In the sombre hinterland of London’s South Bank, RSJ is a bright restaurant with a difference. For this is home to one of the great cellars of the world, filled almost exclusively with the fine wines of the Loire.
The award-winning list, with more than 300 bins, is a treasure trove of the richly varied wines of France’s longest river, flowing from the Massif Central to the Atlantic Ocean. Zesty, dry whites bottled a few months after the harvest vie with robust reds that can age magnificently for 20 years and luscious dessert wines that are even better after 50.
The best news is that you do not need a fat wallet to enjoy these delights, for, thanks to a gentle mark-up policy, many are priced at less than £20 a bottle.
This wine adventure began in 1981 when owner Nigel Wilkinson, a Lincolnshire lad, opened the restaurant. He had read a sniffy review somewhere: “They said the wine list wasn’t very impressive, just boring, well-known names. At about this time, I went to the Loire with a friend who introduced me to a couple of wine growers. They said, if you’re interested come back and you can sit on one of the wine-judging juries for Brissac, the Anjou red. So I did.
“After a hard day’s tasting, we all went out to dinner, and the vignerons ordered various wines. The one that stunned me the most, after tasting all those young reds, was an Anjou Blanc Sec from Domaine Richou. It was wonderful, so delicate, so fine. And it made me realise just how smashing these wines really were, wines I didn’t know very well. That got the whole thing going. Since then I’ve built up a network of growers, and I now go back regularly, in a good vintage six times a year.”
How did the customers react to such a specialised list of largely unknown wines? “Well, of course it was a slow process and very much a matter of gentle persuasion. We started off with the usual whites, but made sure that the regular names that people knew – Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé, whatever – were the very best we could find. But it wasn’t long before they discovered the reds, which came as the greatest surprises – as they do to most people still. We quickly put on a Chinon and Saumur-Champigny, and they went down reasonably well.
“Of course, we’ve always had comments about ‘not making decent red wines in the Loire’. Even today, we get those sorts of comments, and certainly people would complain about the lack of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But once they try the wines, they are hooked. Of course, we’ve got a captive audience as while they’re here there’s little they can do to escape – it’s up to us to persuade them.”
Wilkinson explains that there are few wines from elsewhere “because the principle of specialising in one region works best for me. It’s virtually impossible to keep up with the Loire Valley, let alone the rest of France, or the New World for that matter.” He prefers to know the producer and what he or she is doing. “Year on year, not only do you get a different vintage, people decide to do things differently to improve the quality of their wines.”
Although Wilkinson is exceptionally rigorous in his wine-buying, shipping a lot of unusual items direct, he is utterly realistic about the pitfalls. “I think you’ll find”, he cautions, “that although a lot is said and written about new wines, very little changes. It’s not so bad for us because we’ve got a vested interest in attempting to persuade people to try something else, but if left to their own devices most people are reluctant to experiment.
“Given that we probably do 1,000 to 1,200 customers a week, most of those will order a bottle of Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé; still only about 20% might say can I talk to someone about the wine list. The worst people, I have to say, are journalists. I had a write-up in a Sunday national recently, and the correspondent ordered Chablis because he couldn’t pronounce Savennières!”