WineChap: Burgundy is the new Claret (abandoning Aquitaine)


This time WineChap breaks the first rule of Wine Club and reveals where to find the ultimate Claret in London (for the ultimate price)

Everyone who likes to think they know about wine concurs that “new” Spain is the new Portugal (which was, of course, the new Austria a couple of years ago), or at least accepts that the point is arguable at dinner parties with those who might care. More of this at a future date – in case you are not convinced.  

Meanwhile, at the premium end of the market, an experience recently at The Paradise in Kensal Green leads me to posit contraversially that old Bordeaux is the new Burgundy, or failing that: Burgundy is the new Claret. Before you give up on this article and click on to something less esoteric (there is bound to be a piece on stock prices nearby), indulge me for one more paragraph to present the case.

English with a French accent is irrevocably sexy, the reverse is depressingly contraceptive. It’s a mystery. Similarly, the French could smoke in a creche or maternity ward and look chic and sophisticated, but in England sparking up anywhere is an ever more grimy, furtive activity. 

But the greatest difference between our two nations is which wine we prefer to accompany beef. Whenever an Englishman drinks Bordeaux, he does so defiantly, in the spirit of Henry V, Drake and Churchill, and refers to it by a pet name – Claret – to remind the world about the privileged relationship that still exists, and that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s rule was a scant 800-years past. 

When drunk proudly on Sunday afternoon with our national dish – roast rib of beef – the Union attains the level of sacrament. Meanwhile the French, waving the standard with classic Beouff Bourgignon, have traditionally chosen Burgundy to pair with the equivalent dish. In his seminal cookbook, Matching Food & Wine, Le Gavroche’s Michel Roux Jr recommends an Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanee (Cros-Parentoux 1993) with roast beef (note this is not tartare or a slow braise with its different protein structures but the same dish with a Gallic/garlic twist). 

Our tastes are different, like chalk and chervil. 

The French like their wines youthful, crunchy, and often seem amused by the English tendency to cellar everything until the fruit is barely a chalky echo. Reciprocally, when I started in the wine trade 12 years ago, I recall being astonished by a French couple who purchased a magnum of Ducru Beaucaillou ‘98 (shipped from the chateau only weeks previously) to drink that very evening.  

I doubt many English clients who bought the same wine – especially in slower-ageing larger format bottles – have pulled many corks even today. However, the traditional “English palate” can be explained by observing the differences in the wine we drank previously and today, and by concluding that perhaps preferences either side of the Channel are reconcilable.

We are in the middle of a splendidly lacklustre Bordeaux en primeur campaign, so it’s timely to remember that barely a quarter of a century ago it was the merchants who bought all the wines and kept them, rather than acting as temporary conduits for cityfolk looking to expand their alternative asset portfolio. Fewer people enjoyed fine wine and the vintages drunk (almost exclusively Claret) were older, having been stored in cellars in Bristol, St James’s, and the north, and released to a privileged section of society with some bottle age. 

The muted fruit of maturing Bordeaux – when the dominant blackcurrant and cassis of the young Cabernet has softened, made in an era of more gentle, less fruit-driven, less extracted, less alcoholic style of winemaking – is not so very different from many Burgundies today. In fact, I would argue that a recently enjoyed 1982 Chateau Batailley, which inspired these musings; graceful, modulated, harmonious and 12.5%, is more akin to Vosne Romanee than 15% 2009 Troplong Mondot. 

Bordeaux is no longer Claret so perhaps the English should look to Burgundy to bridge the gap and the Channel.

The recommendations below are given grudgingly as the wines are in very limitied quantities and rarely replaceable at the price – every bottle you drink is one less for me. I also feel that alerting civilians to these winelists puts me in the same category as ex-Special Forces soldiers who write books about the SAS. It just isn’t done. The first rule of mature affordable Claret lists is you do not talk about them etc. 

Anyway, here they are, the best places in London to drink old Bordeaux more reasonably. NB the lack of contact details is deliberate – don’t expect everything on a plate.

Rex Whistler (at The Tate) – about to close down for a major refurbishment so hopefully you will be too late to avail yourself of winebuyer Hamish Anderson’s astonishing selection of rare, older wines. The restaurant was looking a little dated – the prices spectacularly so – please don’t let the latter change.

Andrew Edmunds – impossible to concentrate on your date as you try to guzzle as many of the venerable bargains on the winelist. A full bottle of 1990 Sauternes (at £50!) a few years back between two with the cheese course was just greedy. To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc “I forget the name of the girl; but the wine … was Giraud” 

The White Horse (Sloaney Pony) – savvy regulars have long enjoyed the “under the counter” Claret selection, most bought at auction and sold on at practically mates’ rates. Availability always changing, sometimes dwindling, go now and don’t say it was me who told you.

The Garrick – Best winelist of all London’s Gentlemen’s clubs – members only of course and maintains its refreshingly exclusive credentials “that it would be better that 10 unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted”. 

Bob Bob Ricard – WineChap had a hand in the creation of the original fine wine list here. Everything over £100 attracts a straight cash margin on top of the restaurant’s buying price, making the top end Bordeaux cheaper than available in some shops. You can also gleefully compare prices with nearby restaurants – which are listed alongside Bob’s rates.  

The Paradise – Wikipedia definition of unexpected. ‘66 Chateau Batailley on Kilburn Lane? Or even the ‘82 which inspired this piece? Maybe even finish dinner/breakfast with a youthful 1/2 of Chateau d’Yquem ‘05… Well why not?