NOT JUST A BOOZER

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The Wine-List Inspector: looking for prize-winning wines outside London? Tim Atkin recommends a trip down the pub

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

Once upon a time, pubs were just boozers: male-dominated drinking dens where a lager-top was considered a cocktail. The gastropub movement has changed all that, replacing bitter with Barolo, pork scratchings with line-caught hake. The best of the breed even have impressive wine lists, with extensive cellars, polished glassware and sommeliers to match. 

The Harrow at Little Bedwyn in Wiltshire, an hour’s train ride from London, has long been a favourite destination for wine insiders, and has won more gongs than Sir Chris Hoy. Roger and Sue Jones have assembled a diverse, well-priced 900-bin selection that covers the globe from Canada to Portugal, Austria to South Africa, but focuses on Australia and New Zealand. 

The Antipodean focus was born of necessity. When the Joneses took over this failing pub in 1998, they couldn’t afford the big French and Italian names. "But Aussie wines were cheap, and we realised they matured well," Sue says. "We loved them, and bought more and more."

If you want to drink an older Aussie red—a 1985 Penfolds Grange, 1991 Moss Wood Cabernet or 1995 Henschke Hill of Grace—without taking out a loan, this is the place to do it. The depth of the list is unmatched outside Australia. It includes up-and-coming estates such as Ocean Eight and William Downie as well as established ones, and has 30 Aussie Rieslings, which may be a record.

The food is every bit as good as the wines. To partner the inventive "modern British" tasting menu (the emphasis is on local ingredients), we had a juicy, lime-scented 2008 Craggy Range Riesling from Central Otago in New Zealand with sashimi of tuna, before moving on to the leafy, savoury 2005 Merricks Creek Close Planted Pinot Noir from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula. The Pinot wouldn’t look out of place in Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy’s most famous village, and was delicious with Northumberland roe venison and umami-rich mushrooms, as well as a plate of English and Welsh cheeses.

The mini-dessert platter would arguably work best with a sweet Riesling, but Sue Jones challenged us to drink a plum-infused Akashi-Tai Shiraume Umeshu sake instead—and it worked. Halfway through its second decade, The Harrow is clearly continuing to take risks.

theharrowatlittlebedwyn.com, tasting menu, £75pp including wine

THE COMPETITION

The Hand & Flowers in Marlow is the first British pub to earn two Michelin stars. Set lunch, £19.50pp
Best red: 2011 Baccaria Frappato, Sicily Frappato often features in Sicilian blends with more structured Nero d’Avola, so it’s good to see it get solo billing. Think of it as Italy’s Beaujolais, a soft, juicy, raspberry-fruity quaffer that tastes great chilled. £21
Best white: 2010 Rully Blanc, Dureuil-Janthial A white Burgundy from the Chalonnaise region made by one of the leading young winemakers there, Vincent Dureuil-Janthial. The class and balance of the 2010 vintage are beautifully apparent in this taut, minerally, buttery white. £50
thehandandflowers.co.uk

The Olive Branch in Rutland serves high-class pub food with restauranty touches. Set lunch, £19.95pp.
Best red: 2009 Chateau Ksara, Bekaa Valley If you think Lebanese wine begins and ends with Chateau Musar, try this instead: a more modern but no less individual red blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with notes of pepper spice and ripe blackcurrants. £23
Best white: 2010 Weingut Bründlmayer Grüner Veltlner Terrassen, Kamptal Austria's signature white grape, made by one its most talented interpreters, this Grüner is sourced from steep terraced vineyards near Vienne. It's fresh, zesty and aromatic with notes of pear and white pepper and plenty of weight and texture on the palate. £28
theolivebranchpub.com

Tim Atkin is a Master of Wine who has won more than 20 awards for his wine writing

Illustration Chris Price