Star Wine List launches UAE awards as new jury member Ben Kouider confirmed

Champagne guru Ben Kouider, Star Wine List's new jury member for the UAE

Star Wine List is bringing our awards to the United Arab Emirates for the very first time, giving top wine restaurants and wine bars in the region the opportunity to showcase their wine lists and celebrate the hard work that goes into them - as well as the teams behind them.

The inaugural event, to be held in Dubai on January 29th 2024, has already attracted much attention and interest from the desert nation's hospitality sector, and we are looking forward to what promises to be an extremely exciting -and hard fought competition in the various different categories.

Someone who is more than au fait with the UAE's dining scene is Ben Kouider, aka Ben Champagne, a Champagne expert and educator - and the latest addition to our judging panel for the newly-launched UAE awards. We caught up with him to find out how the UAE dining and wine sector has changed in recent years, and what’s currently trending.

I often describe the UAE as the United Nations in one place, where you can experience the best of any country all in one location.

How would you describe the current UAE dining scene?
The UAE has significantly enhanced its dining scene over the past 15 years. It began with very specific restaurants, always maintaining top quality. But over the years, the options have expanded significantly, offering an incredible variety of cuisines from around the world. I often describe the UAE as the United Nations in one place, where you can experience the best of any country all in one location.

How much has it changed in recent years?
If you look at the recent evolution, most visitors to the UAE will tell you the same thing; there is a vision in place, and it has been respected in many sectors. The government has facilitated many initiatives to make each of us feel at home, and this has encouraged numerous investors to come and open wonderful new places. I have witnessed a significant change pre-economic crisis in 2008, followed by a substantial improvement between 2010 and 2019.

However, what is happening post-pandemic has been truly incredible. The UAE has demonstrated how it handled the crisis and was able to welcome the entire world when everything was locked down. This, in my view, has accelerated many changes and decisions to implement exceptional restaurants.

What do you think are the highlights - and what could it be doing better?
A major recent highlight is finally having the UAE on the Michelin and Gault & Millau map. This has helped existing venues improve their quality and excel at what they do best. It has also attracted top sommeliers to the UAE, particularly in Dubai. Since last year Star Wine List has also started in the UAE helping every sommelier to become more aware of the ongoing competition. We are now talking about two-star Michelin restaurants, and this is very recent. I can sense the dynamism among restaurants and chefs aiming for the coveted three stars in the UAE. The launch of Star Wine List in the region will help encourage head sommeliers to enhance not only their wine list but also the overall wine selection. With every new participant and judge, the competition is pushing towards the right dynamic, ultimately improving the overall selection.

How important do you think wine is to the complete offer in UAE's restaurants/bars?
The wine aspect is crucial for UAE restaurants and bars. Their goal is to have the best wine lists to ensure their establishment is among the best places to go. The competition is intensifying, and what will set a place apart is the offerings they can provide to customers. In the past, consumers might have settled for a basic wine list due to high prices and limited supplies. However, since January 1st, the local tax on alcohol products has been waived, resulting in savings of 30%. Although it is still a work in progress, you can already see that many venues have been able to reduce the price of wines and this has significantly contributed to their ability to offer more premium wines and enhance the overall wine list.

Although I am French and have a soft spot for our wine regions, this will not influence my judgement.

As a jury member, what will you be looking for when judging the UAE Star Wine List competition?
Firstly, I am very pleased and honoured to have been selected as part of the jury. I will have various categories in mind, and it is essential for me to showcase how the entire world has evolved, especially with the emergence of New World wines. My vision is to contribute to the improvement of the market and wine lists in Dubai by providing advice to top importers and head sommeliers. I am thrilled to see that today we are realising this vision, and I'm excited to witness the positive changes in the wine lists in the UAE. Although I am French and have a soft spot for our wine regions, this will not influence my judgement!

What do you think makes a good wine list?
In my view, a good wine list should transport you and evoke sensations throughout your journey, and this can greatly enhance the contestant's chances. Another key element for me will be the sparkling wine list, which is an area of particular interest.

Can you give a brief resume of your career highlights?
I am a Champagne educator, assisting both consumers and professionals in understanding the complex world of Champagne. I have completed various training programmess, including the CIVC training, the Master Champagne programme with the WSG, and the WSET programme.

But what I value most highly is the practical side of my experience, spending a significant amount of time in many wine regions, primarily in Europe. I've dedicated time with cellar masters and growers in the regions, participating in activities from pruning to harvest and much of the knowledge gained from these experiences cannot be found in books. I also conduct Masterclasses globally and serve as a judge at the IWSC in London for the sparkling section.

Follow Ben on Instagram where he shares his Champagne wisdom and expertise on: @benchampagnes

Published 30-November-2023
Interview / Dubai

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