As the clock ticks down to the final days to enter the UK Wine List of the Year competition, run by Star Wine List in partnership with The Buyer, we look back at one of last year’s big winners – The Vineyard at Stockcross. In all it picked up three wine list awards for California, Germany and New Zealand in the 2022 awards. Here Helen Arnold analyses its success in the New Zealand category and talks to director of wine, Romain Bourger, about how he puts the overall wine list together.
To enter the Star Wine List of the Year UK with The Buyer please enter your wine list by the end of January 22 at the link here.
Winning the best California Wine List at the 2022 Star Wine List of the Year UK with The Buyer awards was always going to be a bit of a shoo-in for the Vineyard at Stockcross, the Berkshire-based country house hotel and restaurant which specialises in Californian wine and is often referred to as the vinous shrine to all things Californian.
However, the Relais & Châteaux venue also walked off with the best German and New Zealand wine lists, for which it was a far less obvious contender.
With over 30,000 bottles on its list, the Vineyard at Stockcross boasts one of the largest wine restaurant selections in the country. Proprietor and founder, Sir Peter Michael, has over the years invested in a premium vineyard in northern California – Sonoma Coast, Knights Valley and Napa, and many of his wines feature on the list. The hotel also has its own importer, The Vineyard Cellars, which helps it to source and buy wines from some of the best boutique wineries in California.
But of those thousands of bottles from producers all over the world, only 16 on the list come from New Zealand, which makes it all the more surprising that the hotel near Newbury walked off with the Best New Zealand Wine prize at last year’s Star Wine Awards, beating the other finalists that included such hospitality heavy weights as China Tang at the Dorchester, City Social, Hide and Pollen Street Social.
Quality not quantity
But it’s quality not quantity that counts, so even though The Vineyard’s New Zealand offering might be relatively small, it is one that punches way above its weight. The list is carefully curated by director of wine and beverage and UK head of sales Romain Bourger. Sommelier of the Year in 2019, Bourger has been in his current role for the past 11 years and is passionate about offering customers the very best wine experience.
“Overall, I look at what I think is a good value for money wine and see what sells well,” he explains. “We need to have wines that the team are passionate about but also wines that catch our guests’ eye as not all of them want to see a sommelier. I try to find wines that are profitable but still offer great value for money regardless of their prices on the list. There needs to be a wow factor when I taste a wine, it doesn’t have to be always exceptional but it has to stand out for one reason or another.”
Since winning the award, Bourger says he is now planning on expanding the selection of New Zealand wines. “We now have 16 references of New Zealand wines across the whole list and I am planning to increase it and introduce lesser known wines and varietals,” he confirms. “Since winning the award I have added some new references such as Kumeu River and Lake Chalice but will be working on extending the selection this year.”
Current New Zealand range
The current range from New Zealand includes eight white wines, comprising two Chardonnays from Kumeu River, with the 2020 Estate priced at £60 and the Coddington at £92. Two other Chardonnays from Marlborough are featured, a 2019 from St Clair priced at £45, with the other from Lake Chalice – the 2020 The Raptor selling for £51.
Of course, no self-respecting New Zealand collection would be complete without at least one Sauvignon Blanc, and Bourger says that this is the most requested New Zealand variety amongst guests, though claims that awareness of other varietals is increasing. “Most guests are aware of other varietals produced in New Zealand and seem to be happy to try different wines especially when it comes to red wines. For white, however, it is still a work in progress as most would still prefer to go for a Sauvignon Blanc rather than try another varietal in a similar style.”
The Vineyard offers a couple bottles of the variety for which New Zealand is best known, both from Marlborough. The 2017 Saint Clair Barrel Fermented is listed at £48 while the 2020 Whitehaven from the same producer is offered at £43. The list also includes a Riesling, the 2014 Bannockburn from Felton Road which is priced at £70. While Sauvignon Blanc remains most asked-for New Zealand white, Bourger says that Pinot Noir by the glass is also very successful.
On the red front, the Vineyard’s line-up includes The Terraces, a 2004 offering from Esk Valley in Hawkes Bay and priced at £150, as well as a couple of Pinot Noirs from Saint Clair, the 2020 Doctor’s Creek listed for £52 and the Pinot Noir Omaka Reserve priced at £75.
But Bourger appreciates the importance of having a sustainable list that continues to spark interest in guests. “We try to have different wines in different styles to offer a wider choice to our guests and also rotate them on our sommelier’s pick list to keep intrigue and ensure movement,” he says.
Bourger’s strategy has clearly paid off, as the Star Wine List judges were unanimous in their praise for the line-up of New Zealand wines available to the Vineyard’s customers.
“Vineyard at Stockcross has a thoughtful selection of New Zealand wines, covering both islands with great diversity of regions and appellations,” said Star Wine List jury member Raimonds Tomsons, “The list also represents diversity of styles, displaying well-established and classic white and red varieties and wines, but also exciting emerging styles like Arneis, Pinot Gris and late harvested Riesling. And, most of the wines are from back vintages, adding a special value as well.”
Not only does The Vineyard at Stockcross offer thousands of wines by the bottle, but also over 100 wines by the glass and carafe as well as blind tastings, cellar tours, wine dinners and masterclasses. It has an large selection of Magnums and larger formats, and lists a number of wines at an affordable price point.
