He’s won Michelin stars for his food and the mixological equivalent of an Oscar for his cocktails – so can Jason Atherton achieve the same with wine? This was the question on many oenophiles’ lips this summer when the restaurant world’s golden boy teamed up with his executive sommelier Laure Patry (second picture) to launch Social Wine & Tapas (first picture), a bustling new wine bar a stone’s throw from Marylebone High Street.
If the words “wine bar” still bring to mind raffia bottle-holders and couples on toe-curling dates sipping Mateus rosé by candlelight, then it’s time you headed over to Marylebone for a glass of vino. Because Social Wine & Tapas is just one in a succession of stylish ventures transforming the way Londoners are enjoying fine wine, from deepest Hackney to the heart of Mayfair.
There are many things that distinguish this new breed from the cheesy wine bars of yore – the sleek decor, the good food, the imaginative wine lists and the mixed clientele. But it’s the sommeliers who do more than anything to set the tone – almost universally youthful (yet expert) and more likely to sport a tattoo than a bow-tie, this new generation of vinous ambassadors favour plain speaking and charm over snooty condescension.
A case in point is Laure Patry. A former employee at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and Claridge’s, and sommelier in Atherton’s empire for the past 10 years, 35-year-old Patry was originally exploring plans for a wine shop of her own when Atherton offered to become the backer for something bigger – the result was Social Wine & Tapas, a 65-cover wine bar set over two floors, with an open kitchen, wine shop and informal dining area upstairs, and a more sexy cellar bar, complete with a charcuterie counter and glass-sided cave displaying rare vintages and jeroboams, downstairs.
From the outset, Patry knew she wanted to include a good selection of wines by the glass, “because then you can play around with food pairings, especially when there are so many small, different tapas dishes to try, which is fun not just for the guest but the sommelier too,” she grins. Consequently, the 500-strong wine list features a regularly updated selection of more than 30 wines by the glass, as well as a selection of “flights” showcasing wines on a particular theme, such as Syrah (£30) or 2000 in Bordeaux (£105). “Choosing wine should be fun,” agrees Atherton. “You don’t want conversation to go silent when the sommelier comes over.”
For this very reason, two wines you won’t find on the list are New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Malbec from Argentina – not because Patry necessarily disapproves of them, but because “if you put them on the list then people just order them because they’re familiar, and then you’ve lost the conversation. The idea is for the sommelier to try and find something in a similar style but new and different for them to try.”
By “different” Patry means wines like the Savennières of the Loire, where she grew up. “The area is famous for sweet wine, so you get a little of that botrytis sugariness on the nose and the palate has that depth and intensity of style, but at the same time it is completely dry,” she says, singling out a 1992 Roche aux Moines (£52) from one of the top producers, Domaine aux Moines.
But Social Wine & Tapas has its fair share of the big names too – one of Patry’s prize acquisitions is a bottle of Le Montrachet Grand Cru Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2008 (£3,990), a rare burgundy limited to “maybe two barrels a year”. Her love of fortifieds means there are also more than a dozen sherries and ports to choose from, as well as a selection of clever twists on classic cocktails, which continue the vinous theme by using grape-based spirits and vermouths.
This highlights another thing about the new generation of sommeliers: they aren’t sniffy about cocktails. In fact, the husband-and-wife duo behind Hackney’s fashionable Sager + Wilde (third picture) and the nearby wine restaurant Mission, which in August unveiled a revamped cocktail bar headed up by one of my favourite bartenders, Marcis Dzelzainis – spent many years tending bar at celebrated cocktail joints, including Milk & Honey, Quo Vadis and Hawksmoor, before they defected to wine. “When we opened we wanted to be the Milk & Honey of wine bars,” says 32-year-old Michael Sager (fourth picture with his wife Charlotte Sager-Wilde). “That combination of relatively inexpensive, amazingly prepared drinks in a great setting was a real reference point for us.”
Tucked into a corner site on a scruffy main road, Sager + Wilde may be unprepossessing from the outside, but it’s hugely attractive within, marrying the bare brick, stripped floorboards and filament lightbulbs of a Manhattan warehouse with marble tables and wooden stools that could have come straight from a French bistro. Flooded with light by day and flickering with candles by night, it’s a fine spot whether you’re stopping by for a prosecco after a morning at Columbia Road flower market, or rocking up in the evening for a full-bodied red and a cheese toastie.
