Raise a glass to the re­turn of the wine bar

Thanks to hip­sters who know their grapes and state-of-the-art dis­pensers, wine bars are mak­ing a come­back, says Bethan Ry­der

The Daily Telegraph - - Style & Features -

The wine bar is back, and for once it’s not as part of some dodgy Eight­ies re­vival. Thanks to in­no­va­tions in tech­nol­ogy, it has never been eas­ier to try fine wines by the glass, in hip­ster sur­round­ings – and with­out need­ing load­sa­money to do so.

Back when stilet­tos and shoul­der pads were as big as Lady Di, wine bars were the acme of metropoli­tan style and so­phis­ti­ca­tion, a sexy an­ti­dote to the beery, male­dom­i­nated pubs, and some­where power-dress­ing pro­fes­sional women could have fun, flirt and play out their Work­ing Girl fan­tasies.

Then, as now, Lon­don is awash with them (about which, more later). But they’re spring­ing up across the UK, from Divino Enoteca in Ed­in­burgh and Sa­lut in Manch­ester to Raf­ferty’s Café and Wine Bar in Pad­stow. Bri­tain is truly in the midst of a new wine bar rev­o­lu­tion.

The world of wine has been opened up im­mea­sur­ably by so­phis­ti­cated stor­age and pour­ing sys­tems, which have changed the way we drink from by-the-bot­tle to by-the-glass.

“New drink sam­pling ma­chines [which re­lease a pre­cise mea­sure of wine, then pump in­ert gas into the bot­tle to pre­serve the re­main­der] have helped rein­vig­o­rate the wine bar by al­low­ing dozens of wines to be of­fered by the glass in per­fect con­di­tion at per­fect tem­per­a­ture,” ex­plains Si­mon Dif­ford, ed­i­tor of drinks in­dus­try bi­ble Dif­ford’s Guide. “The bars of old tried to of­fer such a se­lec­tion, but with many pre-opened bot­tles that were, in­evitably, ox­i­dised.”

It’s not just about the tools of the trade, though: this re­newed wine ap­pre­ci­a­tion goes hand-in-hand with the restau­rant in­dus­try and our fetishis­tic ob­ses­sion with craft prove­nance and ar­ti­san­ship.

In short, wine has been hip­ster­fied. “Wine was never that cool,” says Ben Mccormack, ed­i­tor of Square Meal, “but lots of in­de­pen­dent wine bars in east Lon­don have changed that. They’re not about a scary som­me­lier with grapes on his lapel; staff are young and knowl­edge­able. Or­der­ing by the glass means cus­tomers can be more ad­ven­tur­ous. Try­ing a ries­ling or an Aus­trian Gruner Velt­liner doesn’t mean in­vest­ing in a whole bot­tle.”

This de­mys­ti­fied, demo­cratic ap­proach was cer­tainly what drove ex-stew­ardess Sara Saunby and her pi­lot hus­band to set up Sa­lut in Manch­ester in 2014. “We trav­elled a lot and tried wines all over the world, but wanted to open some­where with­out the snob­bery, that ‘old boy’s club’ na­ture of wine. Now cus­tomers don’t even have to try to pro­nounce gewürz­traminer – they can just serve them­selves from the dis­pensers.”

Like other new-wave wine bars, Sa­lut is also a wine mer­chant, so their list of 50 wines rises to 400 if you in­clude the bot­tles for sale in the shop, which can also be drunk on the premises for a £7 cork­age fee.

Saunby has dis­cov­ered a real thirst for fine wines in Manch­ester. “There’ve been queues round the block. We had a Château Lafite Roth­schild 1990, which was emp­tied in 20 min­utes flat. It was the same with Château La­tour, which we sold for £45 per 50ml mea­sure.”

Saunby also fits the pro­file of these new wine bar op­er­a­tors: they’re in­de­pen­dent en­trepreneurs with a cause. En­thu­si­asts like Dan Keel­ing and Mark An­drew, whose wine mag­a­zine No­ble Rot be­came a wine bar and restau­rant on Lamb’s Con­duit Street in cen­tral Lon­don, are keen to share their pas­sion rather than make a fast profit.

Michael Sager is a key pi­o­neer of the wine bar re­nais­sance. In 2013, he gave the Sager + Wilde wine pop-up (which he started with his now exwife, Char­lotte) a per­ma­nent home in the premises of the Bri­tish Lion pub in east Lon­don. It’s be­come a favourite among oenophiles and fel­low drinkin­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als. “I re­alised that five of the world’s best bars were in east Lon­don, it was a hub of good drink­ing, but in­stead of cock­tails and craft beers, we wanted to of­fer good, af­ford­able wines by the glass.

“We choose not to make a higher mar­gin on those wines above £65 on our list. We can do it be­cause we don’t have investors and our rent is cheap be­cause we are in a marginally un­der­de­vel­oped area.”

Sager also cred­its the chang­ing pro­file of wine fairs, such as Raw (rawwine.com), the Real Wine Fair (the­re­al­wine­fair.com) and Lon­don Wine Week (drinkup.lon­don/ wine­week), for in­tro­duc­ing wine to this new au­di­ence, too.

“Seven years ago, they were very dull and stuffy,” he says, “full of peo­ple in pink shirts, bad suits and pointy shoes. But nowa­days they’re at­tract­ing the or­ganic food-buy­ing, gluten-free foodie crowd – the hip­sters who can’t af­ford to buy a house so they’ll spend on eat­ing and drink­ing.” Sager + Wilde ap­peals to this de­mo­graphic by In­sta­gram­ming its daily wines, but it takes a more tra­di­tional, by-the-bot­tle ap­proach, rather than the hi-tech route: “Be­cause if you can’t sell a bot­tle of wine in a day, then you’re not do­ing your job,” Sager jokes.

La Clarette, Lon­don’s new­est wine bar on the block, is also in an old (Tu­dor­bethan) pub, but its in­te­rior has been given a Soho House-style in­te­rior makeover; its pedi­gree is haute French. Co-founder Alexan­dra Petit-mentzelopou­los hails from the fam­ily that pro­duces the Premier Cru classe Château Mar­gaux. So you can try a glass of Mar­gaux ’99 for £100, but you can also sip a Nero d’avola for £4.50.

It also seems that the UK is a step ahead of our great wine-pro­duc­ing neigh­bours in this re­spect, the Brits al­ways keen to em­brace new ways of drink­ing. Even French­man and for­mer som­me­lier Xavier Rous­set agrees. He helped drive the wine bar re­nais­sance by open­ing 28:50, a “wine work­shop and kitchen” in Maryle­bone, which he sold. He now owns three wine-fo­cused venues.

“You need to be gen­tle on your profit mar­gin in or­der to be able to of­fer £9 glasses of fine wines, but peo­ple are re­ally will­ing to take a gam­ble. I think France is be­hind on that, Lon­don is much more dy­namic and pro­gres­sive in that re­spect.”

We’ll raise a glass to that.

Nineties hero­ine Brid­get Jones was a typ­i­cal habituée of wine bars

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