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With a record number of entries, competition was tougher than ever. Chris Losh watches as teams of experts assemble the London shortlist for the Louis Roederer Wine List of the Year 2012.
As the Wine List of the Year competition – run by Square Meal's sister magazine Imbibe – has grown, so it has kept adapting. This year saw a stricter judging process, whereby each list was reviewed by at least two judges, all of whom scored it against six key criteria: accuracy, aesthetic appeal/creativity, clarity/ease of navigation, quality of wine, relevance to market and value for money.
Accuracy, relevance and value for money were all scored out of 10, creativity and navigation out of 20, and quality of wine out of 30, to give each list an overall score out of 100. By the end, it became apparent that to make the shortlist, restaurants needed to be scoring more than 80 points. Lists had to be exceptional – and a lot of perfectly decent entries didn’t get through. They weren’t flawed or rejected (as has often been the case in the past couple of years) – they simply didn’t score highly enough to make the cut.
As usual, the panel was not simply looking to reward vast wine lists stuffed full of blue-chip wines. A tight, well-sourced neighbourhood list, or an imaginative pub list put together with care and attention, had just as much chance of getting through to the shortlist.
In the summer issue of Square Meal Lifestyle, we revealed the regional shortlist. Now read on to find out which London wine lists have made the grade and find out who the winners are in the 2013 edition of Square Meal Restaurants and Bars Guide.
This list is about two things: selection and price. Presentation-wise, it’s a list of wines by region – albeit one that’s clear and consistent. But the range of wines is terrific. You might expect Fortnum’s to have a good range of Champagne and claret, but the Austrian and German ranges are great as well. And at shop prices plus £10 corkage, the value is unmatchable.
When the Champagne list starts at around £60, you know you’re in serious territory, and this Shoreditch eatery is unashamedly classical in orientation, with a fabulous selection of blue-chip French wines. Yes, there’s some wallet-bashing stuff for City workers, but also a lot of careful sourcing from £40-80 for the locals, too. Clear, elegant and accurate, Master Sommelier Christopher Delalonde has done his job well. And the ‘sub-£35’ page is a fine idea.
This Canary Wharf-based tapas restaurant might cater heavily to City workers, but the formula is the same as the others in the group: 50-odd wines, plus some sherries and fizz, and good pricing. Reds and whites are split up by style (‘sunny’, ‘juicy’, ‘luscious’ and ‘buxom’ for the latter, for instance) and there’s a good selection by the glass and carafe. Quick, easy to navigate and bang on for the venue.
There’s the air of a beautifully printed 1920s’ leather-bound book about this A5 list: crisp, elegant typography, immaculate design and utterly faultless. The Champagne selection is special, too, with enviable selections of formats and vintages for 20 marques of varying sizes. Only eight are available by the glass, and there’s precious little under £100 (Veuve Clicquot NV at £115!), but it’s unlikely the target audience look at the right-hand column too closely. Perfect for the luxury bar it serves.
With more than 500 wines, nearly all of them Italian, and most accompanied by lengthy tasting notes, this is a list that’s not short on information or affection. There are obvious opportunities to charge big money for big names, but there’s also evidence of thought at the entry level, too. And the selection of older wines is appealing. ‘For a lover of Italian wine, this list is paradise,’ mused judge Nicolas Clerc of Old Bengal Bar.
For a French restaurant, this list is commendably wide-ranging, including a Kékfrankos, a Brazilian Cab/Shiraz and plenty from Spain and Italy, as well as France. The structure is simple – with Traditional/European, New World and Off the Beaten Track sections, the pricing keen – around half the 150 or so wines are under £40, and the presentation exemplary. ‘There are lots of good wines, it’s relevant to its location and the pricing is very fair,’ praised Gearoid Devaney MS of Flint Wines.
There’s something eminently friendly about this five-page wine list that divides its wines by broad style and supports them with helpful tasting notes. With 25 wines by the glass (most of them in three serve sizes) and a good selection of sub-£40 wines plus the odd splurge wine for wealthy entrepreneurs, this Clerkenwell eatery really matches wine to customer.
