it stuffs more good and interesting bottles into its 40 bins than many lists 10 times the size, with a terrific selection available either by the glass or half-bottle. Add to this the ever-changing selection of ‘fine wines’ – hand-written and snapped up in tiny quantities, and it’s a list that’s as innovative, informal and quirky as the clientele.
A finalist last year, Xavier Rousset MS’ list impressed our panel again this year. Like 10 Greek Street, it’s a ‘two lists in one’ package, with the one-page brasserie list supplemented by some high-quality fine wines. The by-the-glass selection is astonishing, with every still wine (all 50 of ’em) available in 75ml, 125ml, or 250ml carafes. Add in the chance to drink Romanée-Conti Échézeaux 1999 by the glass thanks to the recently added Coravin system, and it’s a truly exciting offering.
Winner of Wine Bar List of the Year in 2011, Albertine was back in favour with the judges this year. While the typeface had a few of the panel squinting over their espresso, it was cleverly laid out, with wines separated by grape variety, style (eg Crisp and Fresh), or, occasionally, by country. Tasting notes are short, and there are stimulating ‘focuses’ on varieties and places. Its blend of ‘classic’ and ‘interesting’ is a terrific snapshot of the modern wine world. ‘Lots of glasses I’d enjoy drinking here,’ said Peach Pubs’ Jo Eames.
Allium Brasserie, Bath
If this hotel is as elegant and cheerfully helpful as its wine list it should be on the itinerary of any visitor to Bath. Wines are split into easily comprehensible style categories and the tasting notes that accompany every wine are helpful, enthusiastic and personal. Moreover, there’s evidence throughout of careful buying, backed up by keen pricing. ‘There’s evidence here of real consideration,’ praised consultant Christopher Cooper.
Arguably the most authentic tapas bar in the UK, the Hart Brothers’ wine list is suitably compact and no-nonsense. A dozen whites, 12 reds, a rosé, three cavas and six sherries is your lot. But nearly all the wines are available by the glass, and for such a short list there’s an impressive mix of ‘safe’ and ‘cutting-edge Spanish’, particularly in the whites. Clear, accurate, supremely easy to navigate and spot-on for its purpose.
If you want to know how to mix education and practical information in minimal word count, then this list is well worth a look. It takes the uninitiated through everything from sherry styles to grape varieties such as Albariño and Godello in no more than a couple of sentences. Concise, helpful and stuffed full of reasons to try unfamiliar bits of Spain, it’s a wonderfully helpful, compact example of what the modern wine list should be about. ‘There are lots of goodies here,’ praised Vinoteca’s Charlie Young. ‘These wines are chosen with care.’
Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms, Bristol
Printed on the kind of brown paper normally used for packing onions, the list for this Bristolian eatery (which is based in an old pub) oozes with personality. Cheerful and homespun, the 50 wines have lively, personal tasting notes, and the wine selection is very well priced and hearteningly brave, with Bulgarian Rkatsiteli and amphora-fermented Armenians rubbing shoulders with Navarran Grenache and Mount Horrocks Riesling.
Winner of this competition’s Innovative List of the Year in 2013, Bibigo scored well again this year. At just 30 wines, Raphael Thierry’s list is one of the smallest in the competition, but it’s proof that careful selection can trump sheer size, particularly when it’s put together with such imagination. Wines are grouped according to what food they’ll work with, and also whether you’re looking to amplify the spice (‘Korean palate’) or soften it (‘Western palate’). Bravely brilliant.
The Big Easy Bar.BQ & Crabshack, London
Proof that big (500-700 covers on a Friday night) or informal (BBQ/crab shack) needn’t mean a thoughtless drinks list. From cocktails to Condrieu and shakes to champagne, this list packs more of interest into its five pages than most other lists do in 50. The by-the-glass selection is short, helpful and food-friendly while the ‘full list’ is wide-ranging yet compact and, for Covent Garden, fairly priced. How many Southern grill venues, I wonder, offer reds from Etna or Croatia or Madeira by the glass…
At fewer than 50 bins, this is a well-put-together and laudably concise celebration of Spain – no other country gets a look in until you get to spirits. Reds and whites are listed by style – sunny, juicy, buxom and luscious for the whites, which made our judges smile. Half the wines are available in a variety of smaller serves, the ubiquitous tasting notes are short but helpful and the illustrations of the cocktails was a nice touch, too. Lots of personality, but no over-indulgence and superbly customer-friendly.
Chotto Matte, London
‘I wanted,’ says sommelier Barry McCaughley, ‘to create a list for our customers, not for me or the management.’ Well, he’s succeeded. This top-end Japanese/Peruvian cultural mash-up dispenses with European formality (listing its wines by style) while having some good top-end wines for those on a splurge. The latter are the only ones not available by the glass, ideal for cuisine like this, and it’s attractively put together and easy on the eye.
