THERE is a slip of paper pinned to the shelf below a Loire Valley Chinon at Humble Grape that reads: “Fat, toasted oak & dark fruits. Made by a cantankerous old French man.”
Hundreds more notes just like it decorate the bottles on display of this tiny wine bar tucked away off Bishopsgate, like recommendation cards you might find at a bookshop.
Each bears little talk of tannins or terroir, rather tales of the Spaniard who started making Tempranillo in his parents’ front garden, or the Essex boy who ended up on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia making “French-style Chardonnay that your mum will love.”
These unique tasting notes have become a Humble Grape hallmark, born of founder James Dawson’s reasoning that the majority of wine drinkers will remember stories over spicy finishes.
It is all part of an anti snobbery approach designed to attract customers who like wine, but don’t know a whole lot about it. And it seems to be working; from a small import business in 2009, Humble Grape has grown to four venues across the Capital (including one off Fleet Street) each serving around 30 wines by the glass and more than 400 by the bottle from independent winemakers all over the world.
The Liverpool Street venue is the smallest; just a handful of small tables at ground level and a cavernous room below tailor-made for group tastings, but still the kitchen manages a sizable menu of small plates, cheese and charcuterie, and mains.
We stuck with the former and were rewarded with juicy Exmouth mussels in a chilli and garlic broth, creamy burrata with butternut squash, house-cured Var salmon, and flavour-packed meatballs swimming in tomato sauce.
But let’s get to the grape. Making a selection from the 400-strong list of bottles from 14 different countries is a task made far less monumental with the help of one of the expert sommeliers, but for those with a palette for adventure and a couple of hours to linger, ‘the flight’ is your best bet.
The current flight list is made up of reds from Germany, Portugal, France and Spain, with the Quinta se Saes Tinto from Portugal’s Dão region the stand out – as “soft and dangerously drinkable” as our tasting notes promise.
The whites are all hot-climate and range from a Txakolina that throws up the saltiness from its seaside spot in Basque country, and a Colheita Branco, also from Dão, that is fruity, full bodied and goes down fast.
Our sommelier says something about the low acidity making for easy drinking, but we’re more intrigued by the origins of its nickname “the hippopotamus wine” in the descriptions. After all, we’re suckers for a good story.