I’d heard so much from friends about Terroirs, the ‘natural’ wine bar in London’s West End we had already built up expectations that we would get our wine bar fix and a genuinely wholesome and stimulating experience.
We are somewhat deprived of wine bars in our hometown, Singapore; well anything that you would really say is a true wine bar, although the recently opened Taberna www.taberna.sg raises the bar considerably.
Part of the problem is the definition of a wine bar is somewhat subjective and blurred between casual restaurant/bistro with a wine bent, and wine being the driver with a sufficient offering of food to soak up the wine. Adding to the confusion, whilst many establishments might offer an environment for pleasurable compotation, few have the down to earth ambience and real mojo of a genuine wine bar.
And that’s what defines a true wine bar; are they truly serious about their wine selection and go to the ends of the vinous earth to bring you the best of what their theme or regional premise is. The offerings need not be an encyclopaedia of the wine world. Personally I prefer eclectic selections with a multitude of wines by the glass, at any price point. Also, older wines and flights or mini verticals of individual wines served in tasting portions. Even better, big bottles (magnums) liberated at the optimum time and available by the glass, all possible these days with winesave, http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/buying-wine/must-have-wine-accessory-of-the-year/
We met up with my wine-barfly friend Sacha and his wife Wendy for an early dinner as Terroirs is one of their favourite haunts. I was instantly struck by the cosy, rustic atmosphere, classic French bistro chairs and tightly packed tables with a small landing area with tables, then dropping down to a large bar ringed with table settings, spreading out to more intimate corners. There is also a recently opened basement dining area complete with separate kitchen but I did not have a chance to venture down for a look.
Following our hosts well-seasoned knowledge of the establishment, we let him order the food, which is best shared as most are small dishes, heading straight in to a selection of charcuterie; Saucisson Noir de Bigorre from the Pyrenees, Carlo Pieri Finocchiona from Tuscany, Piero Montali Prosciutto de Parma Riserva from Emilia-Romagna, Duck Rillettes and Pork and Pistachio Terrine, served with endless crusty sourdough baguette, indeed the bread just keeps coming and I presume the theory is to soak up the copious amounts of wine one should be consuming.
I chose a St Aubin 2008 from Yves-Marc Colin, which was zinging with lemon and minerals, a perfect counterbalance to the fattiness of the meats but also picking up on the smoky flavours; tantalizing our palates wonderfully. I have to say I am a champion of St Aubin, a most underrated appellation, having been the importer for Marc Colin (senior) some 20 years ago, and introducing it to Australia. In its youth St Aubin behaves like Chablis, all minerally, salty, lemon-zesty, tight and nervy, yet with bottle age they build texture and can out-class Chassagne-Montrachet. My favourite vineyard in the appellation is ‘en Remilly’ 1er Cru, which backs on to Le Montrachet and has a distinctly accentuated chalky, minerality with a taught backbone that some might find a little too sauvage.
We continued with small plates; Cantabrian Anchovies with shallots and butter, Endive and Gorgonzola and spiced walnuts, Snails with wild mushrooms, garlic and parsley, Clams with coriander and lemon, potted shrimps on toast, Lincolnshire Smoked Eel with bacon, horseradish and crepe parmentier, and whole Dorset Crab with mayonnaise.
This was in fact more than sufficient for the five of us to graze our way through, although I was eyeballing the four main course offerings which included hearty dishes; Pot Roast Qual, violet artichokes and pancetta and gremolata, or Ox Tangue, Ham Hock, spring vegetables and pearly barley.
We washed down our small plates with a totally luscious Morgon Côte de Py 2009 from the legendary Jean Foillard, incredibly approachable already with caressing layers of explosive juicy red cherries and a smoky, flintiness infused throughout the wine, from the high magnesium in these ancient volcanic and decomposed schist soils, and that’s what you call terroir – the wine yelling out I am from Beaujolais and there’s nothing else like it. Two bottles of this disappeared alarmingly fast leaving a grin of satisfaction, although a little guilt of the injustice we had done drinking it so early in its probably 40 year plus life span.
We nibbled our way through a cheese platter to finish and were all done by 8pm, although I could have easily sat there for longer nursing an Armagnac.
The place was beginning to bustle now and our French waiter, who had a served us with particular alacrity and friendliness throughout was now under a fair bit of pressure, but she seemed to just slip in to top gear, dispensing with the chatter and her French brevity kicked in as she dealt with an incoming tide of people.
We escaped as the place started to really hum and one could sense that everyone here was completely at home and all regulars, or people being initiated by loyal groupies of how to drink, and behave – naturally.
Which brings me to Terroirs wine theme; natural wines, of which I have heard disparaging remarks from detractors, along the lines of oxidized and murky, hazy wines. Without labouring the point, I did not sense any evangelistic organic movement here, rather just a definite understanding of what real wine is all about and that in itself simply means that all of the wines on the list come from organic and biodynamic practitioners. And yes most will be wild yeast fermented; unfiltered and a little oxidative winemaking never hurt anyone. Beside’s what’s wrong with wine that hasn’t been artificially stripped or synthesized and has a whole lot of character, redolent in minerals and a ‘sense of place’ – splendid in its terroir.
The wine list a Terroirs is comprehensive and whilst there is certainly plenty of scope for discovery here, there being many producers and even regions that I knew little about, not all is obscure with familiar, iconic names from the French and Italian dominant selection.
I would suggest that you are in good hands if you leave it up to the staff here to recommend wines, particularly those by the glass, and it is certainly a good place to learn more of appellations and individual wines from the most humble sources. Which is exactly what we did the following evening when I returned with another wandering palate, Alistair Scott, for a drink after his show around 10pm, when the place was pumping with the after theatre crowd. Thirsty, hungry, intellectually charged, conversational people make for a good ambience.
The driver of the wine selection is Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene, who is a partner in Terroirs and supply around 90% of the wines. Wregg has a formidable reputation amongst the UK’s restaurateurs and sommeliers for championing affordable, supremely drinkable current drinking wines that restaurants can offer at reasonable prices, as well as providing to appreciative wine enthusiasts through their retail outlet and online www.lescaves.co.uk
In summary, Terroirs is one of the best, genuine wine bar experiences I have had in memory. It is the quintessential wine bar in the epicentre of the world’s most dynamic wine market, London.
Putting this in to perspective, it’s been a long time between drinks since the days of Don Hewitson’s ‘Cork n Bottle’ and the renaissance of the wine bar scene he championed in the 70s; the London wine bar scene has been notably pedestrian for the past decade or more with too many pseudo wine bars (often pubs attempting to attract a more sophisticated crowd) serving up ordinary wine.
I get the overall sense there is a groundswell in wine bar scene in London moreover, further evidence the dining culture, quality of food and dynamism in London restaurants is now rivalling Paris.
Terroirs is located at 5 William IV Street, London WC2, adjacent to Charring Cross Station and a short stroll from Trafalgar Square or the Savoy Hotel, and in the heart of the theatre district. It is open from midday through to 11pm with a reduced bar snacks menu between 3.30 and 5.30pm, making it a perfect option for pre and post theatre dining.
It is advisable to book Ph 020-7036 0660 www.terroirswinebar.com