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Focus on trade: The Analyst

Published:  23 July, 2008

Wine lists, like wines, can be balanced but bland, the smack of tokenism as stinging as the mark-up. Balanced the wine list at The Vintners Rooms is not (at least not in any superficial way). But nor is it bland. Better by far to have a distinct identity, personality and quality - and these attributes the list, the wines, the food, the people and the place have in profusion.

Long before the 18th century, when Edinburgh grew knee deep in Claret', wine was landed at Leith; and what was then an auction room for wine merchants is now one of the finest restaurants in Scotland. Although it already had a good reputation, the arrival of two new co-proprietors in the past two years has taken it to a new high. French chef Patrice Ginestrire, formerly of the Hotel du Vin, is as brilliant as he is modest, while Italian front of house and sommelier Silvio Praino is as expert and experienced as his suavity and warmth suggest. The food and the wines reflect this Franco-Italian relationship. Very few restaurateurs or sommeliers selling more than 200 wines would have no Australian Shiraz and no Italian Pinot Grigio; nothing from Argentina or Chile or Eastern Europe; and four times as much Austrian or Northern Rhne white as Australian or Californian Chardonnay. Nor is the bias Old' as distinct from New World'. There is as much red Chassagne-Montrachet and red Sancerre as there is Spanish red and white together. But this is pride rather than prejudice.

The presentation is straightforward, but there are a couple of apparent non-sequiturs. White Burgundies rise through regional and village wines to premiers and grands crus, scaling the dizzy heights of Domaine Leflaive's Chevalier-Montrachet at 220 before tumbling to an Aligot at 27. Sweet wines follow straight on from dry under the national or regional headings. But even in these two cases, one is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, suspecting that there may after all be a certain rationale to the sequence - in the first instance, making sure that Aligot isn't passed over as kir material only, but rather recognised as an interesting wine in its own right (especially from a source such as Lafarge); in the second, rescuing sweeter styles from the seclusion in which they often languish, unloved and unread, at the back of the list.

There is an admirable, carefully chosen, frequently revised selection of house wines by the glass, with bottle prices as low as 12. But it is not only here that there is real value. As at all enlightened establishments, customers are encouraged to trade up by settling for a cash margin rather than stretching for a fixed percentage (elsewhere frequently 300-400%). There are not here bottles of ancient first growths or California cult Cabernets at thousands of pounds a bottle, chosen to add false lustre and retain a specious value whether they sell or not. The price spread is still very wide, rising as high as 750 for 1988 Ptrus and 850 for 1985 Le Pin, but even here the prices are reasonable: the Le Pin is actually cheaper than at certain London wine merchants.

One of the reasons for such favourable prices is the close relationship with Edinburgh's Raeburn Fine Wines, acknowledged in the wine list as the source. Such a narrow supply base would not normally be a recommendation. But when it happens to be one of the most discriminating and enterprising wine merchants in the UK, not only acting as Richards Walford's Scottish agent, but shipping many wines in its own right, then this is reassuring rather than worrying. The prices are particularly sharp where, as in the case of Le Pin, Raeburn/Richards Walford is the exclusive agent or enjoys a privileged position.

Another reason for the moderate prices is that many of the wines come from vintages that represent spectacular value. Rather like classic' when applied to Bordeaux or Burgundy, restaurant vintage' is all too often used as a euphemism for green, lean or mean. But the latter term may also apply to vintages that are excellent in their own way, with wines that are both more affordable and more approachable than those from more celebrated years.

That's not to say that the acknowledged greats are not here too: alongside 1971, 1991 and 1994 Bordeaux or Burgundy are 1988, 1989, 1990 and 2000. There are never enough fully mature wines, but there is a higher proportion of older wines here than usual, stretching back to a ravishingly silky Potinet-Ampeau 1966 Volnay Clos des Chnes (well worth 90).

Even the most cursory run through the list is revealing. Among Champagnes there is an excellent grower - Billiot (though it would be nice to see his prestige cuve Laetitia too) - and the deliciously mature Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1988. Sparkling wines are rather under-represented, with only one Prosecco, but alternative aperitifs are available among the still whites. From the Loire there is avant-garde Eric Morgat (Savennires) as well as standard-bearer Huet (Vouvray), and from the Northern and Southern Rhne fine, mature whites from Domaine des Remizires and Clos des Papes. Grard Gauby's minerally, scintillating 2001 Le Soula (Cteaux de Fenouilldes) rubs shoulders with 1989 Chteau Bouscaut. Chteau Rabaud-Promis is offered in the fresher, lighter 1996 vintage rather than the heavier, often over-rated 1997, while Chteau Climens, which excels even in less rich years, is good value at 60 for the 1991. Among the white and red Burgundies are terrific village wines (such as Rmi Rollin's 1997 Pernand-Vergelesses) as well as the famous grands and premiers crus, while many of the greatest growers are here (Barthod, Chauvenet, Grivot, Jobard, Lafarge, Leflaive, Maume and Raveneau among others). Relatively undervalued Bordeaux (like Chteau des Trois Chardons) stand proudly next to Ausone, Ptrus and Le Pin. Among many recherch wines from Italy are Josko Gravner's Breg, Romano Dalforno's Amarone and the remarkably pure, supremely stylish 1998 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva from Gianfranco Soldera. Alsace's myriad styles are well represented by Rolly-Gassmann; Austria's Federspiel and Smaragd, by Brundlmayer, Knoll, Nikolaihof and FX Pichler; Germany's Kabinett, Sptlese and Auslese by Freiherr Von Heddesdorff, JJ Prm and Weingut Moenchhof. New World producers are fewer but no less distinguished - from Joseph Swan in California, to Neil McCallum (Dry River) in New Zealand and Eben Sadie in South Africa.

A good range of half-bottles rounds off a characterful, carefully compiled, eclectic, even eccentric, list that is balanced on its own successful terms.

The Vintners Rooms, Edinburgh, The Vaults, 87 Giles Street, Leith, Edinburgh; Tel: 0131 554 6767