Around ten minutes walk south of Clapham Junction runs Battersea Rise, a busy main road in what just about counts as Outer London down here. Much like hundreds of others of its kind it possesses a string of cafés and small restaurants along its length, but one of them is a real gem. There are, of course, increasing numbers of really exciting neighbourhood bars and restaurants popping up all over London, but what Soif has going for it from the off is being part of the same group of restaurants originally run by Oli Barker (who went on to found Six Portland Road) and Ed Wilson, and which also includes Terroirs, Toast and Brawn (and used to include The Green Man and French Horn on St Martin’s Lane before it sadly closed a couple of years ago).
I’m sure a lot of readers have visited Soif, probably many times, since it opened back in 2011 (hard to believe it was six years ago). But if you haven’t, you might guess from the Terroirs association that the emphasis here is on wine, small plates and a buzzing atmosphere. The wine comes, of course, from Les Caves de Pyrene, and is unashamedly natural. It’s just the thing for such a lively place, which was thankfully empty enough to take walk-ins at six o’clock on a Tuesday evening, but packed an hour or two later.
Soif, Like Terroirs, always offers a good selection of wine by the glass, and having endured a few transport issues in getting down there I really needed a cold glass of something fizzy. The Roc’ Ambule pét-nat pink from Domaine Le Roc in Fronton, Southwest France did the job. You don’t see a lot of pét-nats made from the Negrette grape, but this is simple, fruity and dryish, but most importantly, refreshing. It was also the only by-the-glass sparkler on the list which I had never tried, and going for something new is always a good move in somewhere like Soif.
Jean-Luc and Frédérik Ribes have been making wine in Fronton since 1988, and their wines have a surprisingly wide UK distribution for this relatively little known region close to Toulouse (Berry Bros, Lea & Sandeman and even Harvey Nichols usually have some, especially the red “classique”), but this pét-nat came from Les Caves, who also sell it in magnums. For such an established producer in a fairly conservative region it’s good to see them succeeding with the low intervention and no additives route.
Roc’ Ambule rosé pét-nat from Domaine Le Roc, Fronton
We had a heated debate about which bottle to order, and I managed to persuade my very discerning friends to order something unusual (then, having done so, I worried they wouldn’t like it). Vini Estremi is a cuvée of Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle from the Mont Blanc Co-operative.
Morgex is sited a little to the west of the town of Aosta, in the valley of the same name (although the river which runs hrough the valley is the Dora Baltea). The vineyards are all on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, rising up to 1300 metres in places, in the direction of the ski resort of Cormayeur, and Mont Blanc. These are some of Europe’s highest vines. Even in Autumn these slopes can be snow covered, and the Blanc de Morgex variety (also known as Prié Blanc) is trained on pergolas, both for the regulation of sun exposure, and for frost protection.
The wine is quite unique. It’s simple, with mainly lemon citrus and grassy, herby, notes. There’s an uncanny similarity to mineral water, albeit alcoholic mineral water. There is the faintest hint of texture, which I once described as like licking a pebble from a mountain stream (trust me). But it’s both gentle and invigorating. Thankfully, it seemed to be appreciated.
Aosta’s wines were almost never seen in the UK at one time, but they have been starting to appear in the past few years. There is a bewildering array of varieties, both autochthonous and international, ranging from Switzerland’s Petite Arvine, late harvest Chardonnay, passito Muscat, lovely Fumin, Pinot Noir, and even surprisingly high quality Nebbiolo from the eastern end of the valley. The Aosta region is Italy’s tiniest, and what the locals don’t guzzle goes down well with the winter sports enthusiasts. But unlike in Savoie, where much wine was (and occasionally still is) produced with undiscerning tourists in mind, Aosta’s small production has long been, for the most part, well worth seeking out (preferably in situe if you like mountain scenery, marmots, and small artisan wine producers who still rarely see many foreign visitors).
A side benefit of meeting up with friends at Soif on this occasion was that I could grab a copy of the new “Media Highlights” brochure from Okanagan Crush Pad, which, alongside other venerable publications, contains some of my observations on the wines produced by this exciting crush facility in Canada’s most versatile wine region.
This was because one of the people I was meeting works for Crush Pad’s UK importer, Red Squirrel, and he thoughtfully brought along a couple of bottles of OCP’s own Haywire wines. My favourite red on this label is the Okanagan Valley Gamay Noir (2016). I recently read a really interesting article by Jon Bonné on Gamay from outside of Beaujolais, which was the catalyst for some praise of Canadian Gamay on social media. There’s no doubt that Okanagan Crush Pad make a delicious version. To quote myself here, it doesn’t attempt complexity but wins hands down on purity of fruit.
I managed to snaffle an open bottle of Haywire Secrest Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 as well, also from the Okanagan Valley AQA. This is quite big for Pinot Noir (13.5% abv), with dense, quite dark, fruit. Not the subtlest of Pinots, but really lively and good with the charcuterie we were eating by that stage of the evening. I often read reviews which seem to focus praise on the crush pad’s white wines, and indeed their fantastic fizz, but don’t neglect to try the reds.
We finished the evening with a Negroni for dessert. That may give a further clue to the happy couple I spent the evening with (many congratulations due). Soif is a great place to go for natural wine, a very wide selection of small (and some not so small) plates, and a surfeit of bonhomie when the place starts moving, although I would like to think a lot of that was generated by my fellow drinkers. Soif is, as they say, (well) worth a detour.