Having whittled our record entry down to 50 or so shortlisted candidates, our judges sat down to decide on the overall winners. Chris Losh joined them in their deliberations
In 2009, we had an idea: to set up a competition to find the best wine lists in the UK. Unlike other competitions, however, ours would be judged by people who really understood what they were looking at: the on-trade itself.
Six years further on, hearteningly, nothing has really changed. The number of entries has more than doubled (over 300 this year) and it takes longer to judge, but the process has remained the same. Essentially, it still comes down to teams of sommeliers and restaurateurs sitting in a room with piles and piles of wine lists.
This year, the trend for more engaging wine lists continued. Venues around the country seem to be working really hard to come up with lists that are accessible and informative – and that’s great to see.
Tasting notes, snippets of information, and less traditional ways of grouping wines together added up to a range of entries that was far more stimulating (and less stodgy) than when we started this competition.
If we had one criticism, it would be the proportionally lower number of entries from outside London and the South East, resulting in a higher percentage of winners from the capital. You can’t win if you don’t enter, folks. Maybe next year…
Final round judges
Neville Blech, consultant; Jade Koch, consultant; Lionel Periner, The Lucky Onion; Martin Lam, consultant; Laura Rhys MS, Gusbourne Estate
Hamish Anderson, The Tate Group; Luigi Buonanno, Bianco 43; Brice Guibert, The Cherwell Boathouse; Kate Hawkings, Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms; Chris Losh, Imbibe; Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan Group; Diana Rollan, Hakkasan Group; Xavier Rousset MS, consultant, Luke Wilson, 10 Greek Street & 8 Hoxton Square
OVERALL WINE LIST OF THE YEAR THE OLD COASTGUARD, CORNWALL
The EatDrinkSleep group has an impressive track record in this competition, having picked up awards in the past for both The Gurnard’s Head and The Felin Fach Griffin. This, however, was the first time we’d seen anything from The Old Coastguard – and our judges loved it. It’s the first time that a pub/hotel has taken the overall Wine List of the Year award, but it was richly deserved.
First of all, at fewer than 100 bins, it’s wonderfully concise. Few customers anywhere want to wade through pages and pages of wines – but particularly not at an inn in a Cornish village. And yet, within its five pages, it manages to contain more interest and character than many wine lists 10 times its size.
The fizz selection is a good example. Eight bins, only two champagnes, a franciacorta, German rosé, a sparkling elderflower from down the road, and the one (good) prosecco is £32. How much more stimulating is that than pages of grandes marques?
The 15 wines by the glass are available in four sizes, from 125ml to carafe, and when one of your two ‘pouring wines of the month’ is a Grüner Veltliner, you can be pretty sure that this is a place that isn’t interested in playing things safe.
‘It’s well priced, and not too serious, but some of the wines are seriously good value for money,’ commented Martin Lam.
There’s so much to like about this list – from pricing to tone to accuracy – that it’s hard to pick out one element. But if we had to, it would be the way in which the wines have been split up. The 36 whites, for instance, have been separated into six categories, each with a manageable half-dozen wines in it.
The titles are interesting and stimulating – ‘More Bounce for the Ounce’ for unusual ‘over delivery’ wines such as Assyrtiko or Verdicchio, for instance; or ‘The Tip of The Tongue’ for ‘bright, grassy wines’. And the descriptions underneath each category are helpful, humorous, inspiring and, crucially, fun.
This is a list that takes everything seriously except itself. It has been put together with enormous care and expertise, but wears its professionalism lightly. It’s dripping with personality and great wine. If it were a person, you’d want to date it. As it is, it should be compulsory (and compulsive) reading for everyone in the on-trade.
‘Almost the entire list is under £50,’ mused judge Neville Blech. ‘It makes you heave a sigh of relief!’
ITALIAN RESTAURANT WINE LIST OF THE YEAR BIBO, LONDON
There’s never a shortage of serious, leather-bound Italian restaurant wine lists in this competition, though it’s not that common for our judges to honour them with the top award.
Bibo is a neighbourhood eatery in London’s Putney that bills itself as a ‘bar restaurant’; somewhere that guests can drop in for an aperitivo and some salami, or to have a proper five-course sit-down meal if they’d prefer.
Coming up with a wine list that can cover both these bases well is difficult – but this one manages it quite beautifully. Apart from the broad-minded ‘Italians Abroad’ section of native grapes in the New World, it’s completely Italian (resisting the easy win of putting on some top-end champagne), and it manages to cover plenty of big-name regions (and a few big-hitter producers) without the need to run to dozens of pages. At under 100 bins, it was probably the shortest Italian restaurant list we’ve ever received.
