I recently came across a book titled “The Historic Hotels of Scotland” written by Wendy Arnold and published in 1988. The guide profiled thirty hotels that the author regarded as Scotland’s finest in 1988. One of the hotels, the author commented, had a “selection of wines, said by many to be the best in the north of Scotland”. That hotel was The Clifton at Nairn. I worked there in the early 1980’s and the wine list was a role call of all the great wine estates of France and Germany of that time with vintages stretching back to the 1960’s.The hotel was owned and run by the late Gordon J MacIntyre, a hotelier whose flair, eccentricity, passion for food and fine wine and love of the arts made The Clifton an institution. It was a hotel embued with a sense of individuality and style, the like of which I have yet to find an equal.
Fast forward to today and if that wine list existed, it would be judged as impressive but also, sadly somewhat out of date. The world of wine has moved on; the great estates of France and Germany still exist, mostly, but thirty years on, wine offerings have changed beyond recognition. So, how up to date are Scottish restaurant wine lists now and does it matter anyway?
I lunched in Relae in Copenhagen recently, which only serves organic food and organic wine and has a Michelin star and is generally fully booked every single lunch and dinner service. The tasting menu, at this fashionable Copenhagen restaurant, came with seven organic wines and I hadn’t heard of any of them and I am buying and tasting wines commercially all the time. These wines were not only organic but what might be termed natural, a label that is currently flavour of the month.
I’ve discussed the term “natural” with a handful of friends who are wine merchants and the response from them is pretty unanimous: there is no legal framework for the word within the wine making world and they feel that some of the wines are often dull. Nevertheless natural wines are sought after just now because they have a fashionable status.
So it looks to me as if restaurants who are wanting to be in the vanguard of development or fashion are increasingly focusing on organic, bio-dynamic and natural wines. The first two terms have a recognised framework and legislation but the third does not. However all three can over-lap. Without over simplifying things, natural wines are frequently made organically or bio-dynamically but often additionally with no or very low use of sulphur. They may appear cloudy but does that matter if they taste good? Well, I tasted many in Madrid a while back that were terrific but I have tasted some others that I found disappointing.
I think what is important is that a wine list is created by someone who tastes all the wines on it and who can then talk with restaurant clients about the wines, clearly and honestly. Additionally, I think that any wine list nowadays that fails to list any organic or bio-dynamic wines is really not keeping up with current consumer trends and demands. That said, I think it is imperative that wines are judged and listed by their intrinsic merits before being placed upon a wine list. To simply get a look in because they have signed up to a current trend, is not good enough.