Vonoteca, London

24 November 2005
Vonoteca, London

You wait for ages for a good wine bar - then two come along together. First Green and Blue Wines, which opened in the summer, in the trendy south-east London neighbourhood of East Dulwich. Then Vinoteca, which opened last month, in even trendier Clerkenwell.

Not that either calls itself a wine bar - that's just too eighties. And not that they're both just a bar, either - they sell wine off premises, too.

This is your wine bar for the noughties - a place where you peruse the shelves before deciding what to drink; and where you can pick up a bottle or two to take home afterwards.

And you won't find the kind of wines that go in your supermarket trolley, either. No, these are all painstakingly sourced from smaller suppliers from lesser-known wine regions, offering the taster something new and exciting.

An off-dry Vouvray from the Loire (Domaine Champelou) was whizzing off the shelves at Green and Blue Wines (until it ran out), while the biggest seller at Vinoteca is an obscure Catalan white made from the Pansablanca grape variety (Parxet's Marques de Alella). "The weirder, the better," says Vinoteca's co-owner Brett Woonton.

Vinoteca opened in September, in St John Street, opposite the famous restaurant of the same name. A joint venture between Woonton, Charlie Young and silent partner Elena Ares, it has already notched up a positive review in Time Out.

Woonton and Young are both ex-wine trade - ex-Liberty Wines, to be precise, hatching the idea for the bar while working together. And both have had previous experience in the hospitality industry, Woonton in his native New Zealand, where he studied hotel management, and later Kensington Place in London; Young on the operations side of things for a Paris-based pub group.

"We'd been talking about doing this for ages," says Woonton. "But what we really like best about it is the informality." Vinoteca is open Monday to Saturday from 11am to 11pm - and that includes the shop.

There are no tablecloths, and there's an open kitchen, where South African-born chef Carol Craddock turns out a short daily-changing menu with dishes such as warm butternut squash, onion, sage and goats' cheese tart (£7.80) and smoked haddock, pea and mint risotto and poached egg (£9.50).

All the dishes are matched with wine, and many customers go for the pairing, reports Woonton. "It works particularly well when people are in a rush." His current favourite is a whole, warmed Vacherin with apple, celery and toast (£24 for four) and a 2003 Coudoulet de Beaucastel Ctes du Rhne from Perrin (£26.50).

There are 220 wines on the list in all, split by country with a tasting note for each wine. "The Chapel Down 2003 Ortega at £4.35 a glass is flying at the moment," says Woonton. "I think customers love seeing wines that they've never seen before and are looking at things other than the noble varieties."

And as the sales of the Catalan white show, Young and Woonton are also pretty partial to Spain right now. Another big seller is an old vine Garnacha from Aragon (2001 Nino Jesus "Estecillo"), which they buy from a small, specialist Spanish outfit called Masterpiece Wines.

They use 10 suppliers, such as Alliance and Astrum, with the lion's share (unsurprisingly) coming from old employer Liberty.

Each wine in the shop comes with a ticket declaring the "drink in" and "drink out" price, with the boys operating cash margins - 25% of the business is driven by shop sales off premises. If the wines costs between £10 and £70 to "drink out" then they charge £13 corkage to "drink in". Anything over £70 to "drink out" gets a maximum corkage of £25 "drink in".

The shop is also used as the wine menu. A staggering 40% of customers using the 50-seat bar first cruise the shelves to choose their wine. The rest use the blackboard, where Woonton and Young chalk up a daily-changing line-up of 20 wines, which are also available by the glass.

What's on the list

  • 2003 Vouvray Sec Vielles Vignes, Domaine Bourillon Doreléans, Loire, France, £16.50
  • 1998 Vin Jaune, Clos de Grives, Jura, France, £44.95
  • 2002 Bandol, Domaine Tempier, Provence, France, £27.70
  • 2004 Yecla Tinto Dominio Espinal Bodega Castaño, Murcia, Spain, £11.95
  • 1995 Priorato, Masia Barril, Spain £23
  • 2004 Sannio Falanghina, Besevo, Campania, Italy £18.60
  • 2004 Kerner Abbazzia di Novacella, Alto Adige, Italy, £25.75
  • 2002 Marsanne, Carlyle, Victoria, Australia, £21.85
  • 2003 Plexus, John Duval, Barossa, Australia, £31
  • 2001 Gewürztraminer, Black Ridge, Central Otago, New Zealand, £26.50
  • 2004 Passo Doble, Masi Tupungato, Argentina, £23.30
  • 2004 Mourvèdre, Fairview, Paarl, South Africa, £18.99
  • 2004 Langenlois Riesling, Loimer, Austria, £21.35

Vinoteca, 7 St John Street, London EC1M 4AA
Tel: 020 7253 8786

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