Our UK Correspondent, Alistair Scott, grapples with tasting protocol, wine-voyeurism and ravaging the credit card at, The Sampler, the dynamic north London wine merchant fast-making a name for itself for seducing palates on and off the premises.
Sip, spit or slurp? Difficult decisions at The Sampler
So does one sip, spit or slurp? The etiquette for wine tastings in usually pretty clear – rows of glasses, big buckets and lots of spit. But The Sampler presents a challenge. You are faced with a possible 80 wines to taste, all looking very appealing and mostly very tasty.
But this is a shop, rather than an academic tasting, so the rules are unclear. The key question may be, do you want to walk out under your own steam or be carried out feet first? I guess you could show some restraint but believe me, it’s very difficult.
The Sampler is an award winning wine-merchant based in north London in chic-ish Islington, on Upper Street, home to boutiques, eateries and quite a lot of City and media types.
The shop itself is not the largest of wine merchants but has a pretty wide selection and most appealingly that selection seems to be driven by a real interest in taste rather than brand. There are proportionately far fewer ‘easy’ wines on the shelves and many names that are new to an amateur such as your correspondent.
A look at the website (www.thesampler.co.uk) tells you that although there are 161 Bordeaux available (including 3 vintages of Beychevelle and 4 of Calon Segur for example), there are also wines from Rumania, Moldova, Ukraine and even 5 from England, God bless us.
That said, there is a new shop opening in even-better-heeled Kensington very shortly and it will be interesting to see whether the team feel the need to increase the number of high-end bragging type premier crus and first growths to keep the punters happy.
Some wines on the shop floor come in quite small quantities, perhaps an odd case or two of something interesting found at auction – I’m pretty sure I was recently outbid at Bonham’s for several Bandol’s from the excellent Domaine Tempier now smiling smugly at me from the middle of the Sampler floor.
It might sometimes be a good idea if you see a wine you like to grab what you think you need as they don’t always reappear, such as a tasty Huia Pinot Gris from New Zealand which recently flitted in and then flitted out. But if you cannot see a favourite, the staff will certainly have some strong suggestions for alternatives based on a very good understanding of the range.
But let me be clear. The Sampler can be a dangerous place. You might, for example, wander in on an early Saturday afternoon looking for nothing special, maybe a bottle of something interesting and reasonable for dinner that night. And then you see the machines. There are ten of them, holding eight bottles each…some dedicated to whites (these are sensibly nearest the door) and grouped by varietal – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling/ stickies.
Further into the shop are the reds – shiraz, Italians etc – and then the Icon case…So you sidle up to the counter, get a credit card type piece of plastic with some credit on, and start with the tasting.
You can opt for different sized helpings – a squirt, a slug or a proper half-glass full. So you have a couple of samples, and they are good, so a couple more, and you reload the credit and then before you know it you are looking into the eyes of the Icon machine, with wines that you will probably never see again unless you’re in the business or seriously well off.
A small squirt may be £4 or even £10 but then, at least you’re not buying the bottle and you will be able casually to drop into wine-snob conversation your informed views on La Bota Cream Sherry (only £93 for a teeny bottle), Screaming Eagle or the 1987 Hill of Grace.
So you try one, and so it goes. Saturday afternoon has evaporated, as has the grocery money and your memory of what you were meant to buy, but you can float home knowing that somehow life seems better.
To give a flavour of the Sampler experience, wines tried on a recent visit included:
Overnoy Arbois Savagnin 2000, a way off-piste wine from Jura rightly described in the very helpful tasting notes as a marmite wine – one to hate or love. Stinky, sour apples and shades of sherry.
Dauvissat Vaillons Chablis 2008, minerality and clean zippy acidity balanced with fruit…£1.40 a squirt.
OTU Sauvignon Blanc 2009, from New Zealand, a slightly surprising find in North London and well known to The Wandering Palate (http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/2009/mhw-OTU-Sauvignon-Blanc-2007.php) at 46p a squirt
A stunningly beautiful Henri Bourgeois Chene Sancerre 2002, rich, full mouth feel, honey and melon, far removed from the normal sauvignon blanc experience, worth every penny of the £2.38 a squirt…
Followed by an equally lovely Thanisch Berncasteler Doctor Auslese 2007, loads of sweet fruit, peaches and strawberries, but surprisingly light, not at all goopy, a long finish and £45 the bottle.
Then one realizes the danger of trying too many wines in quick succession as the wine next to the Thanisch, the very respectable Wild Earth Riesling 2008 at a quarter of the price, suffered horribly by comparison, seeming unfairly thin and acidic.
Then tempted by the Icon case before hitting the lesser reds, I tried a 1955 (yes, 55 years old) Lynch Bages. The nose was unappealing from my perspective, seeming very acidic but the taste was still lovely – leather, biltong, a touch of damson, £10 for a squirt – not an everyday experience.
Then a 1989 Leoville Poyferre, lovely aromatic nose with darker berry fruit and some tobacco but slightly disappointing in the mouth, quite light and drying…not quite for me but better than the 1986 in another machine, which still seems very tannic but offering little on the palate.
Much preferred was Bruno Clair Chambolle Musigny 2005, a lovely fresh and still very young pinot, followed by the intriguing funky cherry and chalk flavours of a Foillard 3.14 Morgon 2006 which shows the real possibilities of the Gamay.
To finish a marmalade-laden Arvay Tokaji 5 Putts 2002 and a figgy, spicy Pertaringa Full Fronti Muscat which stuck to my beard for the rest of the night.
So I bade farewell to the two Singaporean girls working through the Icon case as part of their wine education, bought some of the Foillard, a Bota Manzanilla 22 and a lovely Arca Nova vinho verde 2009, an excellent recommendation from the staff, and weaved my way back down Upper Street, a poorer but happier man.
But then an email arrives, the regular chatty newsletter from proprietor Jamie which might cover everything from the trout season to the new building works, and he mentions some of the new wines coming on sample shortly, and you know you are doomed.
By comparison to the centuries-old, crusty wine merchants iconographic with the UK wine trade, this is a relatively brand-new wine merchant. Established in 2006 by Dawn and Jamie Hutchinson, it has fast-built a reputation centred on a unique approach of having 80 wines available by the glass at all times, facilitated by a bank of eneomatic machines – computerized card access allowing one to help yourself to an intriguing/seducing range of wines. There is also a strong ideology here “To make wine un-elitist and fun” and for consumers to trust their own palate more, and taste the wine, before buying, themselves. And the range on tasting is eclectic to say the least moreover, has a lot of older vintages/off vintages and curios to keep the most ardent wine buff amused.
They also have some 1500 labels listed in their online catalogue and the store itself is an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of wine goodies. Although this is very much a ‘local’ wine store (they are about to open in South Kensington) , no matter where you are on the planet, you would be well-served by signing up on their mailing lists for Jamie’s regular newsletter, always amusing and full of stimulating wine ideas. This establishment has already garnered many awards for “Best Independent Wine Merchant” from Decanter and The International Wine Challenge, and any wine shop that has a dog mascot that welcomes you as you come in gets my nod. Jancis Robinson MW has said nice things about the Sampler, listing it amongst her “Exceptional Wine Stores” in the UK.
The Sampler Islington
266 Upper Street
London N1 2UQ
Tel. +44 207 226 9500
Fax +44 207 226 6555
The Sampler South Kensington
35 Thurloe Place,
London SW7 2HJ
Tel: +44 207 225 5091