Guerrilla wine sellers, Terroirs, Real Wine and Victoria Moore
The tastemakers of Terroirs
Victoria Moore, ES Magazine 12.06.09
A few months ago, a new restaurant opened off the Strand that is quietly revolutionising how we all drink. Winebuyers, writers, and sommeliers flock to Terroirs to sample its extensive, eccentric list of vintages.
Guerrilla wine sellers Eric Narioo and Doug Wregg share the secrets of their cellar with Victoria Moore
A friend often arrives at my flat and asks for a ‘stimulating’ glass of wine. I know what he means: a drink that engages like a good conversation, not one that simply fills a liquid gap like a crackly radio station quenching the silence. I share this desire to drink well and it can sometimes make me pretty grumpy about going out. Yes, there are moments when I want nothing more than to dive into a lake of icy Sauvignon Blanc (or even Pinot Grigio), but finding a glass of something that does more than sluice alcohol, that you want to sip not gollop, with character, with soul, in a pub or wine bar? There aren’t many places where you can do that.
And then, a few months ago, a French drinking spot called Terroirs opened,unpromisingly, in a converted Davy’s wine bar on William IV Street, just behind the Strand. In theory the place should scare the bejesus out of a generation of Londoners weaned on technically correct but totally lobotomised supermarket wines sold on three-for-two deals. For a start, I write about wine for a living and even I can barely pronounce the names of the 26 wines (five sparkling, ten white, ten red, one rosé) sold by the 175ml glass or 500ml pot - a Terras Gauda O Rosal, a beautifully peachy Albariño from the lovely 2008 vintage from the tongue-twisting Rias Baixas, anyone?
More pertinently, many of these would be sent straight back untried in any other bar or restaurant. Some are cloudy, some are feral, some are cloudy and feral, some are just what my mother would call downright odd. ‘This smells of chicken liver!’ shrieked a friend when I bought her a glass of Olivier Cousin Grolleau Le Cousin Rouge Vieille Vigne 2007, before tucking in with gusto when her bone marrow and truffle on toast arrived, and she found the two sat together beautifully.
‘We knew we had to be quite conservative with the wines by the glass,’ says Eric Narioo (I think he means his idea of conservative). Narioo, a former rugby-playing Frenchman, is one of the founders, and now le grand fromage and main buyer for Les Caves de Pyrène, a wine importer based in Surrey that part-owns Terroirs and is its principal wine supplier. ‘But what has been surprising us is that people have been coming in and asking for our funkiest, most outlandish wine. They want to be challenged, they want to try something new.’
Hence a sparkling Trebbiano Bianco from the Italian producer Camillo Donati that tastes like cider crossed with fresh grass cuttings and is perfectly suited to a muggy summer’s day. And a rough but exhilarating ‘harvest red’ called Cuvée d’Octobre after the month in which it was bottled, indecently early, for consumption by the workers and that needs to be drunk refreshingly chilled. There is even a Pinot Grigio on the list but it’s pale amber rather than white (Pinot Grigio grapes have bronze, not white skins).
Such blessed individuality means that for those who work close to the wine and restaurant trades, Terroirs has become a very bad place in which to conduct an affair. It’s always rammed with people you know and who have some bearing on the way others drink. ‘I’ve seen Nick Lander [the FT’s restaurant critic and husband of wine doyenne Jancis Robinson] in there six times now,’ says a colleague. ‘A couple of wine writers practically have their own tables they’re here so often, and on one evening the general manager of L’Atelier popped in for a glass with three of his waiters - a quiet night there, one presumes…’
Simon Baile, the new owner of Oddbins, is also a fan. He used to work with Narioo and the Les Caves de Pyrène ethos is an evident influence on his determination to bring more genuine ‘odd bins’ and unusual wines into the high street chain.
The great joy to me is not that it attracts wine nuts but that non-fanatics love these wines, too. There is an idea - peddled and promoted by the supermarkets and bar chains - that what customers want is bland consistency. And so, by and large, that is what they feed us, creating a vicious circle of dull expectation and supply. Narioo refutes the idea that this is how we have to drink. ‘I think maybe some wine buyers and sommeliers are too conservative. It can be patronising. It reminds me of when the BBC decides some programmes are too complicated for the viewer. We don’t need to give people baby food all the time.’
