Do you remember the last time wine bars were cool? I don’t. I’m afraid I was neither of legal drinking age nor alive when the trendy spaces of the 1970s and 1980s had people coming over all ‘pinot mwah’, but the romantic idea behind them always appealed.
Away from the machismo of City boozers, these chic establishments were havens to a sophisticated brand of metropolitan worker, where alcohol could be enjoyed in more than just a pint glass. Sure, they leaned towards the pretentious and expensive, but here professionals had a hedonistic escape from the humdrum of the nine-to-five. Cheers to that.
As time went on, though, wily club owners saw the growing demand and opened their own seedy imitations of the wine bar. Men, too, capitalised on the number of women congregating in these spaces and made it their task to invade them – in place of burgundy and joie de vivre, came lukewarm merlot and toe-curling chat-up lines. All good things must come to an end; the wine bar had run dry.
The wine bar is no longer a one-trick pony, and it’s putting to bed any snobbery around it
Perhaps that’s why I have been over zealous with my consumption of late because, after a two-decade absence, this boozy trend has come full circle. From the marvellous Bloomsbury bolt hole Noble Rot to St James’s members’ club for oenophiles 67 Pall Mall, wine-forward establishments are proliferating across London – and this time they’re here to stay.
Not that the City needs an excuse to drink these days (or indeed, ever), but these versatile spaces are ideal whether you’re searching for the perfect venue for an informal business meeting, a place to eat lunch on the weekend or a suitable location for your highly anticipated blow-out bonus dinner. The wine bar is no longer a one-trick pony, and it’s putting to bed the snobbery often wrongfully associated with drinking a glass of the good stuff.
There can be no better example of this than Les 110 de Taillevent. Located on the former Coutts bank site on Cavendish Square, the offices have made way for a subtly luxurious space dominated by a ‘wine wall’. This is laden with, you guessed it, 110 different labels to pair with the classic French bistronomy that abounds on the menu. Such a restaurant would have opened to little fanfare just a few years ago, but nowadays it’s attracting a healthy blend of knowledgeable twenty-somethings keen to explore London’s largest by-the-glass offering alongside die-hard claret drinkers raiding its impressive cellar for rare vintages.
The story of Les 110 de Taillevent begins in Paris at the illustrious Le Taillevent. Opened in 1946, the two Michelin-star restaurant takes its name from the 14th-century forefather of French gastronomy, Guillaume Tirel, known simply as Taillevent. Before Alain Ducasse, there was Paul Bocuse; before Bocuse there was Auguste Escoffier; before Escoffier there was only Taillevent.
True to its namesake, Le Taillevent is a temple to French cuisine, specialising in simple dishes elevated to heady heights. You might find Breton Blue lobster, served in the style of a casserole, en cocotte lutée (a pastry-sealed pot); John Dory, with stuffed courgette flowers and a champagne sauce; or veal sweetbreads with girolles and persillade. But for modern-day Parisian diners while the food is a draw, its greatest gift is its staggering wine cellars.
For any wine lover, being in Les 110 de Taillevent's wine caves is a knee-trembling experience
In the bowels of the grand building are four cellars, overflowing with approximately 3,000 labels in total. Along dusty shelves, you’ll find bottles from the length of the restaurant’s lifetime. An 1897 Lafite Rothschild, perhaps? How about a 1983 Margaux? Or a 1998 Latour? For most, a trip through Le Taillevent’s cellars is as heady as any oenophilic fantasy, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Twenty kilometres west of Paris in the small village of Bougival lies a secret Le Taillevent has worked hard to protect. Behind a one metre-thick steel barrier you will find a prize more precious than the contents of any other bank vault. As the door creaks open, in front of you is one square kilometre of wine storage, housing 10,000 bottles of the finest vintages.
View on Instagram
Across the sprawling space you’ll find every vintage of Domaine Raveneau – the world’s most celebrated chablis – dating back to 1975, an astonishing achievement given the vineyard’s famously low yield. It’s a story replicated everywhere you turn. Pur Sang and Silex from the late Didier Dagueneau (his wine accruing in value and prestige since his untimely death in 2008); puligny montrachet from the elegant Domaine Leflaive; and the early efforts of cult winemaker Laurent Vaillé’s Domaine de la Grange des Pères, whose bottles of Languedoc red are like gold dust to collectors.
For any wine lover, being in this cave of hidden treasures is a knee-trembling experience: forget kid in a candy shop, this is what heaven is.
Back in London, the grand image of Le Taillevent has projected itself into Les 110 de Taillevent. Looking around the space it’s clear the Gardinier brothers, Thierry and Laurent – the brains behind the Taillevent group’s growth from one restaurant to three, and a number of Paris wine shops since 2011 – have created a blueprint for what the modern wine bar can and should be.
Of course, the pièce de résistance is the multifarious wine pairings possible from the 110-strong by-the-glass wine list.
The menu suggests four different-priced pairings per dish, with the wines in the above £20 category hiding a few of the gems from Le Taillevent’s Bougival Vaults. The secret to its success, though, is not just the quality of its wines but the competitive pricing for either 75ml or 150ml servings.
On one visit I sample a 2010 Montee de Tonnerre chablis from the fabled Domaine Raveneau at £28 a glass for a wine that’ll set you back roughly £360 for a bottle in a restaurant. It’s an absolute knockout: the intensely rich chardonnay notes, balanced with a rounded acidity and welcome minerality in the finish, provide the perfect foil to the iconic Taillevent starter of crab remoulade.
This is what a wine bar should be about. It treads a fine line between an excellent bistro and a fine-dining restaurant, but to walk in and enjoy just one great glass of wine with a single dish is an experience that will hopefully be increasingly more acceptable as the wine bar revival continues.
To be honest, one glass may not suffice. Waiter, what else have you got for me?
For more information and bookings, see les-110-taillevent-london.com