Best cellars

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The Independent Culture
"There's a lot of nutcases out there with great cellars and Edinburgh is a great place to store wine," announces Zubair Mohamed. If it weren't for the name Raeburn Fine Wines, the tubfuls of fresh-cut tulips, irises and roses sitting outside could be seriously misleading. Even within, the shelves announce Pet Foods, Cereals and Canned Foods, but the groceries have long gone to make way for Zubair Mohamed's fine wines. His father still minds the front of the store selling flowers, sweets and cigarettes, but the rest is Zubair's domain.

As I enter, he is politely resisting the blandishments of a rep from the Aussie giant, BRL-Hardy. Little does Mr BRL-Hardy know it - yet - but big companies leave Zubair Mohamed as cold as the freezing back room which houses his flowers and wines. "We list growers who we think are the best, or one of the best, in their region," says Mohamed with a lilt. "I've just got excited about Portugal and older estate wines from Dao, Bairrada and the Douro." He opens a bottle of 1991 Goncalves Faria, a tarry, rich red with a wonderfully elusive perfume, made entirely from the Bairrada region's baga grape.

Next, he cracks open the 1995 Dry River Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Martinborough: "There's no harm in drinking a wine young," he says, "I adore young pinot noir." Seductive roasted coffee bean and fragrant raspberry aromas waft through the cold air. It tastes more like a classy Vosne-Romanee. "My style is not to sell something that's not widely available. I want it to be my discovery. The criterion is: is it classy and does it stand up to something else I've got which is as good or better?"

Along with Portugal, Zubair Mohamed has recently enlarged his Italian range. "Italy still has its own grapes, terroir and tradition and gets away from cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay." It comes as no surprise that he's the Scottish agent for Chateau Le Pin, the tiny Pomerol property whose 1982 vintage set an auction record of pounds 30,000 a case last year. He sells a lot of burgundy. "The most heavenly wine, yet it can be the most appalling," he says, warning of the modern curses of excessive extraction and use of oak. "You need serious disposable income to buy some of my wines," admits Mohamed.

There is not much room to store wine in Jim Hogg's doll's-house of a store in Edinburgh's residential heart, which is crammed with wines, whiskies, spirits of all types, fresh coffee beans and soft drinks. Twenty-two years ago, Jim Hogg started to develop the wine side of his father's grocery. He's also well-known as Edinburgh's spirits supplier to the gentry. Hogg was an early pioneer of Spain, Italy and the new world.

Too many wines he complains are "judged purely on up-front fruit, [which is when] the subtleties fly out of the window". Along with Justerini & Brooks in George Street, Hoggy remains one of the last Edinburgh bastions of tradition. Claret accounts for a good quarter of red wine sales and French wines for half the business.

Before the recession, the business was two-thirds retail, a third wholesale. Now it's the other way round, says Jim Hogg, who blames the decline on the supermarkets. "We deal with professionals on the whole, and they're drinking less than they used to. Now, people buy from week to week, where before, they bought monthly but by the case. Supermarkets know their customers like up-front, fruity wines, so they're catering for a market that exists. There is a minority, though, who may find it more difficult to find the wines they like."

The award for Scotland's most extensive range surely belongs to Michael & Douglas Romer who trade under the name Peter Green in Warrender Park Road. "In the recession, people cut back on the amount they were drinking and spending," says Michael Romer. Like Hogg, he identifies the supermarkets - and Oddbins - as the biggest threat, citing a litany of independent merchants who've gone to the wall: Hush of Macleod, Leon's Locker, Wines from Paris, Nigel McLardy's Cellar Number One and the Wine Emporium, which merged with Cockburns.

"But things are looking better," says Romer cheerily. He believes that France is making a comeback: "A lot of customers like to try different things. One of our main strengths is choice, and Edinburgh is still a good market for Bordeaux." Peter Green still boasts an excellent list of clarets from the trio of fine vintages between1988 to1990.

You don't have to be Italian to make the gastronomic pilgrimage to Valvona & Crolla, which, in spite of recession, has expanded from 10 to 50 staff in eight years. To the mouthwatering deli and 600-strong range of Italian wines, the Contini family last year added a bustling new Caffe Bar with a selection of wines by the glass, home-baked bread and unpretentious but authentic dishes such as cabbage and Fonteluna sausage soup and char- grilled polenta with Paesano sausage.

"We've developed our 600-strong range to be a little more exclusive, instead of dealing entirely with UK importers," says Philip Contini. "Now 50 per cent of our wine comes directly from Italian cellars. The map has really opened up."

Contini believes that the impact of the new world has brought more people to wine. "The knock-on effect is that there are more people who now feel more at ease drinking something different. There's none of the old anti-Italian bias of the older consumer. Customers increasingly appreciate the distinction between the different tastes of Italian wines and ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

"Our customers are not price-conscious but more aware of flavour and value. They're also more confident, which leads to a greater appreciation of what's good. The big thing at the moment is brunello and rosso di montalcino," says Contini. "You can still buy rosso di montalcino for pounds 7." A good third of Valvona's range consists of Italy's expensive jewels such as Solaia, Sassicaia, Gaja and Conterno, but, equally, Contini lists good-value wines from the likes of La Vis, Araldica and Botromagno. For the cold and its cellars, Edinburgh is indeed a great place to store wine. And not a bad place to buy it, either

Raeburn Fine Wines, 21/23 Comely Bank Road, Edinburgh EH4 1DS (0131-332 5166) JE Hogg, 61 Cumberland Street, Edinburgh EH3 6RA (0131-556 4025) Peter Green & Co., 37 A/B Warrender Park Road, Edinburgh EH9 1HJ (0131-229 5925) Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 4AA (0131- 556 6066)