Les Caves de Pyrène has become a sort of guerrilla force for the reintroduction of what they call ‘natural’ wines - those that are only lightly treated, may be organically or biodynamically grown, perhaps unfiltered, only lightly fined, and are not even always treated with sulphur, which is used as a preservative. Set up in 1988, by Narioo and three others (all of whom still work for the company in some capacity), Les Caves de Pyrène originally operated a list of 100 or so wines out of the back of a van. The first was a Jurançon, from Narioo’s native southwest France - he comes from a long line of sons of the soil. Their list is now more like a telephone directory, and you don’t just find their wines in Terroirs. They have a shop in Artington, near Guildford, and supply independent retailers as well as restaurants and bars all over the country. You may have drunk one of their wines at Wild Honey, Corrigan’s of Mayfair or the Anchor & Hope pub on The Cut.
It’s Narioo whose flair and personal taste drive the personality of Les Caves de Pyrène’s list. He appears to have a genius for choosing wine which he does by the quite straightforward method of buying what he likes. ‘It’s very simple. Forget about flavours, the main thing is: is it alive? There’s something essential about the energy of a good wine that you can tap straight into. It reaches down to your stomach. It’s something you want to drink. Your generation, my generation, has been formatted to drink only what we know, and what we know has become very insipid. In the last 25 years we’ve become chemists about wine - we’ve discovered equipment, selection of yeasts, adding acid, taking alcohol and we’ve cleaned up and made the wine what we think it ought to be. In the process, we’ve taken it away from where it comes from. But people are starting to go back now to real wine.’
A good real wine is comfortable in its own skin. It has a settling quality that persuades you to sip and listen to it. But sometimes there’s a problem. The authenticity and lack of processing mean these wines are unpredictable: one bottle on one day may be pure and joyous, another on another can just, somehow, have lost it, miss the point, and fail to deliver. This is a chance you have to take if you want to break out of the comfort zone of tedious predictability and have a drinking experience. But is it a reasonable ask of a paying customer?
Doug Wregg, an Oxford English graduate and novelist manqué who says he ‘drifted’ into wine via a stint working first in his mother’s and later in other restaurants, has been with the company since 1996 and is now its sales and marketing director, defends the fluctuation with a quote. ‘WC Fields said: “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. Imagine waking up in the morning and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all day.” Well, imagine tasting a wine and knowing that’s as good as it will get. Consistency gives a lowest common denominator of pleasure. Natural wines are like sulky lovers that you sometimes want to tell quite sharply to come out of their shell, and when they do they’re beautiful.’
It certainly transforms wine drinking into an adventure. Wregg, whose intelligent, literary and sometimes verging on the pleasingly over-the-top prose illuminates Les Caves de Pyrène’s and Terroirs’ wine lists, says he recently tried one of Les Caves de Pyrène’s latest buys - a Chenin Blanc from the Aveyron called Le Petit Curieux. Narioo had bought half the production, which amounted to a mere 300 bottles (another feature of Les Caves de Pyrène is that they are willing and able to buy in ludicrously tiny quantities, and often do). ‘I’m loving this craziness. Eric brought it back from the Aveyron. He’d asked the producer what he was going to do with it. The producer said, “Well, it’s in barrel, I suppose I could bottle it.” So he did, without sulphuring or fining it, as Eric asked. It was a beautiful, pure style, a little bit sweet but with searing acidity and a sort of sweet-sour honey, pineapply taste. I tried it and thought it an acquired taste but lovely. Then I ordered a bottle three weeks later and thought, “It’s fizzing.” I tried it and it was absolutely phenomenal. It had become a bone-dry sparkling wine. I brought a few bottles home and every time I have it it’s fizzing away nicely, but drier and drier and drier. It’s done a secondary fermentation in the bottle so my tasting note on the wine list is now completely wrong. But it tastes brilliant.’
So, you might say that drinking a Caves de Pyrène wine demands a certain level of trust, a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to be taken by the hand and led God knows where, into the unknown.
It isn’t always a rewarding journey. I didn’t go for a Malbec-Gamay I tasted at Terroirs recently. I also find a number of their wines so, frankly, peculiar (and not funny-peculiar) or insanely off-piste that one sip is enough; I don’t want to drink them. It’s disappointing, too, when you try a wine that because it isn’t on song has become so-whatish. But these are risks I would take over boredom any day.