Wales is well served for good wine lists, but they don't get much better than the Crown at Whitebrook. The AA restaurant guide gave its wine award for Wales to the Crown this autumn, and not before time. The Crown has long been banging the drum regarding its wines, and it's even louder since new sommelier Ed Hutchings arrived at the one-Michelin-starred Monmouthshire restaurant earlier this month.
The Crown is set in three acres of forest-fringed gardens in the heart of the Wye Valley, and its chef, James Sommerin - who formerly worked for Brian Turner and at Lindsay House - is turning out a modern British menu matched with Hutchings' list.
By the glass
More than half the diners ask Hutchings to choose the wines for them, many opting for a selection by the glass, which pushes profits up even more. "I don't think about the wine first. It's the food and the wine together," he declares.
The list was praised by the AA judges - and I was one of them - for "constantly evolving, and for encompassing a variety of styles, designed to accommodate all tastes and budgets".
That means an array of wines that changes with the seasons. "I think it's very important to do this. If the menu changes, so should the list - especially the wines that are being offered by the glass. If there's beef on the menu, there should be lots of lovely juicy reds. I'm looking at Zinfandel for our beef dishes, and Beaujolais cru, such as Morgon," suggests Hutchings.
He's also excited about the abundance of flatfish and oysters coming out of Sommerin's kitchen. With a dish of daurade, Cornish lobster, new season's garlic, sesame and soy, Hutchings is offering a Chilean rosé made from Carmenère by De Martino in the Maipo Valley.
"And James is cooking a pan-fried brill with a caper crust, pesto and cucumber that works fantastically with Willi Brundlmayer's 2007 Kamptal Terrassen Grüner Veltiner. The wine stands up to the rich flavours in the dish, even lifting it," enthuses Hutchings.
With a roast crown of partridge, spiced raisin, glazed beetroot, maple and peppercorn, Hutchings pairs a 2001 Hermitage from Delas Frères at £8 a glass - keeping all the wines fresh with a Vacu Vin. "People do definitely spend more by the glass here. Why? Because they like to experiment. And we are in the middle of nowhere, so they are drinking less but better," he observes. One wine going down particularly well by the glass is Charlie Melton's sparkling Shiraz, which he serves in a Champagne flute.
Hutchings uses 10 suppliers in all, including Christopher Piper, Tanners and Liberty, but wants to trim it back to five in the New Year. "It's much easier to deal with a few," he shrugs. There are 250 wines on the list in all, from all the key wine regions, split by grape variety. "It's not so daunting this way - and it's educational, allowing diners to experiment better," he says.
"It's a balanced list, apart from there being too many white Burgundies and no Italian or Spanish Chardonnay yet, which I intend to fix," he says. Hutchings is also searching for more half-bottles, aiming to take the selection up to 50.
Another selling tool he is looking at is more quirky aperitifs. "I want to shout about sherry from the rooftops," he declares. The Crown already offers a handful, but Hutchings is planning to list many more in response to demand. "The tasting menu is popular here, and this is one way to sell sherry: pair it with specific dishes. And I don't find sherry a hard sell any more, people are open to it now," he insists.
The most expensive wine on the list is a 1993 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque at £245 the cheapest is Torres Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc at £19. "I don't see the point of listing lots of really expensive wines. It's just sommeliers showing off. We have discerning customers, yes, but in my experience the bottles that cost £1,000 sit around for too long - and it's just not appropriate in this current climate."
The Crown at Whitebrook, Whitebrook, Monmouthshire NP25 4TX. Tel: 01600 860254
What's on the list
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