Interview: Philippe Larue, wine merchant

NEXT time you are savouring a robust artisanal bottle of red or crisp, white thirst-quencher with your restaurant meal, don’t worry if there’s a suave Frenchman eyeing your every sip.

It’s probably wine merchant Philippe Larue, partner with L’Art du Vin, which supplies some of Scotland’s top restaurants and bars.

He just can’t help checking out whether diners are enjoying one of the fine wines he sources from a range of independent producers with partners Richard Bouglet and Edward Bowen. “The work of producing wine is demanding, and when I go to a restaurant and see someone drinking one of our wines, that means the world. It’s a wonderful feeling. Sometimes we have a discussion, but it’s important not to interfere too much,” says the 40-year-old.

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Based in Charlestown, in Fife, L’Art du Vin supplies such restaurant luminaries as The Kitchin, Castle Terrace Restaurant, Martin Wishart’s The Honours and Ondine in Edinburgh, Monachyle Mhor in Perthshire, and Brian Maule at Chardon d’Or and Café Gandolfi in Glasgow. “We are privileged to have some wonderful restaurants that have been with us from day one, from Michelin restaurants to gastro pubs,” says Larue, who hails from the Rhône valley.

He arrived here 15 years ago, and spent five years with Justerini and Brookes, “tasting the best”, before setting up with his friends. “We believe wine should go with food. Richard’s parents had a brasserie in Paris, and when I was young my father always took us to restaurants on Sundays. At first it was the food I liked, and then my taste for wine developed. I had a grandmother who drank wine every day, even at 95, and when we tried to mix it with water she refused to drink it. I think she was right,” he says.

It was a desire to source and supply the kind of wines Larue and his friends wanted to drink themselves, those made by artisan producers with passion and integrity, that led the trio to found L’Art du Vin in 2007. They pride themselves on supplying uniqueness of origin at a price point that doesn’t require the bank balance of a Rothschild. Or even one that will allow for regular restaurant visits in these straitened times, as now oenophiles can enjoy their wine at home – thanks to the launch of the firm’s independent world-class portfolio online, with a personal sommelier advice service to help in selecting just the right bottle. “We have a passion for sourcing the future wine stars of tomorrow,” says Larue.

“We go to the villages and buy artisanal, biodynamic and organic wines. We went to Chablis recently and spent three days testing over 100 wines, then selected the one that offered the best value for money and had a story. We ended up becoming friends with the vigneron,” he says.

For Larue, the story of the wine and the people who make it are as important as the taste. Indeed, it is often this unique combination that results in the taste itself. “The wine has to be wonderful, and when it is, quite often we find it’s made by a small independent or artisan producer. There’s always a maker behind the wine, and by tasting it you see his philosophy. Often there’s little intervention and it’s allowed to express itself.

“The winemakers try to keep the integrity of their wine and respect the land, often inherited, and they also travel more these days and pick up new techniques in the New World. We pass all this on to the customers. People are looking for more of a unique taste, whether it’s in wine or whisky.”

As well as discerning palates, Larue and his team also have a social conscience – a percentage of sales goes to helping vineyard workers involved in the manufacture of one of the South African wines they sell. The Cannonberg wines are currently made at the Imbuko Farm in Wellington, in the heart of the renowned Cape winelands, and a share of the cash made from sales of their chenin blanc and cabernet sauvignon goes directly to local community projects. “We started the Cannonberg Project five years ago to help the vineyard workers.

“It’s important for us to have this relationship with people who work in the vineyards. We have helped them put a crèche in and that helps with the children’s education. The notion of values comes through, and we want to be true to ours.”

And if the wine doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth, that surely will.

JANET CHRISTIE

L’Art du Vin, Merryhill Farm Steading, Charlestown, Dunfermline (www.aduv.co.uk)