Previously of Noble Rot, Dinner by Heston, and Gridiron fame, sommelier Lucy Ward is now responsible for the wine programme at Wilder, the first solo venture of British chef Richard McLellan that opened last October in London's Shoreditch.
With locally sourced and seasonal ingredients being at the core of the food offering, we caught up with Ward to discover how she's managed to put together a wine list to complement the restaurant's menu and its sustainable ethos.
What’s the philosophy behind your wine list?
The restaurant [team] forages and sources everything from the British Isles as much as it can, so when we met to decide how I could stick with those rules I immediately realised that doing a fully British wine list would have been quite difficult and there wouldn’t have been enough of what we wanted to offer.
So we decided to keep to the Old World and source wines that are sustainable or organic – the list now features roughly 80 bins. Then I’ve just created a ‘cellar list’ with about 20 wines. Those are fantastic wines: they all come from producers that [follow] the lutte raisonnée [philosophy], although they’re quite old vintages so I can’t tell how they were dealing with their crop at the time.
We decided to keep to the Old World and source wines that are sustainable or organic
Some wines that we do by the glass aren’t as sustainable as we would like them to be, but anything else on the list adheres to that ethos. Basically, what I’ve tried to do with the my wine selection is have everything underneath the ‘natural’ umbrella, but they must all be pure, precise and focused wines. You won’t necessarily notice that [they’re ‘natural’ wines] and I never bring it up in conversation because sometimes you scare people off.
And do your guests bring the ‘natural’ wine topic up at all?
Yes, of course. At the end of the day we are in Shoreditch, so we’re aware that for some of our clientele that’s exactly what they’re looking for.
When it does come up in our conversation, I have a few off-piste natural wines by the glass, so I always have something to offer them to taste, and if they do want to go by the bottle, I know how far they’re willing to push themselves.
What elements did you have to take into account to match Wilder’s food?
When I was working on the list I tasted a lot of food with chef Richard McLellan. Every dish involves a ‘wild’ element, like something foraged for instance, which can sometimes make the pairing a little bit difficult. But the one thing that helps is that they aren’t using any olive oil or lemon juice as that’s not something that is produced in the UK: they use vinegar instead. So there’s always that acidic element that goes well with the wine.
There’s a longhorn beef dish on the menu that’s served with a heavier sauce which needs a full-bodied wine, but otherwise everything else is relatively light, so you’re looking at medium-to-lighter bodied wines with a bit of acidity behind them to balance the food.
Then we’ve got a lot of raw dishes – beef tartare, raw mackerel – all served with sauces that carry a bit of acidity, where you can pair heavier whites or lighter reds.
Which wines did you end up with on the list?
On the whites I’ve got a Pinot Blanc from Alsace by André Thomas; it’s a lovely wine but it has that little extra weirdness at the end. Some other whites that I’ve chosen are from Greece or southern Italy, because they all have this almost saline character to them and that helps a lot when it comes to pairing with those weird, vinegary flavours. The Verdicchio [San Lorenzo] that I have works amazingly, as well as a Grecanico. If not Italy, then Muscadet in the Loire.
You’re looking at medium-to-lighter bodied wines with a bit of acidity behind them to balance the food
For the richer white styles, we move to Veneto [Gorgo di Bricolo Bianco di Custoza, Suavia Le Rive Garganega] and the wines from Kres in Slovenia.
As far as the reds go, Jura’s Tissot [DD Arbois] by the glass is just great – I’m getting fantastic feedback. You’ve got all that lovely dark-ish red fruit, but the structure as well, and the freshness. Again, I like to keep it medium bodied, lively fruit with an interesting finish.
We’ve got quite a lot of game on the menu, which I think always work well with any kind of wine that shows some sort of barniardy, wild element and a herbaceous finish, like many from southern France.
When it comes to orange wines, I favour the more restrained styles, nothing beyond the seven-to-10 days of skin maceration, because it would create a few more difficulties with the pairings.
When ordering the wine, are your guests as concerned about sustainability as they are with the food?
People don’t realise that the environmental impact of wine is a lot larger than they think. I had a table a few days ago that asked me ‘how come you haven’t got wines from the US?’ They didn’t realise that even if you grow a sustainable vineyard in California, by the time it gets to the UK almost all the good work that you’ve done has been undone.
I don’t think people have got to the point when they consider sustainability in wine as much as they do in food. Perhaps people are still comfortable with the fact that you can buy a bottle of £5 South African wine at the supermarket and you don’t have to think about the consequences right now.
Even if you grow a sustainable vineyard in California, by the time it gets to the UK almost all the good work that you’ve done has been undone.
I suppose it’s our responsibility to teach our customers about it – without being too preachy so we don’t want to push anyone away. In time perhaps it will become more relevant in the media and that will help as well.
What can the wine industry do in the immediate future to become more sustainable?
We’re always going to want cheap wine. There’s always going to be a market for it and I don’t think that’s going to change. We want that £6 bottle from Oz, but we could spend a couple of pounds more and get it from Spain, or southern France. We should probably be doing that a little bit more.
Then [there's] packaging. Do we need to have wine in bottles all the time? If we’re trying to age something [then] of course, but if it’s a wine to drink on the night I don’t think a bottle is strictly necessary. If it’s shipped in tanks then you can go with your bottle and fill it up at the supermarket, for example.
What regions are on your watch list at the moment?
Greece. There’s a producer called Thymiopoulos in Naoussa, for example. They’re making amazing reds, and they’re fully sustainable… they have been for a long time. Then there’s Lyrarakis in Crete, which makes great Assyrtiko.
Otherwise, I know it sounds a little bit boring, but at the moment I’m really interested in Mâcon. From a wine list perspective, it has opened up a lot of options. Instead of being out-priced by northern Burgundy, you can offer intensely refreshing Chardonnays from the south. Some wines are just as interesting as those from the north. This really excites me because everyone likes Chardonnay and loves Burgundy, and now I can offer oaky rich Chardonnay of quality, while keeping the list sustainable by sourcing from within Europe. It’s the ideal option.
For my private consulting job I’ve been spending a lot of time in Bordeaux and there’s something happening there too. Obviously it’s a very traditional area, the winemaking is very conventional, lots of pesticides, but recently these tiny little biodynamic estates have been popping out – it’s quite amazing. What happened in Beaujolais is happening now in Bordeaux.