The Vineyard

25 August 2005
The Vineyard

When a venue is named the Vineyard, you know the wine list has got to be good. In fact, the list at the swanky hotel and restaurant in Stockcross, Berkshire, owned by Sir Peter Michael, has just got even better - thanks to João Pires.

The new Portuguese sommelier has been giving the list a major overhaul - which is some task, considering the awards it has already won (including AA Wine List of the Year in 2001). It was, though, a rather scary read for anyone not wanting to part with substantial sums, and Pires has gone some way to addressing that problem - along with making a few other changes.

But how did this 44-year-old former army lieutenant, born in Mozambique of Portuguese descent, end up in Berkshire? "Because it's the best place to learn about all the different wines in the world - and to study for my Master Sommelier exams," he says. Though this is his first job in the UK, he has been head sommelier at a number of establishments around the world - most of them five-star hotels, and Four Seasons hotels at that.

The first thing Pires did when he got to the Vineyard was merge the main list with the Californian list. Michael has an acclaimed vineyard in Sonoma and a wine merchant business, called Vineyard Cellars, that imports rare (and occasionally affordable) Californian wines. "People used to look at it and not know their way around," Pires says.

There is a lot of investment tied up in this list - to the tune of £600,000. With more than 1,700 bins and 20,000 bottles stashed in the Vineyard's three humidity- and temperature-controlled cellars (diners can ask for a tour), this is a wine list with knobs on, with many wines you just don't see elsewhere.

The pricing is better than it was - there are now two pages of wines from £12 to £20. The eight-strong, monthly-changing sommelier recommendations at the start of the list cruelly whet the appetite (for those with thinner wallets), starting at 32 for cult Santa Barbara winemaker Bryan Babcock's Gewurztraminer, leaping to 40 for the 2004 Terrazas Reserva Chardonnay and finishing at £115 for the Peter Michael Mon Plaisir Chardonnay.

"Many of our guests choose from this page," boasts Pires, revealing, when pressed, that this figure is closer to 25% - which is still impressive, nonetheless. "I never recommend an expensive wine - I want people to feel safe here," he declares. "I'm trying to offer good wines at affordable prices."

The list is now split by region (60% Old World, among which France still dominates, and 40% New World), then by grape variety - when there's enough wine. "People are generally asking for wine by grape variety rather than by name," Pires says.

So what rocks Pires' boat? "I've been trying to buy from newer wine regions," he says, using Spain as an example. Previously, Rioja ruled, but now there are as many wines from the hot DOs of Priorat and Ribera del Duero. "I've found that there's a huge demand for Spanish wine in the UK," he says. "And people want to learn about wine here - we have so many guests who are experts."

But he adds: "People also need adventure." So the list obliges with the likes of Grner Veltliner from Schloss Gobelsburg, in Austria, at £8 a glass, and Quinto do Crasto from the Douro, in Portugal, at £6 a glass.

So, is it a breeze for Pires to sell Portuguese wines? "That would be far too arrogant of me," he says, modestly, "but people know that I'm Portuguese, so they ask me about the wines anyway."

And diners are in for a surprise if they ask Pires to find a match for their chosen dishes - he takes the colour of the wine into consideration, along with the aroma and flavour.

The Vineyard, Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 8JU. Tel: 01635 528770. Website:
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