The perfect country house hotel - and perhaps the perfect country house hotel wine list. Fiona Sims is delighted to find a clued-up wine buyer whose customers appreciate the cellar
Whatley Manor is my idea of a perfect country house hotel. It's got the food, thanks to chef Martin Burge and his Michelin star. It's got the look - smart, cosy and not too over-designed, thanks to owner Alix Landolt's keen eye. And it's got a nice wine list - and it's not often that I can say that.
Country house hotels often fall down on their wine list. Most often, it's down to lack of knowledge. But Whatley Manor has a nice wine list - and they know how to make it work, holding regular wine dinners, which have proved popular. In August they were already fully booked for a Bollinger dinner in November. "And customers aren't even looking at the cost," says Magali Duclos, the restaurant manager and wine buyer.
Whatley Manor is lucky to have Duclos. She's one of that rare breed who can juggle running the floor with managing the cellar. "I spend about half a day a week on the list, and I love it," she says.
Duclos was a sommelier once, most recently at Midsummer House in Cambridge, but she started at L'Ortolan, with chef-proprietor John Burton-Race.
Her only problem is that she doesn't have much spare time to get to many tastings. She passes on her invites to her staff, who use them as training opportunities, and instead relies on the many suppliers who come to her door with samples.
Whatley Manor uses three core suppliers - Christopher Piper Wines, Berkmann Wine Cellars and Bibendum Wine - plus others making smaller drops, including Great Western Wines and Whirly Wine, an Australian specialist.
So there are a fair few Australian wines on her 300-bin list. Highlights include a Cullen Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (£39), a Margaret River Chardonnay from Howard Park (£42.50) and Ben Glaetzer's Amon-Ra Shiraz (£88).
The tasting menu, chosen by half the restaurant's customers, comes with a wines-to-match option. Pairings include warm smoked duck breast with sunflower purée, cured foie gras and Merlot vinegar gel with a demi-sec Vouvray from Didier Champelou (La Cuvée des Fondraux), while Scottish scallops with caramelised bacon, pea purée and truffle essence get Heggies Vineyard 2004 Eden Valley Chardonnay.
All desserts get their own pairing as a matter of course, but Duclos admits they are harder to sell.
There are plenty of wines by the glass, too - 14 at the last count, plus four bubblies. Deutz Classic is the house Champagne, but Duclos also lists two from local vineyard Bow in the Cloud in Malmesbury, which she reports are going down well.
Others by the glass range from a South African Sauvignon Blanc from Springfield Estate, Life from Stone (£7.50), to a 2005 Pinot Noir from Huia Vineyards in Marlborough, New Zealand (£12), plus an ice wine from Burgenland in Austria (Triebaumer's Rust Traminer, £9).
Current best sellers include Brown Brothers' Patricia Cabernet Sauvignon (£12 by the glass) and many of the Sauvignon Blancs.
Duclos says that she is looking for a balance - of regions, countries (France dominates), varieties and styles - and is constantly tweaking the list to deliver it. "But it won't get bigger," she says. "You don't want to spend half an hour reading it."
Spain is one area that she is about to focus on, believing "it has come on at an astonishing pace".
Duclos, who hails from Brittany and went to wine school in Dinard, puts red Burgundy at the top of her own list. "I love the Côte de Beaune - it's so versatile," she says. She is, though, also a fan of New World Pinot Noir, such as those from New Zealand. "I like their style - very approachable," she adds.
But she won't be drawn into a chat about mark-ups. She says they're on a par with similar country house hotels - yup, a bit steep.
What's on the list
- Cloud Nine Sparkling Rosé, Bow in the Cloud Vineyard, Malmesbury, England, £35.50
- 2005 Bourgogne Les Setilles Olivier Leflaive, Burgundy, France, £29
- 2004 Pinot Gris Rangen de Than Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Alsace, France, £67
- 2004 Savennière La Coulee de Serrant, Nicolas Joly, Loire, France, £85
- 2005 Pinot Grigio Alois Lageder, Alto Adige, Italy, £35
- 2005 GrÁ¼ner Veltliner Langenlois, Fred Loimer, Kamptal, Austria, £26
- 2002 Nerola Xarello, Miguel Torres, Penèdes, Spain, £22
- 2002 Rully Les Chaponnières, Domaine Jaqueson, Burgundy, France, £40
- 1982 ChÁ¢teau Cheval Blanc, Bordeaux, France, £840
- 2001 Turriga, Isola dei Nuragh, Argiolas, Sardinia, Italy, £96
- 2004 Pinot Noir Reserve, Manfred Meijer, Switzerland, £52.50
- 2003 Massaya Gold Reserve, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, £52
- 2003 Pinot Noir, Paul Cluver, Elgin, South Africa, £33
Whatley Manor, Easton Grey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0RB. Tel: 01666 822888. Website: www.whatleymanor.com