London restaurants have never had a wider range of wines from every imaginable part of the globe — China, Serbia and even Canada all have a vinous presence. There is no shortage of classic wine lists either, laden with Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy from great vintages, all combining to make London the world’s wine Mecca. On top of this, the Coravin wine system means a glass can now be extracted without exposing the rest of the bottle to the air. What is less spoken about is that when it comes to restaurant wine prices, London is becoming the rip-off capital of the wine world. Even half-decent wines are unaffordable to most diners. The falling pound is also going to hit wine lovers as early as next year.
One manager of a Michelin-starred restaurant in the West End told me recently that he had noticed that since earlier this year, top restaurants have quietly increased their margins: where once it was three times the retail price, now it’s up to four times. That is bad enough, but don’t forget the added 12.5 per cent service charge, which is now equivalent to half the wholesale price of the bottle. Sommeliers don’t seem to think this is a problem, with the usual line being that extortionate wine prices keeps the food affordable, though in one case it prompted a Gallic shrug and ‘This is Mayfair.’
Celebrity chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton all play this game. The Marcus Restaurant usually marks wine up nearly four times while Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck can sometimes multiply theirs by five — one Italian Super Tuscan, which retails around £150, is on their list for more than £800. Try to avoid the Cheval Blanc ’98, too — it retails for less than £500 but here it is more than £2,000 with service. Admittedly, there are also some anomalies. They sell at least one Vosne Romanée for almost the same as the retail price. Nobu is one of the worst offenders, but nothing comes close though to Jason Atherton’s Social Wine and Tapas, where Château des Fargues 1998 (an average Sauternes from a below-average vintage) costs £460 (plus service) when it retails for less than £50 a bottle. In this case, they are playing on the fact that the family that produce the wine used to own Château d’Yquem, but for that price you should get the real deal.
There must be some people who are indifferent to wine and champagne prices, especially if they have a companion they wish to impress, but those who know about wine are on the whole not gullible fools. I don’t mind spending £50 or £60 for a bottle that might retail for £30 or £40, but the way things stand all you are getting is something costing less than £15.
There have always been a handful of restaurants that offer good value in their pricing, such as Andrew Edmunds and 10 Greek St in Soho or the Ledbury in Notting Hill, but they are in the minority. I would have mentioned the Square too, but it has just been taken over by the Marc group, which has some of the finest wine lists on the planet, but also the priciest.
Recently though, a number of restaurants have introduced a policy of offering excellent value wines. Noble Rot, an atmospheric wine bar and bistro in Bloomsbury, has an outstanding list of quality wines at modest prices. Impressive white Burgundies from notable vintages are available for around £55 to £70, while there is a strong selection of the very best ‘second wines’ of Bordeaux for similar amounts. Two other recent arrivals with an emphasis on wine as well as fine food are Bonhams Restaurant and the Portland, both of which gained Michelin stars in their first year of opening. One Singaporean restaurateur came into the Portland and drank the last remaining three bottles of Barolo on the list because they were cheaper than the duty he would have had to pay to take them home.
Bonhams Restaurant has a stock of more than 2,000 wines, managed by Richard Harvey. They focus on great vintage wines at near-retail prices, such as Château Lynch Bages 1985 at £180 or the iconic 1990 vintage of Château Pontet-Canet for £130. So what can be done? Probably nothing except find out if your favourite restaurant offers corkage or do what wine lovers have always done — buy whatever you can afford from a good wine merchant and drink it at home with friends.