Restaurants make pounds 1,000 a bottle profit for immature wines

SOME OF Britain's top restaurants are profiting by up to pounds 1,000 a bottle on wine that most British experts agree is not ready to drink.

Bottles of some of the world's most exclusive wines are on the lists of London's finest restaurants up to six years earlier than the date recommended by producers' agents and leading guides.

It is during these crucial years that premium wines develop the complex flavours that mark them out from cheaper variations available on the high street. But the very British practice of keeping wine until it reaches its optimum condition causes heated debate in the trade.

The French enjoy drinking much younger wine, and masters of wines, agents, brokers and restaurant sommeliers are divided over whether the practice of selling high-priced wines before they are at their peak is wrong.

Le Gavroche, one of London's best-known restaurants and one of only a handful in the country with two Michelin stars, has a list of about 1,000 wines but Silvano Giraldin, the restaurant manager, admitted that only a hundred or so are at their peak. "We are tying up capital and we need to put the wines on the list sometimes before they are ready," he said.

He sells the 1993 white Montrachet from Domaine de la Romanee Conti (DRC) at pounds 1,331 plus 12.5 per cent service charge despite the fact that it is not at its peak of maturity. On the wine list of Corney and Barrow, agents for DRC, the managing director, Adam Brett-Smith, says the 1993 Montrachet will not be at its best until 2002.

Le Gavroche pitches even higher with the red 1993 Montrachet DRC, charging pounds 1,910 plus service for a wine that the DRC agents say should be kept until 2005.

But Le Gavroche is not alone. The Oak Room, Marco Pierre White's three- star Michelin-rated restaurant where dinner costs about pounds 100 a head, also lists the 1993 Montrachet DRC - though at pounds 1,050, it is almost pounds 300 cheaper. In each case, the restaurants will have paid considerably less than the pounds 395 plus VAT per bottle that Corney & Barrow now charges.

Restaurants seldom agree on price. A 1993 Le Montrachet Comtes Lafon, which the brokers Morris and Verdin list at about pounds 200 a bottle, sells at The Oak Room for pounds 800; at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, which has two Michelin stars, the same bottle is listed at pounds 845; and at Harvey Nichols' Fifth Floor restaurant it is pounds 290. Morris and Verdin says it should not be drunk for at least another four years - but preferably 10.

Harvey Nichols also lists a Cote Rotie 1995 Joel Champet at pounds 52.50 and a 1993 La Tache, Domaine Romanee Conti (sold by brokers at pounds 158) at pounds 350. Yet the agents for the producers say they should not be touched before 2003.

The Oak Room and Harvey Nichols were unable to comment on the pricing of their wine.

Clive Coates, master of wine and publisher of The Vine, a monthly magazine on fine wine, agrees. "Wines go through adolescent changes and five years on is a time when the wine has gone to sleep and returned into its shell," he said. "At that age - when many of them are sold at exorbitant prices by these restaurants - the initial puppy fat of fresh fruit has subdued but the mature aromas and complexities have not yet come to the fore.

"You would be better off drinking it after one year than after five. At least you would taste that initial fresh fruit. It is an insult to the people who spend a lot of time and trouble making this wine in the first place to foist it on the public, many of whom are prepared to pay these outlandish prices when all they are doing is committing infanticide. I don't begrudge high margins but I do feel that, given that they are asking someone to pay nearly pounds 2,000, the customer is absolutely entitled to jump up with rage if it's not ready for drinking."

Le Gavroche's Mr Giraldin replied that it would be "madness" to try to sit on wines that are already superb for another five or 10 years. "No one could afford to keep a bottle of very good wine for 50 years before it is ready to drink," he said. "The French drink wine much younger than the English and it is a matter of opinion who is right. The Montrachet, for example, is already an outstanding wine but we have older vintages if customers want them. They may have to pay more and not everyone is prepared to do that, but we give our customers good advice and they get what they want.

"It depends on what school of thought you are coming from - you could argue that only 100 of the 1,000 or so wines that are on the list are at their peak. Now would you want a list with just 100 wines on it?"

Mr Brett-Smith of Corney & Barrow said his company's advice - that the wine should be kept longer - would improve it, but he added: "The trouble with so much in wine is that it is a matter of personal opinion.

"The French laugh at the length of time the British prepare to keep it before drinking - in fact the '93 Montrachet is a stunningly good wine already. It would be better in three or four years, but it is the customers who will have the final say when they decide whether or not to vote with their money."

Michael Schuster, an author and wine educator, said: "'93 Le Montrachet (DRC) would certainly be impressive and not unenjoyable already, but by no means revealing all its potential subtleties. '93 Romanee Conti or La Tache on the other hand, from such a tannic vintage, would be tough, unyielding, delivering very little of the pleasure they most certainly will in 10 to 15 years' time."

DRC vineyards in Vosne Romanee and Chassagne are rated the best places in the world to grow pinot noir and chardonnay. While all grand cru Burgundy is expensive, that from DRC is the most costly. The wine is produced to last and takes time to knit together. It is not drunk to taste oak or the grape but to appreciate the unique expression of the vineyard.