13 January 2011

n.d.p. in london: terroirs, covent garden

I kind of went about visiting acclaimed London wine bar Terroirs backwards. It's my fault. I'd read about how two years ago, in partnership with leading British natural wine importer Les Caves du Pyrène, Terroirs opened near Charing Cross, and how the restaurant has since proceeded to upend the London dining scene by introducing strange vivid glorious natural wines by the legendary vignerons (mostly French).* So I was duly eager to visit. But since I was staying way east in Hackney, among a bunch of homebody artist folk who seem to avoid central London the way I used to avoid West LA or Marina Del Ray, my friends and I visited first the newer venture by the Terroirs owners, a much smaller more charming restaurant called Brawn on Columbia Road. This may have been the reason I found Terroirs sort of ho-hum in the end. I'd already seen the beautiful evolution of their concept at Brawn.

But the two restaurants, finally, are shooting different fish in different barrels with different guns. Terroirs, comprising two floors of slick natural wine ambassadorship, situated smack in the big overproduced theatre district, is about as subtle as a bazooka. Walking around central London always feels a bit like Attack of the 90ft Restaurants! but nevertheless it was very strange, after passing so much time in pokey Paris natural wine dives, to see in Terroirs the hugely successful Disneyfication of the natural wine movement.

The place was jammed on the Thursday night we dropped in. So we didn't even eat. Just soaked in the scene, and a bottle of 2008 Pierre Frick Alsace Chasselas "Sans Soufre."

I didn't choose it because I'm a fiend for Chasselas. Chasselas is one of the dullest grapes I can think of, actually. Overproductive, watery, light on personality: it is the wallflower grape of Alsatian field blends, continually outshone by the region's star grapes. That is why I chose it, in the same spirit of questing and perversity that inspires one to drink lots of Aligoté, or visit unfamiliar towns in Ohio. Also it was one of the few wines on the list I hadn't seen a zillion times over far cheaper on Paris lists. (Is it just me or are Alsatian wines vastly underrepresented on most Paris wine lists? A subject for further inquiry.) And finally, I wanted to see how well an inexpensive unsulfured wine survived the teensy export process involved in getting it the few miles across the channel to England.**

It was Fricking oxidised, but not undrinkably so. Turbid, tangy, with a slight chewable vitamin thing going on. I guess I'd vaguely hoped that without sulfur, in the hands of an O.G. biodynamic vigneron like Pierre Frick, Chasselas would do a mild-mannered Bruce Banner / Hulk transformation, as happens sometimes.

It was not the case, which probably illustrates the challenges Terroirs manages to surmount, not only in stocking finicky delicate unsulfured wines, but also in reliably drawing massive crowds to lap them up at relatively high prices. This is also why at the end of the day I don't begrudge them the Disneyfication thing one bit. It's true that the grappa selection behind the bar was kind of banker-bait, and the wine list contained far too much overselling and verbiage. But the authenticity of the place is inextricably tied to that of the fantastic vignerons they work with; as long as Metras, Overnoy, Frick, Puzelat, etc. don't change their ways in the face of overwhelming London demand - something that seems about as likely as same vignerons all electing for sex change operations - Terroirs will rightly remain a destination.

As it is, I look forward to booking ahead next time.

* In the same not-uproariously-impressive way that in recent memory it was possible to upend British home cooking by introducing, say, garlic, or spices. C.f. Elizabeth David.

** All friends of wine geeks, n.b.: this is what your infuriating wine geek friend is thinking about, while he isolates himself from conversation for ten solid minutes in furrowed contemplation of a good wine list. Nothing is random! Although, to be fair, I do believe it is probably better and more polite for the wine geek in question to at least make a show of choosing randomly. A sprezzatura thing.

5 William IV St.
London WC2N 4DW
Tube: Charing Cross
Tel: +44 20 7036 0660

Related Links:

N.D.P. in London: 69 Colebrooke Row, Angel

An early review of Terroirs @ JancisRobinson
A review of Terroirs @ TheLondonFoodie
A review of Terroirs @ CataVino
A concise profile of Pierre Frick @ TheWineAnorak

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