“With a list of this breadth and depth, it’s hard to pinpoint a special focus, but their stock of Californian wine is legendary,” commented fellow judge and ambassador Ruth Spivey. “A particularly nice touch is a list of 34 great bottles under £30, so along with the wines open by the glass (100) there really is something for everyone.”
Bourger works closely with executive chef Tom Scade to ensure that dishes are delivered that work in perfect harmony with the wine list, achieving the difficult balancing act of ensuring that both the wine and the food come into their own. Bourger describes his wine policy as simple. “We want it to be fun, interactive, enjoyable, educational and within reach of everyone,“ he says. “We are also pleased to offer a fantastic selection of bottles under £30, proving that great wine is accessible to all. My sommeliers and I are always happy to showcase our collections, introduce guests to new finds or talk them through the principles of tasting, ensuring that every wine lover who visits us gets the best experience possible.”
New Zealand view
The Best New Zealand wine list is, fittingly, sponsored by New Zealand Winegrowers and the organisation’s Europe manager Chris Stroud claims the country’s wines have always been a mainstay of any good restaurant offering.
“New Zealand wine has always been well suited to the on-trade and we want to show our support back to the hospitality industry and also increase awareness amongst sommeliers,” said Stroud, stressing how important the premium restaurant and bar sectors are to the overall New Zealand category.
“With the amount of diversity across our styles and varieties, the restaurant scene is a very important showcase for our wines,” he confirms. “New Zealand is one of the premium countries of origin, so I think any quality wine list should be expected to have New Zealand wines on their lists.”
The UK is one of New Zealand’s most long-standing markets, which has been driven by the popularity and unique expression of its ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc. However, Stroud claims consumers are becoming ever more conscious of the quality of offering as well as the wide range of styles available. “In particular Pinot Noir has a strong reputation, and delivers excellent value for the quality, but also, increasingly Chardonnay and aromatics as well, and even our fuller bodied styles from Syrah and blends. Even our lesser planted varieties, such as Gruner Veltliner and Albarino are gaining awareness. I think people would be surprised just how many varieties there are from New Zealand.”
Bourger agrees that much potential from New Zealand lies in alternative grapes to the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc. “There seems to be more of an emphasis from wineries to bring more focus to Chardonnay,” he confirms. “Single vineyards are giving some of the best results of quality and consistency. Most of them have an element of freshness that sometimes lack in these style of wines. For reds wines, we are seeing more Bordeaux varietals especially from the Gimblett Gravels district which show a great quality and aging potential.”
Stroud says New Zealand wines are performing well in the on-trade and while wine across all countries have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, New Zealand is the closest to achieving that– and at the second highest average price. “There are, of course, many challenges in the coming year with the cost-of-living crisis and increasing operating costs for the sector, but our aim is to support the on-trade as best we can and with the diversity of offering available we can show that New Zealand wine delivers great value for restaurants and customers alike, so we can continue to grow our sales.
- You can explore the emerging, exciting styles coming out of New Zealand and its upcoming generic tasting in London featuring 50 producers and over 200 wines, including a top 50 selected by independent wine merchants. It takes place on February 7 at London’s Royal Horticultural Halls. If you would like to attend email Sarah Shepherd at email@example.com. The event is part of a wider series of tastings, masterclasses and other initiatives as part of New Zealand Wine Week 2023. Click here for more details.
Star Wine List of the Year UK with the The Buyer: Final call for entries January 22
Entries for the 2023 Star Wine List of the Year UK with the The Buyer must be in by the end of January 22. Restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels can choose from the following categories with the winners of the International Categories going forward to Star Wine List’s International Final in June, where they will face off with the category winners from other countries and continents, such as South Africa, Australia and the Nordics.
- Best Austrian Wine List, in partnership with Austrian Wine
- Grand Prix, in partnership with Bibendum.
(For wine lists with more than 600 references).
- Best Medium-Sized List
(Wine lists with between 200-600 references).
- Best Short List
(Wine lists up to 200 reference)
- Best By the Glass List
- Best Sparkling Wine List, in partnership with Nyetimber.
- Special Jury Prize
(For a wine list that does something out of the ordinary)
- Sustainable Wine List, in partnership with Spier.
These are awards that are specific to the UK and include:
- Best Up-and-Coming Wine List, in partnership with Chвteau Palmer
(For a new wine list or a wine list that is going places).
- Best California Wine List, presented by Louis M. Martini.
- Bordeaux New Generation List, in partnership with CIVB
- (For a wine list featuring a new generation of Bordeaux wines)
- Best New Zealand Wine List, in partnership with New Zealand Winegrowers
The judging panel for the 2023 awards is once again chaired by Ruth Spivey and also a team of award winning sommeliers including:
• Piotr Pietras MS, Terroiryści, Poland
• Ronan Sayburn MS, chief executive, Court of Master Sommeliers
• Jan Konetzki, independent sommelier
The awards are once again being hosted at The Winemakers Club in London and will also include a tasting of wines from the category sponsors and the chance to network and meet other finalists and key on-trade wine figures.