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The Analyst: The Fat Duck

Published:  18 January, 2007

Neil Beckett makes his way to The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, where he finds a list rather less eccentric than the food for which the restaurant is so famous, yet worthy of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world.

Assembling the ideal list for the most avant-garde food in Britain can't be easy. Do you acknowledge that the wine will always be in a supporting role, and risk it shrinking to a walk-on part? Or if the hope is to elevate it to equal billing, how do you ensure that the co-stars always click when one of them is a paranoid schizophrenic who changes personality up to 18 times a show (the number of dishes on The Fat Duck's dgustation menu)?

Chef Heston Blumenthal clearly doesn't belong to the kitchen of thought that diners must concentrate either on the food or on the wine. Sensibly, while attempting to make the wine as exciting as the food, sommelier Isa Baal has resisted the temptation to make it as eccentric. Alongside the snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream are the reassuringly familiar prestige cuves (back to the exhilarating Dom Prignon Oenothque 1976 and 1966), the Bordeaux first growths and the Burgundy grands crus. It is taking nothing away from this outstanding list to say that in its arrangement and content it could come from a three-Michelin-star restaurant anywhere in the world.

Nor does that mean there's nothing unusual about it. The most distinctive feature is the dazzling range of 21 fine and rare' Sherries - the most extensive in the UK. This adds credibility to Blumenthal's fronting of the Ten Star Tapas campaign and his proselytising about Sherry's remarkable versatility: his enthusiasm is more than flor-deep, and he practises what he preaches. Among the treats, all available by the glass, are Barbadillo's fragile but magical seasonal Manzanillas En Rama (4.25 per 75ml glass), Valdespino's stunning Amontillado Coliseo (10), Hidalgo's exquisite Amontillado Viejo and Palo Cortado Viejo (14 and 21), Lustau's moreish Oloroso Pata de Galina (5) and Osborne's most special wines, Palo Cortado Solera PAP, Oloroso Solera India and Pedro Ximnez Viejo (30, 29, 31).

Having begun at the end of the list with the Sherry (maybe it should be at the beginning), we might as well move on to Port, which is also given the respect it deserves (Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny, 1996 Quinta dos Malvedos and 1970 Vintage featuring among the highlights). Not so Madeira which, as so often, is missing.

Away from the fortifieds, there are a fair number of new or quirky wines: Larmandier-Bernier's Coteaux Champenois Vertus Rouge, Gauby's 2004 Vin de Pays des Ctes Catalanes Le Soula, Puffeney's 1990 Arbois Vin Jaune and 1997 Trousseau, and 1986 Y de Yquem. There are Greek, Sardinian and Sicilian whites, Austrian, German and Swiss reds. There are also some uncommon (which is not to say incorrect) priorities: far fewer Chassagne- than Puligny-Montrachets; twice as many Alsace Gewurztraminers (including three superb Weinbach wines) as Rieslings; and as much Condrieu as white Hermitage and white Chteauneuf combined.

Among the classic names are many that are exceptionally rare: Domaine d'Auvenay Meursaults, Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne, Lafon Montrachet; DRC, Rouget 1990 Cros Parentoux (the most expensive wine on the list at 3,459), 1989 Le Pin, 1982 Ptrus, six vintages of Chave Hermitage back to 1983, Guigal's 1990 Cte Rties La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque. Even among the famous names produced in larger quantities, there is an unusual range of mature vintages (especially Bordeaux): Montrose '85, '83, '82; Haut-Brion '89, '70, '64; Latour '88, '82; Margaux '82, '61, Yquem '99, '76.

There are a few less classic, less grand, less well-known names among the Champagnes, Bordeaux and Burgundy: Henri Giraud's 1995 A Grand Cru Ft de Chne; 1996 Le Dme, 2000 La Tour de By and 1998 Roc de Cambes; Roulot's 2003 Aligot, Deux Montille's 2003 St Romain Les Jarrons and Simon Bize's 2002 Savigny-ls-Beaune Aux Grands Liards. But in general these are the best of the best - blue-chip wines from five-star vintages, with prices to match.

Among the other Old World countries, Austria is rather under-represented, with only one Grner Veltliner and one Riesling from the Wachau - both, typically, at the top', Smaragd rather than Federspiel level (which can be more food-friendly), but both, typically, from a leading producer (Prager). Germany has a handful of top names in gloriously mature vintages (like Knstler's 1990 Hocheimer Reichstal Riesling Sptlese), but not yet any of the dry Grosses Gewchs wines. Italy is more imaginative in reds than in whites, in Tuscany than in Piedmont; while Spain is strongest in Priorat (Barbier and Palacio) and Ribera del Duero (Pingus and Vega Sicilia back to the sumptuous 1987).

New World selections are equally exclusive, again with the emphasis on the best, often niche, players: from Australia, Greenock Creek, Henschke, Jasper Hill, Leeuwin Estate and Torbreck; from New Zealand, Dry River and Felton Road; from South Africa, Eben Sadie and Mont du Toit; from California, Abreu, Araujo, Caymus, Dalla Valle, Pahlmayer, Ridge, Shafer and Stag's Leap.

Sweet wines are as exciting as any other section of the list, from top Sauternes (Yquem, Rieussec, De Fargues) to Alsace, Austrian and German Riesling, to Szepsy's 1999 Tokaji 6 Puttonyos and 1999 Essencia (810 per half-bottle).

All but one or two of the half-bottles on the list are here (and there are very few magnums), but this is more than compensated for by the constantly changing by-the-glass selection, which facilitates the task of finding the right match for a succession of varied dishes. There are currently five Champagnes, ten whites and eight reds (in addition to the impressive range of Sherries and spirits). Among the Taittinger Champagnes now on offer are the Demi-Sec and the Comtes de Champagne 1996 and 1999 Ros; the whites include Domaine D'Auvenay's 1999 Meursault Les Narvaux (42 per 125ml glass), and 1979 Ptrus (150 per 125ml glass). While that may seem a lot for a glass of wine, diners here are looking for an unbeatable experience not unbeatable value, and overall prices are reasonable by three-star standards.

People will come here for the food rather than for the wine (whereas at Isa Baal's previous restaurant, Maggiore's in London's Covent Garden, it was often the other way round). But the list is as excellent, if deliberately not as exceptional, as the menu. And it is, after all, The Fat Duck, not the Pissed Newt.