Unsurprisingly, this Moorish/Spanish restaurant focuses entirely on Iberian wines. In fewer than 100 bins, it takes you from Lisbon to Priorat, adding 26 sherries. As well as tasting notes (for most), every wine is rated 1-5 (whites) and 6-10 (reds) to give an idea of style and weight. ‘Honest and well priced, this is perfect for this style of restaurant,’ praised Paulo Brammer of gastropub group ETM.
With fewer than 100 wines, the list at Ottolenghi’s all-day Soho eatery is a great example of clarity and concision. But it’s also intriguing, with sub-categories like ‘Black Gold’ (Pinot Noir), ‘Volcanic Wines’ and ‘Going Natural’. Oh, and there are even three sakés. ‘It’s perfect, yet still challenging,’ praised Chris Cooper of Soho House. ‘And there are great wines at all price points.’
This is not a list that does anything unusual – but it is about as rock solid and professional as you could wish. At 500 bins, it’s not a small list, but nor is it stuffed with wines that won’t sell. And while there might be a few trophy wines for clients with deep pockets, there is no shortage of fairly priced stuff, too. A third of the white Burgundies, for instance, are around £50 or less. ‘This is very good for its Mayfair clientele,’ said Devaney. Free of fuss, simple to use and error free, it’s a really good example of a no-nonsense list.
The past year or so has seen head sommelier Louise Gordon increase this list to a whopping 500 bins – although they’re doing their bit for the planet by putting it all on an iPad. This being Kensington, there’s not much under £40, but as well as predictably good selections from Bordeaux, other regions such as the Rhône, south-west France, Australia and the US all have carefully thought-out selections. ‘An unfussy layout, with a judicious mix of classical and innovative wines,’ said Hamish Anderson of The Tate Group.
With 29 houses, from André Jacquart to Veuve, half-a-dozen older, rarer vintages and a handful of larger formats (complete with helpful explanations) this is a solid, clear, user-friendly example of how to put together an engaging Champagne list. The prices are fair, too.
Tony Safqui has stuck with this busy South African eatery’s national theme and put together a list made up (apart from Champagne) entirely of South African wines, all bound in a fake crocodile-skin folder. It’s easy to follow, looks great, the pricing is fair, and just about all the country’s good producers are included. ‘It’s an original presentation – and very clear,’ concluded Devaney.
The menus at this floating restaurant are the work of one Jamie Oliver, and its wine list is, as one judge put it, ‘a bit cheesy, but also very Jamie. It’s notably different.’ Presentation is highly stylised, but easy on the eye, and it’s a joy to follow, with helpful notes and good, personal introductions. Could it be more radical? Probably. Does it work? Absolutely.
With almost perfect scores for ‘accuracy’ and ‘navigability’, this list was a joy to read – and not just for its clarity. While there were no individual tasting notes, the commentary introducing each section was genius: funny, informative and tremendously engaging. With 20 by the glass, a highlighted Flavour of the Month and a ‘horse’ logo used to highlight ‘wilder wines… be they fizzy, farmy or just plain mental’, this is terrifically imaginative.
This list practically made it through on the basis of its excellent – and unusual – selection of 20 sherries, where the easy route has been carefully avoided and all but two are available by the glass. But the 28 table wines are equally stimulating, with three Riojas the only ‘big-name’ region on view, eight natural wines and a lot of interesting offerings from the outer edges of Spain. Good pricing, real personality and a lot to get excited about – all in fewer than 50 bins. Terrific!
There are as many types of wine list as there are restaurants. One sub-group is the Large List, often the preserve of the very top-end eateries, which offer many hundreds of wines. This precludes them from doing much more than simply listing the vast number of bottles they have available. There is simply no room for tasting notes or educational extras – the kind of things that our judges are looking for to win Wine List of the Year.
Yet these lists are worthy of recognition for the sheer range and quality of wines that they offer. The Sommelier’s Award rewards such elements.
This year’s shortlisted contenders are:
Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London (pictured, right)
Clos Maggiore, London
The Greenhouse, London
Le Pont de la Tour, London
Locanda Locatelli, London
Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, London
The Square, London
The Vineyard at Stockcross, Berkshire
This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.