Fine Living

Toast of the town

London’s emerging wine bars are distinguishing themselves with unexpected menus, boutique producers and some very untamed flavours.

May 29 2011
John Stimpfig

It’s difficult to know precisely which opening kick-started London’s vibrant new wine-bar scene – East Dulwich’s Green & Blue back in 2005, Farringdon’s Vinoteca the same year or Terroirs by Charing Cross in 2008. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. Either way, what began as a trickle of vinous watering holes has turned into one the city’s hottest gastronomic trends. Suddenly, it seems that discerning drinkers and diners have never had it so good.

Smart wine bars have been popping up all over the capital’s prosperous postcodes in the past year or two. South of the river in Battersea is Artisan & Vine, while Kensington and Fulham now have two eponymous Wine Rooms. Vinoteca has gone west to Marylebone, while the Terroirs team has ventured into the East End with the critically acclaimed Brawn. And let’s not forget the Finborough Wine Café in West Brompton, Bar Battu in the City or 28º-50º off Fleet Street.

One of the most intoxicating things about all of the above is just how different they are from the spit and sawdust clichés of old – most notably the chains such as the drab and dreary Davy’s, which still seems mired in a 1980s timewarp. The same could be said of Balls Brothers, which may help to explain why it ended up in administration late last year. As for the ubiquitously awful All Bar One, the less said the better.

But it wasn’t just the chains. “With one or two honourable exceptions, such as Albertine in Shepherd’s Bush and The Arches in Swiss Cottage, there weren’t any independent wine bars to write home about either,” says one of Vinoteca’s founders, Charlie Young. “Instead, there was this yawning gap in the market waiting to be filled. London had no wine-bar culture to speak of whatsoever.”

Happily, that is now no longer the case, thanks to a small but inspired group of entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity to radically reinvent the wine bar, each with their own distinctive twist and interpretation. Several have borrowed from the classic Italian enoteca concept in order to retail their range of wines on the premises and online. According to Rob Malcolm, owner of The Finborough Wine Café, the advantage is that people can come and taste the wines in situ before they buy. Some are beating traditional merchants at their own game – Artisan & Vine owner Kathryn O’Mara recently picked up the Best Independent Small Merchant gong from the International Wine Challenge.

These days, private rooms are all the rage. So it’s little wonder that several wine bars are putting theirs to good use with tastings, winemaker dinners and consumer wine courses. The pick of the bunch when it comes to the latter are Tim Atkin MW’s exceptional classes at Vinoteca in Farringdon – if you can bag a place.

The same private room is also increasingly popular with corporate clients looking to do some discreet wining and dining. In the good old days, staff at the investment bank Nomura used to go to the chef’s table at Gordon Ramsay’s. But in leaner times when such profligacy doesn’t do, they prefer the more informal environment at Vinoteca. On top of that, they’ve realised that they can drink better wine for less money.

Naturally, though, wine is at the heart of this particular on-trade renaissance; and it too is radically different this time around. Gone are the bland brands, replaced by lists with genuinely good and great wines from boutique producers and small growers. “People don’t want supermarket or high-street wines when they go out,” says Doug Wregg, who puts together the wine list for Terroirs. “They want to drink something exciting, authentic and unusual, which they can’t find elsewhere.”

Step into the chic Kensington Wine Rooms, for instance, and there’s almost an embarrassment of vinous riches with wines from Jumilla, Patagonia and the Eden Valley alongside the best of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Tuscany. You’ll find no fewer than 40 fine wines available by the glass (from £4.15) and 120 by the bottle, including a 1989 Lynch-Bages (£362) and a 1998 Sassicaia (£242).

Another innovation is the sleek, ultra-high-tech enomatic machines, which dispense wines in tip-top condition when clients use a pre-paid Oyster-style winecard. “Customers love the enomatics: they give them the confidence to try more obscure or really fine wines such as the 1998 Cos d’Estournel [£28.80 a glass], which they might not normally consider,” says co-owner Richard Okroj. “We constantly rotate the wines so there’s always something different to enjoy.”

One wine bar that has quickly established itself as honeypot for oenophiles is 28º-50º Wine Workshop and Kitchen in the City. When I last popped in, every table was taken, some with well-known members of the wine trade for whom it appears to have become home from home. However, perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised: the man behind 28º-50º is the genial French sommelier Xavier Rousset, who also compiles one of London’s best wine lists at his one-star Michelin restaurant Texture, near Marble Arch. (Both restaurants are co-owned with his business partner and chef patron Agnar Sverisson.)

