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Earlier this year, Square Meal’s sister publication Imbibe joined forces with one of the most prestigious Champagne houses to launch the Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year competition.
We received entries from venues all over the country, from pubs to Michelin-starred eateries. In the early stages the judges were all sommeliers; in the final round – in the interests of neutrality – they were all respected ex-sommeliers or wine list consultants.
What were the judges looking for? Well, good bottles of wine were part of – though not the whole – story. Some pretty swanky lists failed to get through because, as one judge put it: ‘There’s no skill needed in stuffing your list with 20 vintages of Cheval Blanc. You just need a big cellar and deep pockets.’ Essentially, imagination in the wines selected and the way they were presented; how good a fit the wines were for the restaurant’s cuisine and clientele; how easy the list was to use; and personality.
(From left to right) Christopher Delalonde, sommelier, Sarment (ex-The Square)
Peter McCombie MW, wine consultant
Robert Giorgione, wine consultant (ex-Orrery, La Tante Claire)
Stuart Alder, landlord, The Radcliffe Arms
HK House Oriental Restaurant
Russell Street, Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL5 3AB; 01453 768833
Yes, you read it right. The winning list is a Chinese restaurant in Gloucestershire where, apart from a £70 bottle of rosé Champagne, the most expensive wine is a £48 Burgundy. Yet still the HK House list blew away all the judges.
At just 40 wines, it’s a miracle of condensation, and it’s confident enough to list more unusual stuff like (Greek) Santorini or (Hungarian) Furmint rather than Chablis or Pinot Grigio.
This was impressive enough, but the clincher was the information about the wines. Manager Chee Hui tells you why he loves the wine in prose that is honest, intelligent, informed and often hilariously funny.
Brilliantly put together, superbly priced, imaginative, accessible and better written than most wine books, the HK House list oozes the personality of its owner. A labour of love and a work of genius.
The Cherwell Boat House list is stylishly laid out, exceptionally easy to navigate and, with around 250 wines, fairly tight. There are some imaginative touches: German wines are listed in ascending order of sweetness; the ‘Shortlist’ of house wines is wide-ranging, with helpful notes; while the ‘From our Cellar’ section features a staggering choice of great mature wines. A celebration of great wine, clarity of thought and accessibility.
So many pub wine lists are truly awful that it’s no surprise this one stood out. With around 50 ‘standard’ wines and 10 ‘fine wines’, it’s impressively compact, but offers excellent choice. The wines are split into six stylistic groups, such as ‘dry, crisp, fresh’ and ‘full-flavoured, full, big’, and the pub offers ‘tasting flights’ for each section. So customers can try 50ml samples of all six ‘aromatic and herbaceous’ whites, for instance, for £9. Many fancier wine lists with serious pretensions could learn from The One Bull Inn.
37 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 1RR; 020 7580 6464; www.rokarestaurant.com
Roka’s list stood out for two reasons. First, the wines had been chosen with great care to suit the challenges of Japanese food; second, the unfussy presentation with reds and whites split by style (‘fruity and velvety’, ‘rich and spicy’, etc). Even though there’s a lot going on, with ‘Sommelier Selections’ and a ‘Wish List’ of fine wines, it’s easy to navigate.
Skenfrith, Monmouthshire, NP7 8UH; 01600 750235; www.skenfrith.co.uk
Twenty ‘exceptional and vintage’ Champagnes, from Krug and Cristal to unknown small growers; plus 16 expressions of Gosset, nine of Taittinger and probably the finest selection of Bollinger wines outside France. As well as interesting tasting notes, there is info about the houses, production techniques and the region itself. A lengthy love letter to the world’s most famous bubbles.
An object lesson in clarity and brevity. In around 100 wines, former manager Chris Atkins put together an unashamedly Euro-centric selection that covers all the main French, Spanish and Italian regions. Pricing is sensible and 18 wines are available by the glass or carafe. But the clincher was the ‘Wine of the Moment’ selection, which changes at least once a month, and directs customers towards interesting wines that are great for the season.
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THE CROSS AT KINGUSSIE, INVERNESS
DONNINGTON VALLEY HOTEL AND SPA, NEWBURY
DRAKES OF BRIGHTON
EPERNAY CHAMPAGNE BAR, LEEDS
FRANCO’S, LONDON SW1
THE FRENCH TABLE, SURBITON
GALVIN LA CHAPELLE, LONDON E1
HAKKASAN, LONDON W1
THE HARROW AT LITTLE BEDWYN, MARLBOROUGH
THE HIDE BAR, LONDON SE1
THE LAZY LOUNGE, LEEDS
LORDS OF THE MANOR, CHELTENHAM
THE OLD BRIDGE HOTEL, HUNTINGDON
REX WHISTLER RESTAURANT, LONDON SW1
ROWLEY’S, LONDON SW1