“The Rotters’ Club” (by Jonathan Coe) used to be one of my favourite novels, for the simple reason that its plot line resonated so perfectly with parts of my own early teenage years. It has very little to do with Noble Rot (the magazine etc, rather than botrytis) except that when Noble Rot Magazine opened a restaurant of the same name in London’s Bloomsbury, a group of early fans, of which I was part, tended to call it by that name. It was a place that resonated with us as much as the magazine had done, and in my case the book before it.
Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew were drawn together when a highly successful young record executive (well, he signed Coldplay, but we won’t hold that one against him) met a young, dynamic, employee of Roberson Wine Merchants, via their much-missed retail outlet in West Kensington. Drinking together led to the birth of Noble Rot, the magazine, and then somehow to the wine bar-come-restaurant on Lamb’s Conduit Street, in an obscure part of London close to which I had spent my twenties working.
Noble Rot, the restaurant/wine bar, became a regular place to meet for lunch, or to partake in longer wine dinners behind the screen at the back. A combination of inspired wine choices and immaculate simple dishes made it just perfect. A warm place in every sense, where the warmth of the welcome was worth any number of Michelin Stars.
The kitchen’s influence, via Head Chef Dan Flavell overseen by Stephen Harris, is fairly obvious. Many will know that Stephen runs my favourite restaurant in the world, The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent. To get him on board in an executive role was the coup of all coups. The wine list(s) show less obvious influence. The wine preferences of Dan and Mark can easily be misconstrued if you look at their favourites “lists” at the end of this book. 1862 Madeira, 1945 Haut-Brion, Krug ’88 and Coche 1990 Meursault appear in a list which suggests the boys have been let loose in a sweet shop at some point. But if you look more carefully, you’ll find Overnoy and Puffeney, Philippe Alliet, Envinate, Les Vignes de Paradis and Cota 45 (and so on). When you dine at Noble Rot the wine lists (and the blackboard) read like a mix of “Terroirs” and “The Ledbury”, with a whole lot in between.
Following the magazine (2013) and the wine bar (2015), Keeling and Andrew set up a small wine import business (under that name), and most recently opened a second wine bar in the historic premises of “The Gay Hussar”, in Soho, a venue famous as a watering hole for plotting politicos which I have yet to visit, but once travel to London becomes possible it is top of my lunch list. To add further to the the Rotters’ vibe, 2020 saw this book appear, Noble Rot – Wine From Another Galaxy.
It’s probably helpful to attempt to describe what the book is and what it perhaps tries to achieve. The very first thing you notice is its design. The cover is simple but striking and the binding, beautiful. Inside, graphics and page layout have clearly been thought about a great deal. It’s not so difficult when you have many issues of a strikingly visual magazine whose graphic images and photos you can call upon. The book is clearly a mirror of the mag in many ways. The photographs, of which there are many, are mostly not just good but stunning, especially those taken by Benjamin McMahon, Juan Trujillo Andrades and Tom Cockram.
The book itself divides into broadly two parts. The first 130 pages introduce Mark and Dan’s adventures into wine journalism and restauration. You get some tales of the setting up of the mag and bar, with some nice pics of early interviews (the musical connection is strong here, not just the music references spattered around, but see the photo (below) of Brian Eno, taken by Tom Cockram, for an example of an early interview with a star, a theme the magazine has regularly pursued).
Next, we get a little wine learning: how wine is made, grape varieties, how to judge wine, how wines age etc. This section is mostly aimed at relative beginners, but the style is jovial and I’m sure even the most expert wine aficionado will enjoy it (though one or two might find the short section on grape varieties slightly simplistic).
We then see a well put together few pages on food and wine, with not surprisingly some nice recipes (and photos thereof). Bottle Art more or less follows, which allows the authors to demonstrate their own passion for design before we move on to the second, perhaps more meaty, part of the book. Pages 130 to 341 form “The Rotters’ Road Trip”.
We get thirty short chapters, or vignettes, covering visits to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Greece and back home in England. Some cover an event (La Dive Bouteille or the Paulée de Meursault), some of them cover a wine region (Champagne, Ribeira Sacra, Santorini), whilst others focus entirely on a single producer (Emidio Pepe, Comando G or Frank Cornelissen). This is where the breadth of the authors’ tastes comes into play. They do cover posh end Bordeaux, visit d’Yquem and consume thousands of Euros worth of wine in the drunken fog of Meursault’s Paulée, but in their visits to Gravner, Bea, Pepe, and Overnoy you understand that it’s all about the wine, not the money.
It is, in fact, a deep combination of wine knowledge and experience, and a true passion for the liquid, which makes Noble Rot, in all its forms (whether reading, eating or drinking it), including this book, such a feel-good place to be. I will not lie…via Noble Rot Dan and Mark have an entrée into parts of the wine world which I cannot hope to emulate. My long-term appreciation of Pierre Overnoy’s wines from a region I’ve been visiting since the late 1980s has never gained me a seat at his table, though I did get invited to stay at Pichon-Baron once. Mark and Dan can get to meet (almost) anyone, even Aubert at DRC.
But they don’t lord it over we mere mortals, and in fact I’m sure if they saw a familiar face at the side of the road, they’d invite them along for the ride. The whole Noble Rot concept is about sharing a passion. They do it with easy humour and a familiarity which is infectious, and this certainly comes through in these pages. Whether you know Noble Rot Magazine, or their London wine bars, or not, and whether you are a jaded old-timer who has drunk everything under the sun, or a wine newbie sensing a nascent wine flame within, you will surely love this book. It won’t furnish a plethora of encyclopaedic facts, but it will act as inspiration. Especially inspiration to drink as well and as widely as you can. I’m equally sure that you will be inspired to visit some of the vineyards portrayed in the photographs, which I can assure you really are as profoundly beautiful as they look. So that’s a definite and very firm endorsement.
Noble Rot – Wine from Another Galaxy is published by Quadrille (h/b 2020), an imprint of Hardie Grant. It costs £30.