‘Their pre-selection is where the effort has been made,’ said Lam. ‘They have the diner in mind. The wines are appropriate to the cuisine and overall they manage to be an entirely Italian-focused list without overstressing the point.’
The list is presented pretty traditionally – by region – but there are decent tasting notes for every wine that tend, where possible, to tell a story rather than just list flavours found in the glass. And the introductory paragraphs to the various sections add a warming personal touch.
‘The enthusiasm is evident – it draws you in without being overwhelming,’ commented Jade Koch.
SPANISH WINE LIST OF THE YEAR BARRICA AND COPITA DEL MERCADO, LONDON
These two Spanish tapas bars (in Soho and Shoreditch) are owned by the same group, and are very similar, so we gave them a joint award. Both are characterised by their combination of authenticity and modern elegance – and the wine lists for each capture that ethos to a T.
The ranges tick all the main boxes you’d expect from Spain – Rioja, sherry, Albariño – so the uninitiated will not be intimidated. Yet Spain, with its stimulating spread of less well-known regions, is arguably the most exciting wine country in Europe at the moment, and the majority of both lists celebrate that diversity. It’s good to see the likes of Montsant, Calatayud, Jumilla and Alicante getting a run out alongside Rioja and Ribera.
‘It’s a good mixture of modern and traditional Spanish wine,’ said Lam.
By the glass is always important in tapas restaurants, and there are 20 of them listed here – a good range for a small list. The prices (for central and trendy London) are really pretty good. Moreover, it’s heartening to see such prominence given to sherry, not through numbers necessarily (there are only seven of them) but through enthusiasm and helpful introductions to entice people into ordering them.
‘I like the way that they have bolded up the grape varieties in each wine to make them easily recognisable,’ said Lionel Periner. ‘They are Spanish, good value for money, and interesting. I wouldn’t be scared to read this if I wasn’t an expert.’
The additional Gin & Tonic list is also a good touch.
CAFÉ WINE LIST OF THE YEAR THE CAFÉ BELOW, LONDON
One of the more unusual entries we’ve had in WLOTY, The Café Below is located in the medieval crypt of St Mary-le-Bow church.
Popular with City workers, this is an eatery that recognises that power breakfasts and speed lunches are as important to its clientele as offering more leisurely evening meals.
With time (and quick decision-making) of the essence, the wine list is commendably concise – fewer than 50 bins. Yet it has both focus (small, organic and/or natural producers) and character, with short, interesting tasting notes that seem fully to understand that their job is to enthuse rather than educate.
‘Forget Sauvignon Blanc – drink Grüner’ exhorts one for a Jurtschitsch GV, while many more tell us briefly about the owners and their estate as much as the wine’s flavours. If you’re going to ask people to drop £80 on a Châteauneuf, it probably helps that they know it’s been in the same family’s hands since 1860.
‘It’s clear, enticing and exciting, and the value for money is excellent,’ enthused Koch. ‘And I like that although it’s focused on organic and biodynamic producers, they are not trying to ram their green credentials down your throat.’
Nonetheless, the wine selection is as characterful and impressive as the venue itself, and the pricing (given the predominantly City-based audience) is laudably keen. ‘They’re good names, regional and quirky,’ praised Blech. ‘It
feels knowledgeable… They’re not afraid of going out on a limb.’
NEIGHBOURHOOD RESTAURANT WINE LIST OF THE YEAR THE WHITE ONION, LONDON
With another award for a Putney restaurant (Bibo), this was a good year for the London suburbs. The White Onion is a small French bistro in Wimbledon, that presumably needs to be all things to all people: blingy night out for those on a splurge; cheap and quick for those looking for a speed lunch or on a budget; stimulating and safe; accessible but classy; wide-ranging but not esoteric.
We received many lists from venues that were attempting to fulfil the ‘neighbourhood’ niche as described above, but none of them succeeded quite as well as The White Onion.
It’s the judgment that was so good – an ability to realise that, French restaurant or not, some guests were going to look for prosecco and Aperol as well as Pineau and champagne; Chilean Pinot as well as Burgundy.
And having made that liberating decision, the wine buyer was free to put together a consistently terrific list.