The location may be hip, but that doesn’t mean the wine list is a slave to fashion. Biodynamic, organic and orange wines do appear on the 400-strong list, but, insists Sager, that’s down to the liquid rather than dogma. Up-and‑coming winemakers are showcased too, including the fast‑rising South African Craig Hawkins and Californian Broc Cellars “which is experimenting with forgotten varietals, a bit like chefs using heirloom veg”.
“I think of it as a bit like curating a gallery; you want to see what the new generation is doing but you want your old masters too,” he says, directing my attention to some of the more venerable vintages on his list, including a Cornas 1986 Domaine Auguste Clape (£181) and a 1985 Saint-Estèphe Château Montrose (£115).
Sager and Wilde may make wine approachable, but they certainly don’t patronise – you won’t find wines grouped under “fat and fruity” or “fresh and zingy” here (or, indeed, at any of the wine bars mentioned in this piece). They also encourage dialogue with the sommelier, but if you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth they do regular winemaker nights too, which see visiting winemakers tablehop among guests conducting one-to-one tastings of their latest vintage.
Another sommelier currently breaking the mould is Julia Oudill at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a bijou little wine bar near Seven Dials from the Gallic team behind Experimental Cocktail Club. With her red lipstick and choppy blonde bob, this 25-year-old could easily be mistaken for one of ECC’s louche clientele, but this former French Young Sommelier of the Year has a CV that reads like a veteran, with stints at some of Paris’s most famed Michelin-starred restaurants, including Le Carré des Feuillants and Pavillon Ledoyen.
“Any French person who wants to work in wine has to spend time in Paris with the big guns, but eventually I decided I wanted something a bit more rock ’n’ roll. I wanted more conversation, more exchange,” she explains. “Then I met the Experimental boys at their bar in Paris and ended up helping them for a few days, and I thought, this is what I want.”
Oudill was subsequently dispatched to London to open Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Covent Garden (they have since launched a CVS in New York as well), where she can now be found manning the operation as well as consulting on the wine lists at ECC’s decadent Shoreditch cocktail bar, Joyeux Bordel, and Experimental Beach, their new bar in Ibiza.
Oudil’s great love is champagne. A highlight of the 540-bin wine list is a lovingly curated selection of champagne from both small growers and famous houses. “Cédric Bouchard makes amazing champagne; I would drink his wines all the time if I could,” she says, singling out the Creux d’Enfer rosé (£350) as particularly special. A Krug Clos du Mesnil Blanc de Blancs (£980) is also impossible to ignore. “We actually get a very small margin on it – just enough to clean the glasses in the dishwasher,” she says. “But I want it like that, because I know if someone chooses this they’re going to be a wine lover.”
With its clusters of graphic-print sofas and low-set mirrored tables, this faintly art deco hideaway is just the sort of place for indulging in tête-à-têtes over a bottle of fizz. But equally, the personable staff make it a very easy place to try something new. “We’re seeing lots of people wanting to try lesser-known wines, which means we can highlight smaller producers and regions like the Jura,” says Oudill, before waxing lyrical about young South African winemaker JH Meyer: “The Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir, blind tasted, could have been some of the best burgundy wines I ever had.
“People aren’t as afraid not to know about a wine now,” she muses. “They say, ‘I don’t know what to drink; I want something fresh or to celebrate my birthday.’ They want to discover something.”
But it’s not just the customers who are more adventurous. From wine and vinyl-matching nights at Terroirs and the new Wine Wars dinner series at Arbutus, where specialists compete to create the best pairing food, to Krug’s latest pop-up, which saw Michelin-starred chef Tom Sellers serve Krug and chips to diners in bespoke pods in Covent Garden, it seems the wine world is starting to let its hair down. And as this magazine went to press, social media was abuzz with the news that cult wine and music magazine Noble Rot would shortly be opening a wine bar of the same name.
“I want a nice glass of wine even if I’m having a burger; good wine shouldn’t just be limited to an upmarket restaurant,” says Ruth Spivey, the former model and oenophile founder of Wine Car Boot and Street Vin, the outfit responsible for bringing fine wine to London’s burgeoning street-food scene. “You can mix having fun, good music and a good time with wine. Why can’t you just have good wine wherever you are?”
I’m sure there are plenty of sommeliers who would raise a glass to that.