West End Wine Tour. London Wine Week
It was on a perfect Late spring day post London wine fair and during London Wine Week, that I found myself stepping out along St James Street, destination Berry Brothers Rudd.
London Wine week is an annual and collaborative event that takes place in May across London, and includes some of the top drawer merchants, hundreds of wine bars all over London and even the corner pub that keeps a small wine list can participate.
Wine is changing for the better. Nearly gone are the days of fussy, florid men in Burgundy-hued trousers and waistcoats looking down their noses and sniffing at corks in distaste while trying to read how much they could extract from your wallet for a rather average Bordeaux they had just discovered in France.
Should we want to spend a good morning searching out new wines for our collections or just to pair with our Sunday Roast with the in-laws, we used to be forced to either pop along to Sainsbury’s, or to risk crossing the threshold of a Wine merchant- that bastion of maleness, ill-disguised misogyny and snobbish foppery only rivalled by The City’s stockbrokers circa 1999.
Enter Geordie Willis, Brand Director for Berry Bros Rudd, who met me in the historic Shop premises for a cellar tour we had arranged. The shop reminiscent of Dickens and Pickwick papers, with its hand-made window panes, centuries of thicker-than-treacle paint on the shop-front and the smell of centuries of wood-polish, is a slice of London not to be missed.
Geordie in his early thirties recently returned from Hong Kong where he was growing the business and full of enthusiasm, led me down to the most iconic of wine cellars. As the appointed wine merchant to the Royal Family since King George 111, and a favourite haunt of Prime ministers, Parliament, and the well-heeled since records began, Berry Bros has met the wine needs of Londoners and people around the world. Now under the chairmanship of Simon Berry, Berry Bros have occupied this rabbit-warren of subterranean cellars and beautifully appointed rooms since 1698. Arguably the best address in London. I can hear you say, yes fine if you can afford it and yes snobbery personified and Museum-like. Not so fast.
The Cellars which are spacious and spread out over an acre, have recently been renovated to host a wine school, teaching tasting room, and some wonderful event spaces up small staircases to admire, marvel at and to simply luxuriate in the sheer beauty of the winemaking tradition, little changed for centuries.
Each year more restaurants and hotels employ a sommelier (no longer a male-only profession), and each year hundreds of people passionate about wine, enrol in WSET classes or are working towards a Master of Wine Qualification. Berry Bros wine school is instrumental in innovating and being an influence in wine education.
Cellar highlights were very early Champagne wines dusty and waiting patiently for the cork to be popped and a magical vintage to be enjoyed. They had been cellared perhaps for a royal christening, or a retirement dinner for Churchill. I love the mustiness of cellars and the smell of wood crates, I took photos rather than notes, hyperventilating as I was with excitement at the range and depth of the collection. Beautiful early vintages of Bordeaux and Barolo all carefully catalogued. Cellar envy is felt by all who visit I’m sure. The clay bricks made in a kiln before anything was machine-made provide a safe, sturdy fortress for these cellars and the amazing collection of wine they hold. If you wanted to experience the history of fashion or beekeeping you might visit the Victoria and Albert or the natural history museum, instead this is the history of wine but it’s not a museum, it’s alive and well and current. Little has changed Geordie tells me as he reconfigures the brand for todays wine enthusiasts, just a commitment to delight and surprise with wines. To sell wines to today’s generation of collectors and wine drinkers while respecting the journey and the traditions of Berry Brothers Rudd.
Berry Bros have 4,000 wines on offer and were the first to open an online wine store in 1994. They also offer, fine wine investment advice, cellaring at a wine storage facility out of London, a wine club, wine school run by Rebecca Lamont and Anne McHale MW. Regular tasting events, wine appreciation courses and wine trading. The team at Berry Bros represent a huge knowledge base of wine. Cutting edge stuff.
Upstairs in the beautiful dining room used to host corporate and bespoke private events and boasting the talents of chef Stewart Turner, we taste a glass of Kings Ginger made for Berry Bros in Holland. Simply sublime to revive the spirits after a long days shopping or after a day filling in tax forms. Any mixologist worth their salt in London now knows The Kings Ginger.