It’s split up by grape variety, which is quite brave, with a few break-out ‘focus’ sections such as Rhône Rider and ‘Unusual Suspects’. The common theme, though, is the excellence of the wines within each block.
‘You find some classics, but there’s odd stuff too, like a Sauvignon Blanc from Slovenia. Everyone knows the variety, so it’s a way to give them something different – and it’s only £20. The value for money is very good,’ said Periner.
SHORT WINE LIST OF THE YEAR PJ’S BAR & GRILL, LONDON
Rounding off an astonishing year for West London eateries in this year’s competition, PJ’s Bar and Grill in Chelsea swooped to take our Short Wine List award. Cynics might muse that it is, perhaps, only in places like Chelsea that you can describe yourself as ‘unpretentious’ and still sell bottles of Corton for £150, but our band of judges were commendably unfazed.
‘There are some good top-end names for fashionistas,’ mused Blech, ‘and the mark-ups are pretty good for Chelsea. Pavillon Blanc is £190, which isn’t outrageous, and to have it on at all on that short a list is impressive.’
Indeed, at just 45 bins, this is a list that covers a lot of ground very quickly, with an abundance of good kit under £30 (£35 for reds) and plenty by the glass. Tasting notes are short and helpful, and while it’s not trying to change the world, it’s elegantly presented, too.
‘It’s clean, bright, accessible and intelligent,’ praised Koch. ‘There’s some serious wine on there, too, which is good for a brasserie.’
‘I like that it isn’t just a roll-call of grande marques champagnes just because they can fleece people,’ said Lam.
INNOVATIVE WINE LIST OF THE YEAR BELL’S DINER & BAR ROOMS, BRISTOL
After scooping our Small Wine List of the Year award last year, Bell’s was back on the podium again in 2015. There were a number of categories where our judges could have given it the top spot: neighbourhood restaurant, small list (again) – it was even in the running for the overall title.
But in the end our team felt that what made this list rather special was its willingness to try and do things differently – and, more importantly, to pull them off with aplomb.
It was, for instance the only list that came encased in an Iggy Pop album sleeve, and the only one to be printed on ‘grocer’s vegetable bag’ paper. Such changes work because they are not arbitrary; they chime with the slightly bohemian, relaxed feel of the venue.
The wine list itself is equally off-piste, with a fascinating selection of bottles from the outer reaches of the wine world: Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, Tenerife, Mallorca, neatly backed up by more recognisable offerings from Sicily, Ribera, Languedoc and the New World.
It was the only list that came encased in an Iggy Pop album sleeve
‘There’s passion,’ said Periner. ‘Wines that are unusual, that give guests an experience. And as a way of presenting
a wine list, it’s brilliant.’
There’s a heartening amount of attention given to hot-button, non-wine categories, too, like vermouth, cocktails and beer, and the tasting notes get away with being on the long side because they are consistently entertaining. A 2012 claret described as being ‘like Bridget Bardot in her sex-kitten prime’ was particularly good.
‘Someone has been hungry to write this,’ praised Koch. ‘And it shows that they must be doing a lot of staff tastings.’
‘I like that every single drink, not just the wines, has been thought about,’ added Periner.
The Sommelier’s Award stands apart within the Wine List of the Year competition, designed to recognise excellence of sourcing rather than imagination of presentation or intelligent brevity. Usually comprising several hundred bins, size is often everything on these lists.
HALL OF FAME
The lists in these establishments are all examples of continued excellence, which have picked up awards in this competition over several years. To recognise this – and also to prevent their consistent brilliance from ‘blocking’ other potential winners, we have allocated them a place in our Hall of Fame. Many congratulations to our star performers.
The Cherwell Boathouse, Oxford
The Gurnard’s Head and The Felin Fach Griffin, Cornwall and Wales
Hakkasan Group, London
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
There were several lists in with a real shout here this year. Our judges loved the quirky, inspired layout of Restaurant Sat Bains’ list, for instance, while the maps and information on Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’ list made it much less daunting than it could have been, given its size.
However, ultimately, in terms of selection, style and enjoyment to read, our judges plumped for Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Comprehensive, balanced and clear to read, it has a lovely selection of wines by the glass as well as half bottles and larger formats.
‘There is also a wonderful balance between classic, iconic wines and then plenty of “off the beaten track” wines from small producers,’ said Laura Rhys MS. ‘The prices are in keeping with the style of the restaurant and whilst it is certainly not the cheapest list in the UK, there is still plenty of choice under £50 and starts at £28 with the delicious wines from Château Bauduc.’