It’s hard to think of a city in the world where the wine scene is more dynamic and diverse than London, and the capital’s two most recent openings (within a month of each other) further bolster this claim.
First up is Noble Rot on Lamb’s Conduit Street – that area around Holborn now fancifully marketed as London Midtown. Formerly Vats, an old-school 1970s wine bar patronised by a loyal but diminishing local clientele, it has had the changes rung by its new owners. Mark Andrew (left in first picture) and Dan Keeling (right) had already developed a devoted following with their quarterly wine magazine Noble Rot, framed covers of which adorn the walls of the bar, and which is, in their own words, “the antidote to much of the mainstream’s dumbing down of wine culture”. Latterly, they had started hosting wine events at The Clove Club and Dock Kitchen, and the logical next step was to open their own place.
Andrew, previously wine buyer for independent merchant Roberson, admits the choice of location was fortunate. “We wanted to focus our search on central, not east, London and were looking at a potential site opposite Vats, but popped in for a drink and got talking to the owner.” That initial unexpected conversation in August proved propitious, as barely three months later they had signed a deal with the owner, given the place a lick or two of paint and installed The Sportsman’s Stephen Harris as executive chef, along with colleague Paul Weaver. “It was serendipity,” Keeling says. “We were looking for a historic building for Noble Rot that was much like our favourite Paris wine bars Clown Bar and Vivant, and Vats’ owner was retiring after 30 years.” Aesthetically, the differences are not dramatic, but the more subtle the make-up, the more effort it takes. “We spent quite a lot of time and money making the place look virtually unchanged,” says Andrew. However, the most significant alterations are to the menu and wine list, the latter now boasting one of the more interesting and good value line-ups in the city.
After a healthy by-the-glass choice, the champagne selection favours smaller growers – Larmandier-Bernier, Premier Cru Terre de Vertus would be a particular recommendation – and then follows a good spread of generally youthful white burgundies. The list notes, echoing the gonzo-style of the magazine, suggest that dismissing chardonnay is “a bit like saying you don’t like chicken based on KFC, or disliking all music because of Robbie Williams’ Greatest Hits”. Bottle of Comte Lafon Meursault 1990 chosen, fans of The Sportsman (and frankly, who isn’t?) will make a beeline for Harris’ slipsoles and smoked butter, followed by the halibut braised in oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru, an inspired use of duff but character-boasting wine.
The options for Riesling fans are extensive and there is an impressive spray of whites from regions as far flung as Tenerife, Swartland and the Jura. We move on to reds, flying past some juicy red burgundies and those from that increasingly popular and dynamic region, Beaujolais, where the next generation are making exciting, vibrant wines that are a far cry from the banana water “Nouveau” that has filled the boots of Volvos passing back through Calais each November since the 1970s. The Rhône, north and south, and similar spicy styles from southern France, Australia and California are dominated by mini-verticals of favoured producers, and then the choice of Cabernet blends kicks off with bordeaux, naturally, and a commendable spread of drinking vintages, the top end of which is particularly hard to resist for the prices. It’s increasingly common knowledge that in most restaurants, the more expensive the wine, the smaller the mark-up, and there is a convincing argument that spending £383 on “wine of the vintage” Chateau Palmer 1983 makes sound economic sense – especially when partnered with pink, gamey mallard, bread sauce and pumpkin.
Although a self-confessed Francophile, Keeling says of himself and Andrew, “Our love of wine is very broad and we like to list the most traditional first growth bordeaux next to the most challenging Californian natural wine”. Their list is quirky and very clearly personality driven, rather than a box-ticking exercise, and all the better for it. They have inherited an enviable cellar space downstairs and aside from a few unexpected gems left over from Vats – 1996 Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon was an unexpected pleasure – you can imagine they will have a lot of fun filling it with personal favourites. They may have met a little resistance from former regulars (the “Fishcake Four” are mightily put out that Harris’ menu no longer features their staple dish), but with no shortage of new fans, plans for the private dining room and a series of wine events, they are definitely the hot ticket for London’s new breed of oenophiles.
How does an exclusive new members’ club compare to this hip wine bar counterpoint? Find out in part two next Monday, February 1.