In a small office, a snug lounge really, we sit to talk about the brand before a fireplace and what it means to Geordie and his family. In this room, Number three, an iconic room for Berry Bros, which overlooks the intimate restaurant below ,and where perhaps Lord Byron, sat and enjoyed a glass of Cutty Sark or two over a story, are lined up six wines Geordie has selected for London wine week tastings. The No 3 London gin brand from Berry Bros with a key on it, made in Holland, takes its name from this room, holder of many secrets.
It’s getting towards the Lunch hour and I must leave Berry Bros for a lunch date. Everything about the experience left me wanting more. I think the perfect place to browse in while your significant other shops for shoes, has a haircut, or your husband visits his accountant, a place to take people who are visiting London for the first time.
Berry Bros regularly host tasting events throughout the year, a perfect anniversary gift or a birthday surprise, perhaps to soften your boss up for a raise, or a nice treat for your mum who is in town for a week? Book in advance online via the events page on the website Berry Bros Rudd.
I left Berry Bros thinking that if the future of wine branding is in hands as safe as Geordie Willis we have nothing to worry about, and lots to enjoy.
And just around the corner was another established name, Fortnum and Mason, where I had a lunch date. Fortnum’s as it has been affectionately named for decades is a department store established in 1707, in Jermyn Street in the Harrods, Selfridges class for the uninitiated, but has become synonymous with good food wine, chocolate, tea, perfume, all the little luxuries that make life worth living. Set out over five floors, head straight down to the wine area, tastings are regularly held, ask for the agenda, or just browse the wines from around the world, in extensive mahogany-wood-panelled-luxury. While your sister looks for a hat for Ascot, your mum buys her favourite tea, or your future wife is looking for a new handbag you could pop downstairs to wine browse. Lots of temptations from a picnic hamper you can order for a special occasion, a bottle of wine for tonight, or a mixed case of wine delivered.
Fortnums in the heart of the West end, contemporary, high-end, established but something for everyone, not just those who spend hundreds of pounds on a creed perfume.
Head upstairs to one of two restaurant areas to enjoy a glass of wine or eat something light at the beautiful bar in The Fountain if you’re alone and prefer mingling. I think a perfect first date venue, or a great place to meet friends after work for an aperitif. Order by the glass. Then there’s the Wine bar in the Wine shop where you could taste to your heart’s desire, with some snacks or a cheeseboard from the food hall, or splash out on some oysters. I dined in the Gallery restaurant, always popular around lunchtime with everyone, bankers, tourists, and everyone’s mum, so get there early. The chef recently back from Dubai, really knows how to please the palate without breaking the bank.
Once you manage to get a table as I did, enjoy a simple lunch menu or a la Carte served with a lovely glass of chilled wine from their extensive wine list, I chose a glass of lovely French Muscadet, dry and lemony paired with a delicious pink Sirloin beetroot and crispy onion plate. Superbly prepared, and rounded off with the most scrumptious pannacotta with pistachio I’ve ever had. I contemplated a vintage Sauternes over dessert, but I had another tasting to go to in Chelsea later, so onward and upwards.
Just divine, you can be in and out within an hour if you’re rushing back to the office, or you just popped in for some shopping and felt peckish. Meeting someone for lunch? Perfect get a bottle of wine to share, or separate wines by the glass if you can’t agree. Impeccable service and fast. I have long believed that the difference in price between a lunch served by well-trained staff, or a place with sticky tables and microwaved food is about eight to ten pounds. In my opinion Fortnum’s offer real value for money and a great wine day out.
If you prefer a trendier venue that serves good wine and food and offers you all the wine choice you may need in one evening without exhausting your credit card, then head nowhere else but just up Oxford Street in Marylebone to Vinoteca near Marble Arch Tube. If you’re alone you will feel perfectly happy just sipping your glass of prosecco and enjoying a delicious choice of snacks at the bar, or join in on a feasting table where a group of five to nine people will share a roast lamb with their choice of wine. Out on a date, the three course dinner with matching wines is a rather good idea. This is hearty, varied and well-executed cooking, with the wine being brought out for you to savour first. With 285 wines from small producers across the globe, Will Lauder’s team will be on your go -to list for a night out. It’s a place you will come back to whatever your age or wine tastes. Downstairs is a private venue with a dedicated chef if you have a special event. You can buy wine to take away from Vinoteca or order online too.
London Wine Week runs from the middle of May (2015 was the second edition) during and after London Wine Fair. Participating wine bars, pubs and bistros all over London.