Everyone knows Les Caves de Pyrene, right? Celebrating their 30th Anniversary this year, it is easy to forget, in a country awash with fine young importers of natural and biodynamic wines, that Les Caves were the pioneers. Their portfolio is now available far and wide. They are probably the company who people go to first for natural wines if they own a small independent wine shop or a restaurant. It’s easy to forget that once upon a time their wares were much harder to track down…until I discovered Pew Corner, that is.
It was back in the 1990s, and I’d just moved down to the South Coast from Oxford. Back in those days it was pretty dire for anyone who loved the “out of the ordinary” wines. If you didn’t get your wine from the supermarket, it was more or less Oddbins or Majestic in Oxford, but somehow I found the wines of the Sicilian producer, COS, in a wine bar in the north of the city. My introduction to “natural wine” had been in Paris, via L’Insolite (rue de la Folie Méricourt, close to Oberkampf), but finding those wines, even in London, was very hard. COS was an instant passion, and I soon found out where it had come from.
Back then Les Caves was less focused on purely natural wines than perhaps they are now, but they did have a selection of French Regional Wines which was quite literally a hundred times better than anyone else’s, not to mention the Italians, Australians, even wine from Luxembourg.
Way back in the day I’d spent some months travelling in rural France, sampling wines from Irouléguy, Marcillac, Cahors, Estaing, the Auvergne, Jura, and so many others. I’d discovered Aosta and Liguria in Italy, and “El Bierzo” (as it was then called) in Northern Spain. My dream had been to write a book called The Lost Vineyards of France. It didn’t happen, and in fact today most of these vineyards are very far from “lost”. But here was a wine merchant selling exactly the same wines as I’d discovered a few years before.
I said that everyone knows Les Caves, but what many may not know is that they have a warehouse-come-shop which is open to the public. It’s on a small industrial estate at Pew Corner, Artington, which is just on the south side of Guildford, and finding it is helped by the fact that it is also home to South Guildford’s Park+Ride. The warehouse itself is tucked away round the back of the site, but it seemed easy to find even before a small sign was erected to guide the observant driver.
I remember that first time I nervously entered the wooden building, to be warmly greeted by Virginie Champelou (yes, same as the Vouvray clan), and when I went back last week I got that same friendly welcome, even though it must be eighteen months since I last saw Virginie at the 2017 Real Wine Fair. It is quite a bit longer since I’ve visited Pew Corner.
There are rows and rows of bottles on shelves inside. You really need to make time to browse, but the thing to remember is that at least half the stock (probably much more, I’m sure) isn’t on show. The range has grown so much that it would be impossible to put everything out, but it was always so. I think the disadvantage of this is that without prior research you are going to forget things you wanted.
I’d compiled a list before I went, but I still forgot to put on it some Palari from Sicily, and a few other things (Fumin from Aosta, something from Nicolas Carmarans from Aveyron, and a few North Americans…). I’d say that whenever I visit at least half the wines come from the part of the warehouse which is not open to the public, always willingly retrieved by whoever is serving me, but browsing always alerts me to other things I’d not considered.
The best advice I can give to any visitor, aside from going with a list, is to go with a fully charged wallet or credit card. Every visit I spend more than I intended, every visit I get home (thankfully only just over an hour for me) and kick myself that I didn’t buy just a few more bottles. But there’s no limit, large or small.
Of course they charge full retail price so there’s no saving going there if your local wine shop has (or will order) what you want. It’s the main reason I’d not visited for a couple of years – I have one very good merchant (Solent Cellar in Lymington, Hants) who will happily add a few bottles onto their next Les Caves order, and most of the portfolio isn’t too hard to track down in London. But in this case I wanted to grab a few Georgians, a country in which Les Caves has become quite the specialist, and a little extra advice in narrowing it down from a list of Georgian wines kindly supplied by Doug Wregg was needed. And I always come away with something I didn’t know from a staff recommendation (this time Matthias Warnung‘s Esper Grüner Veltliner, thank you Daniel, we’ll be drinking that tonight).
Virginie (shop manager) and Daniel (her deputy) on duty last week
You can see my stash in the photos below. A modest set of purchases, half-a-dozen from Georgia, two different Belluards from Savoie, Sepp Muster, Aostan Petite Arvine, Schueller Pinot Noir from Alsace, and said Grüner. To be fair, I didn’t have room for any of them. No Jura some of you say! Well, Les Caves does have an exceptionally good Jura offering right now, but I’m off to Arbois myself very soon (just thought I’d whet your collective appetite).
For everyone within driving distance, Pew Corner is waiting to welcome you. It’s like Santa’s Grotto but without the tinsel for any true wine obsessive. Come on down.
As I mentioned, Les Caves is thirty years old this year. They are holding lots of celebrations, with several at Terroirs Wine Bar near Trafalgar Square in London. You may well have read about their enormous 30th Anniversary Tasting (if not, see here, where I explore a reasonable chunk of the Les Caves de Pyrene portfolio).
I also should mention that the shop at Pew Corner will be open 9.00am to 6.00pm on Saturday 8 December for their Christmas Tasting. There will be a wider selection of wine than usual to taste, along with what they describe as “some festive treats for your delectation”. Sadly I am unable to go, but it will certainly be worth it, if somewhat busier than usual.
For other opening times, especially in the run-up to Christmas, check out their web site: https://shop.lescaves.co.uk/lescaves-shopfront. Usually they open Monday to Friday, 08.30 to 17.00 (closed weekends), but will be open on some Saturdays in the run-up (including every Saturday in November from 09.00 until just 13.00), undoubtedly helpful if you have to work in the week.
For those who would like to get to know the Les Caves portfolio but live too far away to visit, they do offer some always interesting monthly mixed cases. They are currently suggesting a Thanksgiving themed case alongside November’s monthly offering. 15% off shop prices and with free delivery! I know this sounds unusually like an advert from me, but I can’t help salivating at the wines in the Thanksgiving six-pack (that offer is available just until 22 November). If anyone needs some ideas for my Christmas present…