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July 7, 2014updated 02 Nov 2022 12:14pm

World’s Best Wine Lists: Ashley Palmer-Watts & Stefan Neumann, Dinner by Heston

By Thierry Dessauve

How does it feel for your wine list to be recognized by such well known names in the industry?

Ashley Palmer-Watts: I think it’s real testament to the work that all the sommeliers put in. Sommeliers really are quite close to chefs in many ways; they are absolutely 100 percent obsessed with their craft. I think outside of a kitchen they work in the closest way to a chef. They are very very disciplined, super passionate and interested. They’re in their own little world of wine and it’s all about wine.

What makes an effective wine list, from your perspective as a chef?

APW: I think the importance of a wine list, especially at a restaurant like Dinner where you’ve got such a diverse customer, is that any of those people from all over the world can open the wine list and one, not feel too intimidated by it and two, be a little bit inspired.

And when you have the dynamic of the sommelier there that picks up on where they want to go, but also giving them other alternatives to maybe broaden their experience, that’s really quite a magical sort of crossover.

Is there a process between the chefs and the wine team with regards to tasting and pairing wines with dishes?

Stefan Neumann: What we aim to do is to have a weekly tasting, which is not only sommeliers but every front of house member just to give them the opportunity to recommend wine in front of guests… A weekly thing where we have a producer or a supplier come in. So actually it’s a win-win situation. They present the wines, we will buy it, and our staff are learning from it.

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APW: When we taste a dish with wine, we don’t call everyone round, but people that are interested usually come to the front. You’ve usually got five or six glasses of one wine on the go, just so that everyone can experience it. It’s great for the chefs to understand how a sommelier’s mind works. It’s always great when you know the reason for something when you’re actually tasting it, you know? It all becomes clear.

The dishes at Dinner can be quite complex. Does that make it more difficult for the sommeliers to pair wines here than at another restaurant?

APW: I love it when we put up a dish that isn’t easy for them to pair because it really gets them thinking, you know? It’s a challenge. I like that because it’s like, “Come on, there must be something.” And then they go, “Do you know what, let’s try…” and they run off and they come back with something… and they won’t stop until they find ‘the’ thing. And it really will bug them!

SN: Quite often we will have an idea of what we want to pair with the dish, but there is always the surprising element. Unless you taste it, and unless you have the wine right in front of you, you never know what you’re going to get. If you’ve a passionate chef like Ashley, who’s coming up with some really interesting dishes, then that’s a challenge.

Do you have an absolute favorite on the current wine list?

APW: Yes, it’s a Meursault by Comtes Lafon. I’ve drunk it with Heston at his house with a roast chicken on a Sunday afternoon. It’s just amazing!

SN: We’ve several different Meursault Comtes Lafon on the list – 2006, 2005, 2004. And, especially when they’ve a bit of age, they are beautiful wines. So food friendly, which seems a strange thing to say but they pair with such a wide range of dishes.
What really amazes me right now, and I think it is very underrated, is a Pinot Noir and it comes from Oregon. The estate is called Cristom, a 2010 vintage. And the vineyard is called ‘Louise Vineyard’. And I think you’ve got the best of the old world with good earthiness, good minerality and good freshness and the best of the new world with purity and finesse of fruit, combined with color.

Who came up with the original wine list?

APW: It was João Pires who was formerly of Royal Hospital Road with Gordon Ramsay. And then he came here and just worked on it. It’s an evolving thing, isn’t it. It never stops evolving.

What is the best-selling selection on the list?

SN: Well, that’s very hard to say. Champagne will always be a top seller. And I think, right now, Burgundy is somehow back in fashion – the entry levels of Burgundy. And certainly there’s a big interest in what the sommeliers are recommending on the first page. We’ve realized with the sommelier recommendations, people trust us and this is actually one of the top sellers of the month. So this could be anything!

Can you pick out a couple of wines that have worked well with specific dishes?

APW: I think one of the most magical pairings I’ve tasted in my life is Castelnau de Suduiraut. When you taste that wine with the meat fruit… This pairing is so magical, you just remember it, you do not forget it.

SN: It has a bit of bottle age, 2007. At the chef’s table tasting, the meat fruit is pretty much in the middle of the menu. It is a bit unusual… There is a certain… not a fear, but people are a little bit unsure about sweet wine.

APW: The classic fear, and I tell you what, it’s perfect. Just with the mandarin jelly round outside it just…

SN: It just matches, it just works. It’s as simple as that.

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