Milsom Place is one of my favourite parts of the city centre, a little warren of buildings on different levels, set around several sunny courtyards filled with greenery, which are the perfect spot for lunch on a summer’s day. It’s a little quieter at the moment, now that Hunter and Sons is closed (avid readers will know this used to be my ‘office’ when I got fed up with working at home, so I’m really, really missing them) but to make up for it, there’s a fabulous newcomer in the form of Le Vignoble, an independent wine bar with a twist.
For owners Yannick and Ele, the idea of Le Vignoble is to make wine as accessible as possible, whether you’re an expert boffin or always order the house red. They’re keen to avoid the intimidating vibe that so often leads us non-experts to stick to the top of the list or panic in the supermarket aisles – so rather than having a traditional bar, with a menu running to eight pages of unpronounceable French, at Le Vignoble you serve yourself from Enomatic wine dispensers (pictured above), essentially rather elegant vending machines, from which you can buy a taster (some for as little as 80p), a small glass or a large one, using a prepaid card. It’s a fabulous system that means you can potter around, reading the carefully-written notes on each wine, trying different things out before you decide on your favourite. And of course, if you do want a little advice, there’s a friendly team of staff on hand to share their wisdom.
|A table with a view|
Not only does this ingenious twist mean that you can explore and try before you commit to a proper glass, it also gives the lounge at Le Vignoble a lovely atmosphere. The walls are lined with bottles, twinkling in the soft light of the oil lamps on the tables (each one made with a repurposed miniature Bollinger bottle), and rather than gathering in a crowd around the bar, everyone’s wandering around, chatting and reading and tasting. The interior décor is simple and elegant – soft sage-green chairs, golden wood floors, and big windows giving onto the walkway outside, where you can sit if the weather’s warm.
This week, we did just that, nabbing ourselves a table outside to try Le Vignoble’s foodie menu before a wine-tasting. It’s a small selection, because after all, this place isn’t trying to be a restaurant – but the nibbles on offer are just the thing to go with a few glasses of wine. I particularly enjoyed the tartines on offer (that’s posh French for cheese on toast, by the way), made with a choice of smoked ham, tomme de savoie cheese, a little mustard and rocket, or comté, apricot and pistachio, two fabulous flavour combinations, and the gorgeously gooey baked camembert with rosemary and Bertinet sourdough to scoop it up. There’s also a cheeseboard and a charcuterie board on offer (we tried the latter, which was piled high with choice cuts and tiny sharp cornichons) as well as smaller snacks like olives, nuts and popcorn. Basically, it’s the perfect menu for that particular type of peckishness one gets when drinking wine, making it all too easy to while away an afternoon or an evening at Le Vignoble.
|Baked camembert with a glass of red – is there anything better?|
Suitably fuelled up, we took a seat inside for the main event of the evening, a tasting with the Azores Wine Company. The Azores is an archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, comprising nine volcanic islands, including Pico, where the Azores Wine Company is based. It’s a rather unique spot for wine-growing, as co-founder Antonio explained to us – steep mountainous islands like Pico usually have a ‘cloud cap’ on their peaks, meaning that for vines to grow in the sunshine, they need to be right on the coast – as little as 50m away from the sea, in the case of some of their vines. In the Azores, it’s said that the best vineyard is one ‘where you can hear the crabs singing’. Combined with the poor volcanic soil – the vines are planted in cracks in the ‘mother rock’, so their roots can seek out water and nutrients underneath – it makes for a very singular terroir, and correspondingly singular wines.
I’ve been to a fair few wine tastings, but I can honestly say I’ve never tried wines quite like these. The first white on our agenda, Verdelho o Original Branco, is made with a very old grape variety native to the Azores, hence the ‘original’ part of the name. It was incredibly fresh and mineral, making me think of green apples and unripe strawberries, and a little briny – which I hesitate to say, because it sounds horrible, but it’s just a hint and it really works. The wine also smelled like the sea to me, making me think of the incredibly clean, fresh air you get on the coast, the kind of air that feels like it’s doing you good.
|Verdelho o Original|
We tried a few more whites, all a little different from each other and totally unique from what usually comes to mind when you picture a white wine. The fourth, Terrantez Do Pico, was particularly fascinating as it’s made with a variety of grape that the Azores Wine Company has helped to bring back from the brink of extinction. It’s a fussy, fragile variety that must be carefully looked after, picked at just the right time, and checked by hand to remove any rotten grapes (thin skins mean it’s easy for rot to take hold), but worth it for a lovely wine full of texture and complexity.
Finally, we ended with a couple of reds, both of which were very unusual – but the sixth and final wine was my particular favourite. In the late nineteenth century, winemaking all over Europe was devastated by phylloxera, a pest that decimated the native vines. Hybridisation with American vines was the only way to beat phylloxera, and so on the Azores (and other locations), a hybrid variety named Isabella was planted, which is the variety that Antonio and his partners have revived to make this wine. Wine made with this hybrid is technically illegal in the EU (it’s complicated, but it all dates back to a French law which forbade it on the grounds that it was ‘offensive to the palate’ – very French), hence why the label bears the word ‘Isabella’ heavily crossed out in red pen, and the name ‘a Proibidia’- ‘the forbidden one’. It also bears the stamp ‘autorizado con cortes’, or ‘authorised with cuts’, a cheeky reference to Portugual’s former dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. All I can say is, I’m clearly not cut out to be a French wine expert, because I loved it – it has a gorgeous, perfumed nose, and tastes like wild strawberries, picked from the hedgerows while they’re still warm from the sun.
|The forbidden wine…|
We had a fantastic evening at Le Vignoble – the food was gorgeous, and the wine-tasting was fascinating, thanks to some truly unique wines and Antonio’s knowledge, passion and charm. It was the first winemaker event for Le Vignoble in their new Bath location, but they have lots more planned, and if the rest are going to be like this, I’ll definitely be back.