Wine: A Tale of two wine merchants

IT IS a shrewd person who can see clearly when their business needs to expand or change course, but it is a courageous one who does so in the most challenging economic conditions for a generation.

It was, thus, with a mixture of curiosity and admiration that I visited two new drinks outlets last week. One was the retail extension of the Bon Vivant restaurant in Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, and the other was the Drinkmonger store in Pitlochry, which opened in July.

Both places exude a clear sense of optimism and freshness with, interestingly, similarities to each other rather than to some well-established wine shops. Predictably, in these hard-pressed times, both carry reliable and varied entry-point wines from around £6 – with the first display you see in the Pitlochry store exclusively made up of sub-£8 bottles. Equally, since both stores have former Oddbins employees, there are several clear nods towards the Oddbins style of yesteryear.

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I was curious to see, however, that the layout in both stores was by style of wine not by country. This has not really worked with supermarkets but, as an adjunct to hand-selling, it makes much more sense. For example, next to one another in Bon Vivant were a New Zealand pinot gris, a Washington State riesling and a pinot blanc from Alsace, enabling staff to show a customer quickly the main options to accompany the mildly spicy starter he is planning. Drinkmonger has gone one step further by doing the same with whisky – using categories like “rich and sherried”. This seems even better, allowing someone who likes a particular brand to buy one of its neighbours on the shelf, confident that it will deliver a broadly comparable style.

Filling a long-standing gap for a specialist wine merchant in Pitlochry, Royal Mile Whiskies took on the former Haddows shop there to create its first Drinkmonger shop – which now has a sister operation in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield. Although whisky still accounts for around half the turnover, the manager there, Jonathan Wilson, has used his experience with Majestic to create a thriving complementary wine operation.

Events like last month’s Riesling Festival (to tie in with the Germany’s Oktoberfest) flesh out the basic service, as do the efforts to expand into other spirits – rum is the current hot topic – and the small cigar store at the back of the shop has visitors from Uncle Sam purring with delight.

Bottles that typify what the shop is about include a 2008 Alsace Hunawihr Pinot Gris Reserve (£10.95) that delivers a crisp, rich and textured wine with a flavour range that runs from mango and kiwi fruit to underpinning touches of minty lime. The result is a million miles from the bland Italian incarnations of this grape variety.

Among the reds, Domaine Jean Bousquet Malbec (£8.95) will go well with local game. Its robust, ripe plum fruit and black pepper finish combine with evolving acidity and mocha undertones to create a polished red that, understandably, won a gold medal at the Decanter awards.

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, Stuart McCluskey seized the chance when the Estate Agents’ boards went up on the beautician’s premises next door to his bar and restaurant to create The Bon Vivant’s Companion – a deli, coffee shop and wine retailer with a tasting rooms downstairs. Wines come from a range of suppliers not well represented in Edinburgh, giving customers access to some genuinely different offerings. Here, too, there is an openness to the world of drink beyond wine, with a particular focus on spirits – especially gins and tequilas – along with all the equipment and know-how needed for successful cocktails.

Returning to wine, however, one that caught my eye was 2010 Orballo Albarino (£10), from Spain’s Rias Baixas. It is an excellent illustration of the elegant wines this grape produces, with a lively fruity nose, fresh apple and grapefruit-based acidity and a herbal finish that takes on an appealing hint of tropical fruit. The closest thing they have to a ‘house’ red is 2010 Pasquiers Grenache (£6.75), an everyday version from Languedoc with a warm and smooth mouth feel, peppery finish and attractive chocolate flavours that mingle nicely with black cherry fruit.

Both stores have enthusiasm, energy and expertise to prosper and I, for one, will be cheering them on.

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• 2010 Silenus Beta White Crete, Greece, 13 per cent An unusual wine made mainly from the island’s local vilana grape to produce a smooth, aromatic drink with greengage flavours and a textured, herbal finish. £8.30,

• 2011 Mora Alta Shiraz San Juan, Argentina, 12.5 per cent A great-value offer on a young and juicy red with warm, intense blackcurrant fruit and a long, spicy, vanilla-influenced finish. £4.99 (down from £9.99 until 15 November), Co-op

• 2010 Parrotfish Chenin Blanc Olifants River, South Africa, 13.5 per cent A well-known, reliable, crisp and nicely balanced white with banana and melon fruit and rounded out by a reasonable touch of residual sugar. £5.95, Peter Green, Edinburgh