Wine: Richard Ehrlich's Beverage Report; Monday Night Fever

Restaurant drinking at wine shop prices? An absolutely fabulous offer
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The Independent Culture
A FEW WEEKS ago, in these pages, I rhapsodised about wine bars in Paris where it's possible to taste wines by the glass (or bottle) and then buy some to take home. I should have said then that you don't have to travel that far; and this week I make amends by mentioning a place this side of the Channel where you can do the same.

The place is the Fifth Floor in Harvey Nichols, a shop which may one day live down its connection with the rapaciously consumerist AbFab duo. The Fifth Floor is a serious restaurant which has at its disposal a serious wine merchant, and since January they have been running a serious bargain offer for diners willing to venture out on a Monday night. The deal: go there for dinner and you can order any bottle from the shop list at retail prices.

Before you think of running along for the chance to drink restaurant wine at pounds 3.99 a bottle, please note that Harvey Nicks does not major in cheap wines. Their 400-strong list does feature a few under a fiver, but it should come as no surprise that people do not come to Knightsbridge to drink plonk. More important, most Monday diners "trade up" - they spend whatever they'd spend anyway, but get a better bottle for their dosh. It's a funny thing: prices that would look forbidding in a shop look like value for money in a restaurant.

After a slow start, the scheme has been a roaring success. Food and drink director Dominic Ford reports that "Mondays are now as busy as the rest of the week." What's more, they take in as much money as they ever did on wine sales, even if the margins are lower. And some of that comes from clientele that casino operators lovingly refer to as high rollers. "People book the week before and say they want Chateau Margaux 1982 (pounds 475). For some, this is a way of trying wines that they own themselves without opening their own stock. For others it's just a way of drinking fine wine in a restaurant, which they don't ordinarily do."

Why not? "Because we're greedy!" is Ford's charmingly candid reply. "Though Harvey Nichols is not as greedy as some," he adds. The restaurant operates on standard percentage mark-ups but imposes a fixed cost on more expensive wines.

While impulse buying isn't possible, as the wine shop is closed when people are leaving their Monday dinners, some customers take the list away and place orders later. Delivery is free in central London, with rather steep charges anywhere else.

The list is richest, as you might expect, in the French heavyweights; but there's also a strong showing from the new world, especially Australia and the USA, and a good grouping of Rhone reds under pounds 20. Among a sampler of six big sellers, I was greatly impressed by the Californian Shafer 1995, Napa Valley Merlot (pounds 23.50), made with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to yield warm, ripe Merlot fruit streaked with cassis and a nice dose of twiggy tannin. Kumeu River Chardonnay 1995 (pounds 17.50) is a neat whiff of vanilla followed by nutty, buttery fruit with richly exotic undertones, a Meursault look-alike, I'd say. If you're looking for le vrai Bourgogne, however, consider Chambolle-Musigny 1991, Domaine G. Roumier (pounds 30). This is a red of regal bearing, earthy and refined at the same time. I don't know how many bottles I would buy for domestic consumption, but at the restaurant "or for a special occasion at home" it's sumptuous stuff. Absolutely fabulous, if you'll pardon the expression.

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