Andrew Polmear

Blenio – the Wine List

Most people who live near Seven Dials will have noticed, or eaten at, Blenio, the restaurant just south of the Dials with exposed brickwork, paintings by local artists, candles everywhere, and white tiled tables in three partly separate ‘rooms’ on a level well above that of the street. This article is not about the excellence of the food nor the friendliness and elegance of the service but about the wine list. I always wonder, in a restaurant where the wine list has its own unique character, how this came about. An interview with Paula Black, co-owner of Blenio, gave me the inside story.

Blenio wine listPaula uses three wine merchants, who bring wines for her to taste. She is interested in young fresh wines from small producers and she chooses these to fit some demanding further requirements. She wants about ten reds, ten whites, two rosés, four sweet and four sparkling wines. Amongst the reds and whites she wants a range from light through medium to rich, a choice of grape varieties, a range of countries and a range of prices. To these she adds a red and a white from the Ticino canton of Switzerland, the home of her co-owner Peter Bruschi’s family, and a red from Israel where she once worked. As a result she can offer a wine list that ranges from a 500ml carafe at £9.95 to a 2007 Meursault at £49.95, with wines from unusual producers, unusual areas and unusual grape varieties. These are not wines you’ll find in the supermarket. There are very few of the well-known French wines, just a Chateauneuf du Pape along with the Meursault; big French names can’t compete when choosing a small list where every wine has to represent value for money.

So how does it work in practice? The restaurant mark-up is a percentage of the purchase price – enough for the wines to make a profit without being so expensive that no one drinks them. The list changes every six months or so, although favourites stay on for longer. The biggest sellers are the Sauvignan Blanc from Mauzac in south-west France and a Malbec from the foothills of the Andes in Argentina. Interestingly, they aren’t the cheapest wines, and indeed the most expensive wines also sell, though usually to serious weekday diners rather than at weekends. Paula notices a trend towards wines with lower alcoholic content and perhaps towards regional French and Italian wines away from the New World.

How do they manage the problems of serving wine? At the start of the day they estimate how many bottles they will need and get the reds up from the cellar to warm up and put the whites in the fridge. If any one wine is being drunk faster than expected, more are brought up before they are needed to give time to get the temperature right. Three reds and three whites are offered by the glass, and are popular enough for little to be wasted; not that it would be wasted, Peter will always use it in the kitchen. Bubbly is more of a problem, but, stoppered and refrigerated, it will keep for a day or two and it’s amazing how many will say ‘yes’ to the suggestion of a glass of sparkling Willowglen from Australia.

Did I find an answer to my question – how does Blenio come to have a wine list that has such a distinct character? The answer is that this is not a ready-made list purchased en bloc; every bottle has been chosen on its merits – and it shows.

Andrew Polmear

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