Words: Rajan Virdee
It wasn’t so long ago that buying booze resembled an Inbetweener’s subplot.
Standing on a suburban side street, waiting on a friend’s older sibling to emerge from the off license, brandishing a bright blue carrier bag containing something cost-effective and taste-neutral. But somewhere along the way, all this boyhood bacchanalia started to shift toward a genuine interest and appreciation for all things good and strong.
More recently my friends and I seem to have traded in the off licenses of our adolescence for places where the stockists and staff know a thing or two; places like Laithwaite’s The Arch by Borough Market.
Laithwaite’s have been heavy-hitters of the retail wine trade for some forty-odd years and their Borough Market store – nestled oh-so-trendily in backstreet train arch – stands as some sort of exposed-brick abbey for all things fermented and distilled. It’s staffed by energetic oenophiles hell bent on getting you (slightly) drunk and teaching you some interesting stuff along the way.
Wine can, at times, seem utterly infinite and wholly intimidating; how many grapes, chateaus, vintages, terroirs, bodegas, bins, blends and barrels can you really get a practical grasp on, without descending into Frasier Crane levels of ridiculousness?
And not all restaurants have quite nailed their menu ergonomics yet. There have been plenty of times where just flicking through the wine list has made me dizzy, disarrayed and in need of a boring old beer. But with places like Laithwaite’s The Arch democratizing wine culture – through their in house bar, with its open-minded and ever-changing menus – the process of purchase and consumption is now more of an open dialogue than ever.
Their winter selection, while paying due respect to the old world offerings that we’ve all come to know, works hard to showcase the fresh-faced, the weird and the wonderful. Standing out amongst their fizz selection are this year’s English Quality Sparkling Wines, from wineries such as Nyetimber, Wyefold, Windsor Great Park and Gusbourne.
If you’re beginning to tire of everyone badgering on about prosecco or that wonderful cava they tasted that one time somewhere in Spain, then you needn’t look any further than our own fair isle. The Nyetimber Class Cuvée NV (RRP £33), for example, has a light floral nose and sharp dry flavour; a great introduction to the world of English fizz. The Windsor Great Park Vineyard, 2014 (RRP £34.99) is another easy drinker, with green fruit flavours and a satisfying smooth finish, while the gift-boxed Gusborne Rosé, 2013 (RRP £40) comes sepia-tinted, smelling like red wine and farms, and carrying a bold, malty flavour. It may be a bit more challenging for conventional palettes, but if you’re keen to experiment it’s enlightening.
This winter Laithwaite’s are also shining a light on Portugal and Eastern Europe. Portuguese wine has long been on my radar as all kinds of awesome, especially their whites and ‘greens’. Laithwaite’s offer the AM Adega de Monção, 2016, Vinho Verde DOC (RRP £9.49) which is sharp, light and floral with pear and melon flavours and a characteristic light fizziness. It’s the sort of wine you drink nice and cold in the summer, and then again in the autumn and winter, if only to remind yourself of just how great the lighter season really was.
On the red side, the Quinta das Mouras Private Selection, 2016, Vinho Regional Alentejano (RRP £8.99) is a great all-rounder; slightly tannic, fruit forward and medium bodied. Show up at your next dinner party with a bottle of this and you will be lifted up, carried out and paraded through the night streets as the in-house harbinger of good times (…you probably won’t, but peers will be appreciative and impressed nonetheless).
The Eastern European offerings really caught my eye; countries such as Moldova, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Romania & Bulgaria are all duly respected and well represented in the winter selection, offering us all the opportunity to break free from the shackles of tradition. Your friends and family wouldn’t dare admit it, but they are bored to death of rioja and sancerre too. But they – like you – are just not sure where else to turn, for which I suggest trying the Lapis Legenda Sauvignon Blanc, 2016 (RRP £6.99) from Codru in Moldova.
Even if you aren’t entirely sure where Moldova is, you’ll be sure where your feelings lie for this sauvignon blanc. One of the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced, its quality far exceeds its price point. For the reds, look no further than the Coline d’Enira, 2012 (RRP £12.99) from Thracian Lowlands in Bulgaria. As a petite verdot, merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon blend, it is smooth, full bodied and really quite fun. Seriously, buy this for when you next have dinner with your relatives. The older generation may turn their nose up at the origin and label, but just watch their faces drop when they take that first satisfying sip.
If you do tend toward the slightly more established wine-producing nations, then the Americas selection has got you covered. The Donna Maria Syrah, 2010 (RRP £14.99) from the Elqui Valley in Chile is awash with velvety, earthy, unfiltered goodness. The Elqui Valley is on the exact opposite pole of Lhasa in Tibet, and is reportedly the geomagnetic centre of Earth. It stands to reason that a valley so steeped in mysticism and spirituality should be delivering such high quality natural wines to our empty, eager glasses.
Venturing further north, Laithwaite’s are clearly keen to showcase some more left-field offerings from the USA, such as the Stone Peak Riesling, 2015 (RRP £14.99) from Washington’s Columbia Valley. If, like me, you’ve only ever associated the US with Napa Valley pinot noir, then you should really cast a wider net; this lightly fizzed, delicate and refreshing white is just great. End of. There are, of course, some wines that are perhaps a bit too left-field; the Saints and Zinners Zinfandel, 2015 (RRP £15.49) – well named as it is – smelt of seafood and tasted of seafood. But depending on how curious your tastebuds are, it could be just be the thing for you.
Now this not all to say that the old world offerings are bad, by any means. The Barbarot, 2011, Rioja DOCa (RRP £19.99) was actually a little bit mind-blowing. Made of a 85% Tempranillo and 15% field blend, it’s laden with layers of complexity, offering a kaleidoscope of tobacco, pepper, plums and red berry flavours, textures and tangents. God knows what’s in that ‘field blend’, but each enigmatic sip is a gift that keeps on giving, like some sort of prog-rock rioja.
Most notably, the Laithwaite’s winter selection offers some amazing value. Most the prices listed here are not that different from the bog standard bottle of Campo Viejo you’d usually pick up on the way home from work. All you need to do is wander a little bit further and have a little bit more fun in the process, and soon your cupboard will be mindfully stocked for the coming festive season. Not to mention you’ll get way more guidance and much better chat than if you had just stopped by your local off license… you know, the one with all the shifty Inbetweeners-esque teenagers hanging around it on a Friday night.
Visit Laithwaite’s Store at Arch 219-22, Stoney St. London, SE1 9AA