It’s not just Rousset’s wines-by-the-glass list that’s attracting aficionados’ attention, it’s his Collectors’ List of fine and rare bottles, which he buys direct from private punters, thereby cutting out the middle man and savage mark-ups. Where else can you buy a 1995 Domaine Tempier Bandol for £65 a bottle or a 1988 Beaucastel for £120? Similarly, a 1997 Ridge Monte Bello at £165 is cheaper than most merchants’ retail prices.

But what if your palate prefers wines that are a little more alternative, rustic and artisanal? In that case, head for Bar Battu, Terroirs, Brawn and the aforementioned Artisan & Vine. They are all in the vanguard of the niche Natural Wine movement, which first took root in the wine bars of Paris and Tokyo and spread to London and New York. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the Natural Wine movement stands for because it is such a broad church. Essentially, it eschews all additives in the winemaking process, resulting in idiosyncratic, terroir-driven wines. Almost invariably it is made up of tiny vignerons, each farming just a few hectares of vines.

Consequently, the wines can be quite challenging. “We have rhônes, burgundies and barolos, but not quite as people know them,” says Bar Battu’s owner, Simon Binder. “Natural wine isn’t always an easy sell – a wine often needs some background and context, especially if it’s a bit untamed on the palate or has a slight spritz you weren’t expecting.”

And yet these quirky wines are catching on, particularly with more adventurous and knowledgeable customers. Nowhere is this more true than at Terroirs, owned and run by wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrène, with chef Ed Wilson and manager Oli Barker.

The first thing you notice about Terroirs is how full it is. The second is how much people are enjoying themselves. “We want it to be warm and welcoming with great wines and great service,” says Wregg. “Our list is very long – there are 300 wines. But it isn’t about well-known names or labels. It’s all about what is in the bottle.” The word is out: at this year’s National Restaurant Awards, Terroirs was awarded the top prize for Best Wine List.

More surprising is the way in which Terroirs and Brawn have been picking up rave reviews from London’s leading restaurant critics, including Peter Harden of the eponymous guide. Terroirs is the only London restaurant to which he and his colleagues go at least once a month. “The food is very good – not in a fine-dining way; that’s not what they are about,” says Harden. “What I like is their interpretation and execution of classic French bistro cooking – and, of course, the wines.”

Harden also identifies Terroirs as one of the pioneers in the very latest gastro trend of small plate dishes. “It suits the way we eat today. People like to graze and be flexible, to pick and mix with a good glass of wine. To me, it’s an exciting, contemporary and sophisticated formula that people will only want more of.”

Terroirs isn’t alone in providing first-class nourishment. At 28º-50º, chefs Agnar Sverrison and Paul Walsh have produced well-sourced, seasonal and robustly flavoured Gallic dishes that complement the venerable wine list. The same goes for head chef John Murray at Vinoteca in Farringdon, who previously served his apprenticeship at Petrus, St John and L’Autre Pied.

Initially, not everyone got the food right. “At first, just 15 per cent of our revenue at Artisan & Vine came from food,” says O’Mara. “But now it is more than 30 per cent because we’ve employed better chefs.” The same goes for Bar Battu, which “is moving more and more towards being a proper restaurant”, comments Binder.

All of this begs the question of whether these pioneering watering holes are wine bars or restaurants in disguise. “Anyone walking into somewhere like Terroirs would be hard-pressed to identify it as a traditional wine bar. To me it’s more of a restaurant,” says Harden.

Another variation on the theme is a number of enticing new Spanish and Italian wine bars – osterias, enotecas and bacaros – which have sprung up in key London locations. One is the superb Degò Wine Bar and Restaurant on Portland Place, undoubtedly worth a detour thanks to head chef Massimo Mioli. Others include Salt Yard, Dehesa, Polpo, Barrafina and Bar Pepito – all feature good indigenous wines (and sherries, of which there are more than 100 types at the new Capote y Toros in SW5) alongside charcuterie, tapas and more serious dishes.

So where do we go from here? Onwards and upwards, it seems. For instance, one recent opening is the highly recommended, bijou-like Chabrot in Knightsbridge, where sommelier Philippe Messy has put together an inspired wine list to match chef Thierry Laborde’s outstanding bistro fare, impeccably inspired by and sourced from south-west France.

And opening this month is Galoupet in Beauchamp Place, while Okroj has plans to open another Wine Rooms within the next year. The same goes for Green & Blue’s Kate Thal, who is looking at venues all over the capital. Meanwhile, wine merchant Christian Rothhardt is also poised to open a specialist Argentine wine bar in Marylebone in September. At long last, London really does have an exciting and evolving wine bar scene to celebrate.

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