Why I’ll always love a wine bar
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Most Londoners I know of a certain age have a Gordon’s Wine Bar story – in the days before Tinder, a claret-fuelled blind date in its Stygian cellar was pretty much a rite of passage. Established in 1890, just down the hill from Charing Cross, it’s the oldest wine bar in London. But I’m afraid its historical significance was lost on us, back then. We knew nothing about cheese and charcuterie. And even less about wine. The reason we all loved Gordon’s was because it was dark and the booze was cheap. Which is all you need in your 20s to have a good time.
I’d all but forgotten about Gordon’s. And one day, as I sat in a fashionable wine bar sipping a Slovenian biodynamic pét-nat, this crepuscular cave resurfaced in my mind. Suddenly I felt a great longing for the kind of crowded, candlelit, cobwebby place where everyone’s too busy getting sozzled to notice if the wine is corked.
So, for the first time in 20 years, I ducked down through Gordon’s narrow doorway. It was even darker and mouldier than I remembered, the vaulted ceiling so low in places I could not stand straight. Candles flickered, lighting faces and bottles and plates of grapes and cheese so as to look almost painterly. The well-thumbed concertina wine list had made a bid to move with the times, with several options flagged “natural” or “vegan” and even one no-alcohol wine. But on the whole it was still set reassuringly to “crowd-pleasing”. I can’t remember when I last saw a Bucks Fizz, Mimosa and Kir Royale on the same list.
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For old time’s sake, I ordered a £7.50 glass of Gordon’s solid own-label Bordeaux Supérieur and sipped it as Tube trains rumbled under my feet. I suspect my fellow guests were more tourists than lovers – but it was hard to see. By the time I left, a queue manned by a bouncer had formed on the pavement outside. The Gordon’s of old would never have been that organised.
From there I headed to Leicester Square and the French wine bar Le Beaujolais – another old haunt I’d neglected far too long. Crammed with five decades of memorabilia, it has a slight air of the grotto about it. The low ceiling is festooned with tankards and men’s ties (cast-offs from the invitation-only member’s club downstairs); the bar is cluttered with drawings and faded photos. The furniture looks like it hasn’t changed since 1972. There’s a tobacco-stained patina to it that can only be acquired through many years of hard use. The Francophile wine list is short and proudly traditional, with lots of unpretentious village wines and vins du pays, and good-value bottles by well-respected big names. It tilts towards burgundy and beaujolais – if you’re serious about getting to know your beaujolais terroirs, they’ve got all 10 cru wines by benchmark producer Henry Fessy.
My friend and I squeezed in between two silver tops talking cricket, and a table of young women in eyeliner and berets, and ordered a very nice 2015 Albert Bichot Pinot Noir and vast plate of cheese. As the wine went down and the noise levels rose, I felt a growing sense of bonhomie – by the time I left, I wanted for nothing except a lit Gauloise.
The Winemakers Club in Farringdon only launched in 2014 but, like all the best wine bars, it feels like it’s been around forever. Housed in the lofty brick arches of the Holborn Viaduct – a wine store since Victorian times – it is short on modern comforts: the chairs are hard and the lighting dim but it’s loved by the trade for its keen prices and unstuffy list of low-intervention wine.
You could subsist all night on the “staff picks” at just £5 a glass – we had a silky Chianti from Tenuta di Carleone, a golden Sin Nombre verdejo from Castilla y León and a pithy orange from Les Tètes in the Loire. It’s in the bottle shop, though, where you may come unstuck – the shelves are lined with interesting small producers, and there are always things open to taste. Corkage is £14 a throw, except between 12pm and 4pm when it’s free. Food is the kind of simple stuff I crave with this kind of wine: duck rillettes, fennel salami, boquerones on toast.
The Winemakers Club is eccentric – a small dog stands guard at the entrance, there’s an upright piano and you have to go outside to find the loo. It’s a little on the cold side (take a coat). But it echoes with good cheer. Put it this way: if you call and I don’t pick up, it could well be ’cos I’m here.