The Crooked Well, London
Printed on two sides of A4, The Crooked Well’s list has the kind of clear, no-nonsense, no-frills approach that you’d expect from a neighbourhood gastropub in an average area. The vast majority of wines are under £30, with 20 of them by the glass and there are plenty of real gems in the selection. ‘There’s an obvious amount of care been taken in formulating and preparing this list,’ said Mark Thornhill of The Rockingham Arms.
The Flying Boat Club, Scilly Isles
This list should act as an inspiration to anyone who thinks it’s prohibitively difficult to put together a good wine list out of town. Located 20 miles off Land’s End, The FBC’s list is short (barely 40 bins) but wide-ranging. On just two sides of A4, there isn’t room for lots of waffle, although there is the odd tasting note, while the ‘Silver Lining’ section (hoovering up bin-ends) and the ‘Something Truly Special’ sections are a clever idea and add focus.
This is a wine list that does everything right. It’s clear, attractive, easy to navigate and helpful, and, whatever you think of no-addition wines, with the restaurant’s focus on seasonality and local produce, the page of Natural bottles does fit with that culinary ethic. Prices are keen, particularly on the Fine Wines selection, where only VAT and a £20 corkage are added to the price. ‘So good it made me want to go to Balham,’ said one judge.
Lion + Pheasant, Shrewsbury
The wine list at Lion + Pheasant is as modern and stylish as this Shrewsbury town house hotel itself. Wines are split up by style, so it’s easy for customers to navigate and helpful – and whoever designed the layout deserves a medal. There are plenty of safe listings, as you might expect, but some more adventurous bins, too, such as Japanese Koshu and Greek Agiorgitiko. With the vast majority of wines sub-£40, it’s spot-on for its clientele.
Lovelady Shield Country House Hotel, Cumbria
There are some wine lists where the enthusiasm of the buyer just shines through, and this was one of them. Catering for 20-30 covers ‘in the middle of nowhere’, there’s plenty for the hotel guest to get stuck into while ordering, with everything from explanations of grape varieties to a heartfelt plea on behalf of dessert wines. The ‘Peter’s Wines’ section, working through the more over-enthusiastic purchases from the owner’s cellar, has some real bargains, too.
Loves Restaurant, Birmingham
Something of an eyebrow-raiser, this list attempted something very difficult – and pulled it off with aplomb. The wines are listed in three different ways: by country, by grape and by trend. Some wines appear in several sections, others only in one. No wonder it took two years to put together: it’s very brave, but it works. And the ‘try something different’ suggestion (pointing browsers towards a wine in a similar style, but from a different grape or country) is a terrific touch. Elegant, clean and fun: the
good folk of Birmingham are lucky…
The residents of Blackburn are not especially renowned for being stingy, so it must be sheer good-heartedness that led the team at Northcote to work on such generous mark-ups for its wines. ‘Some of these are a real bargain!’ exclaimed judge Agustin Trapero of Launceston Place. The list is split up traditionally (ie geographically), but it’s well done. There’s plenty of information for those who want it, coupled with a clear layout for those who don’t. France, of course, is well served. But it’s gratifying to see countries such as Portugal and South Africa getting plenty of recognition here, too.
The Oak W12, London
With its focus on Mediterranean food, it’s entirely understandable that this new addition to Jasper Gorst’s stable should have a wine list that’s heavily dominated by France, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Spain and Portugal. Its 60 or so bins are well priced (there’s not much over £40) and there are decent tasting notes for each one – which is handy for a pub/restaurant cross-over. ‘There’s only one rosé,’ noted Eames, ‘but otherwise customers will find plenty to drink at a good price.’
Porthminster Beach Café, Cornwall
A casual seaside restaurant in pretty St Ives, there’s a suitably breezy feel to this wine list, with lots of space, the wines helpfully split up by style and a subtle use of colour to badge reds, whites and rosés. At 50 bins, it could never be accused of over-indulgence, though the odd food-match hint might have been a good idea, particularly since the chef obviously likes his spicy food. But for a place that can shift 400 covers on a busy day, it was a good effort. ‘It’s a well-priced list,’ commented Etrusca Group’s Luigi Buonanno. ‘There are some real bargains.’
