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The Analyst

Published:  18 January, 2007

Neil Beckett takes an in-depth look at the multi-award-winning wine list at The Vineyard at Stockcross, and finds that rare combination of the very best of Old and New World wines.

Most wine lists at luxury hotels, however impressive, are high on predictability and low on personality, with verticals of Bordeaux first growths and Burgundy grands crus so deep that one could sink thousands of pounds into debt before sliding half-way down them.

The multi-award-winning list at The Vineyard at Stockcross is an honourable exception, with as much personality as the old Massandra Collection Muscat and Tokay towards the end.

It bears the strong stamp of at least three individuals. The first and most influential is Sir Peter Michael CBE, the affluent electronics entrepreneur who established his own California winery in 1982 and The Vineyard at Stockcross in 1996, but who is also well known as the founder of Classic FM.

In terms of its highbrow appeal and the number of complete works (opera omni, indeed), the wine list more closely resembles Radio 3. And yet one of its achievements is that it also manages to include many accessible, popular highlights in a way that isn't condescending. Similarly, for a man who avows that he was encouraged to explore New World wine by two bottles of corked Burgundy in 1972, feeling that the reputation of Bordeaux and Burgundy was inflated, the sections devoted to them are more than fair. There is no attempt to make the dazzling California selection shine even more brightly by portraying the Old World as tawdry. Rather, there is the rare combination of the very best of Old and New (which makes that distinction itself less relevant), and dozens of illuminating comparisons could be made here.

The other two formative influences are a previous director of wine, Eduardo Amadi, and the present incumbent, Joo Pires, who have each developed with inside knowledge the ranges from their own countries - Italy and Portugal, respectively.

At first, the arrangement of the list is familiar enough - the sommelier's recommendations then the seasonal by-the-glass selections - but its contents are distinctive from the start. Among the former, the two sparkling wines are from the US (1999 Schramsberg) and the UK (1999 Nyetimber), not Champagne, and one of each of the two white, red and dessert wines is also Californian. The other white is an Indian Sauvignon Blanc (2004 Sula), the first Indian wine to feature on the masthead of the Financial Times of London', according to the note.

Then a departure from the normal structure - a note from Sir Peter himself, sketching the history and philosophy of his wines, to which he predictably but understandably gives pride of place. They run over two pages, from L'Aprs Midi Sauvignon Blanc through eight different Chardonnay cuves (up to 11 vintages of the Cuve Indigne alone) to the four red wines. Again, however, he is more than generous to other California producers, with a range that can have few equals anywhere in the world, even in the Golden State itself. He proudly but rightly states that assembling it was not an easy task, for the annual output of these special vineyards can be sold within a hundred miles of their origin'. Alongside the odd Gallo and Mondavi Chardonnay are many much more recherch wines from the likes of Kalin, Kistler and Kongsgaard, Mount Eden, Rochioli and Chteau Woltner. Among the even more extensive red selection are wines from

20 consecutive vintages (1982-2001), including four of (recently sold) Screaming Eagle (back to 1993) and 13 of Opus One (back to 1982). There are very few famous names not to

be found here, and such an abundance of the rest that they will not be missed.

Moving on to the rest of the world, there is an impressive Champagne selection from the major houses, including mature Gosset, Henriot, Krug, Dom Prignon and Dom Ruinart. Among French whites, Burgundy is most impressive, with great mature vintages from leading ngociants (Bouchard Pre & Fils, Drouhin, Faiveley) and top growers (Bonneau du Martray, Coche-Dury, DRC, Lafon, Ramonet, Sauzet et al.). France

is followed by Italy and Portugal (the sommeliers having their say, and why not?). A few of the Italian whites will now probably be past their prime, but among the Portuguese whites are not only modern classics like Niepoort's 2003 Redoma Reserva, but also less-vaunted traditional wonders such as Soalheiro's exceptional 2004 Alvarinho (terrific value at 34).

The red section starts with Bordeaux, though again unusually it sets off from the Right Bank rather than the Left. The range is wide, running from 2000 Chteau de Roques at

20 to 1982 Ptrus in Double Magnum at 8,515. Red Burgundy is equally rich and varied, bargains' such as Comte Snard 1990 Corton (115) rubbing shoulders with mature DRC, Leroy, Maume, Ponsot and Rousseau. The Italian reds are much more exciting than the whites, but again there are cheaper, lesser-known gems (like Sergio Mottura's Magone from Latium at 30) alongside the greatest wines from Piedmont and Tuscany in mature vintages (Giacomo Conterno, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Luciano Sandrone and Roberto Voerzio, Case Basse, Castello di Ama, Fontodi, Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello and many more). Best represented among Portuguese reds is Pires' native Douro, with Paul and Raymond Reynolds' ambitious Quinta dos Macedos

as well as Barca Velha, Vale do Meo and Chryseia. Even among the Australians, however, the classic and the eccentric coexist - Henschke Hill of Grace back to 1975 and Trennert's 1974 Dry Red from Happy Valley.

After a good choice of half-bottles follows a range of Ports - aged Tawnies up to 40 Years Old all available by the glass, and Vintages reaching back to the magnificent 1963 Fonseca. Madeira and Sherry are taken reasonably seriously, too. And just when one imagines that there can't be many more surprises, there's a golden rush of 18 largely legendary vintages of Yquem, stretching back to the 1895 (3,500). Typically, though, alongside these and other superlative Sauternes, room is made for wines one hundred times cheaper, like St Lambert 1997 Coteaux du Layon (38).

Prices are not always easy to understand, and with many

at two or three times retail (including the Peter Michael wines, some of which are only available through sister company Vineyard Cellars), the mark-up on many of the more expensive wines seems steep. By five-star hotel standards though, they are not unusual, and there are still many carefully chosen, well-priced wines, those at 15-25 even being collected together at the back as well as running through it. Altogether, this is an iconic, idiosyncratic, highly impressive list, which as well as the Stars and Stripes, successfully waves several other flags from the tricolours of France and Italy to the Union Jack.