Princess Victoria, London
This may have been the most ‘Marmite’ list we saw this year. More a magazine than a list of wines, it was a cheerful riot of quotes, jokes, facts and cartoons. But, love or hate the presentation, there was no arguing with the breadth of wines on offer – 20 of them by the glass. It majors on Europe, and the gentrification of Shepherd’s Bush is evident with some of the trophy wines on offer. It’s unlikely that QPR supporters of the 1970s who stopped here before home games would have wanted a 1961 Barolo…
Rex Whistler Restaurant, London
As you might expect for the Tate Britain’s restaurant, this is a classically-hearted wine list. Yet there is plenty going on here to show that Hamish Anderson is pushing the boundaries where he can. Yes, there’s plenty of good older claret and Burgundy, but there are also aged Australian reds and Rieslings, and (as you might expect for a lunchtime venue) a decent half-bottle and by-the-glass selection, too. Clear, easy to navigate and informative, it’s perfect for its purpose while still modern and full of personality.
Sam’s Brasserie and Bar, London
The winner of the Neighbourhood Restaurant List of The Year last year, Sam’s showed strongly again. This list is simply laid out – just Whites, Reds, Fizz, etc – but it’s clearly done, with plenty of helpful, characterful tasting notes, a powerful by-the-glass selection, and the added focus of Wines of the Month. The judges found it hard to argue with Dom Pérignon 2003 at £139 as well… ‘Clean, minimal and spot-on for an urban bistro, there’s lots to like about this list,’ said Studio Alto’s Neil Bruce.
Social Eating House, London
Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House in Soho brings a slightly retro feel to its wine list, referencing the classic old French bistro menus of the 20th century. It has charm and character and is unfussy enough to allow diners to see quickly what’s available. It is, as you might expect, mostly French – and almost entirely European – but there are some good names nonetheless and the pricing is fair.
It’s a perennial problem: you want to choose your wines by style, but your dining companion wants to peruse the list by country of origin. What do you do? Well, this list will keep both parties happy. The wines are split up in both ways (the former with full, helpful tasting notes), and with a wide spread of wines there should be something for everyone, however they choose to find it! And the tasting note ‘Yes. Lambrusco. And it’s bloody lovely.’ should win an award.
The Vintry, London
Printed on very obviously recycled paper, The Vintry’s authentic credentials will go down well with any hipsters who’ve biked over from nearby Shoreditch. The list is split into two bits. There’s a short, seasonally changing list that is a miracle of condensation and legibility – someone, somewhere, has a very good eye for design… And it is backed up by a ‘full list’ jammed with good wines under £50 and show-off stuff for the City boys. More accessible, multi-faceted lists like this and Britain would be a better place…
The Wenlock Arms, London
Yes, 17 wines is on the titchy side for a wine list. But for a ‘classic London boozer’ it’s really impressive – particularly when accompanied by the kind of mark-ups that see half of the wines appearing at under £20 and a cru classé Margaux under £40. Its mission of making decent wine affordable is laudable, and likely to succeed. Bish bash bosh, as Jamie Oliver from the nearby Fifteen restaurant might say.
The Wheatsheaf Inn, Gloucestershire
In direct contrast to the previous entry, this Cotswolds ‘pub’ is cut from an altogether different cloth, pulling in well-heeled locals, visiting Londoners and those on a celebratory splurge. The list is laid out traditionally, relying heavily on sommelier input and (in some areas, such as Burgundy) deep pockets. But it’s elegantly laid out, commendably accurate and there are any number of great wines in there. And as well as big-name France, there are some real stars from Austria and Australia to choose from.
THE SOMMELIER’S AWARD
There’s one very definite sub-group within the Wine List of the Year competition: the Large List. Usually the preserve of the very top-end establishments, with lots of sommeliers, and a moneyed clientele, their selection of hundreds (occasionally thousands) of bottles prevents them from doing much more than listing the wines that they have available.
With space at a premium, and the role of the sommelier crucial, there isn’t much space for tasting notes; no premium put on innovative ways of listing the wines; no interest in suggesting food pairings.
Instead these lists are all about quality of sourcing, of range of expression; of blue-chip indulgence rather than careful honing. And it is to recognise and reward such elements that we created The Sommelier’s Award within our Wine List of the Year competition.
Chez Bruce, London
Clos Maggiore, London
Le Pont de la Tour, London
The Vineyard at Stockcross, Newbury
COMMENDED LISTS 2014
63 Tay Street, Perth
The Albert Square Chop House, Manchester
Colette’s at The Grove, Hertfordshire
Eyre Brothers, London
Grand Café Villandry, London
The Griffin Inn, Sussex
The One Bull, Suffolk
Park House, Cardiff
Rufflets Country House Hotel, St Andrews
The Scarlet, Cornwall
Shaka Zulu, London
Union Street Café, London
The final round of judging will take place after Imbibe Live in July, with the winners being revealed in the September/October issue of the magazine. The Wine List of the Year presentation ceremony will take place on 9 September at an exclusive central London location.