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The Sampler: one of London’s most innovative wine merchants

The Sampler, a short walk from Highbury & Islington tube station in North London, is a wine merchant with a difference. As well as being a fine wine shop with an excellent selection of wines, including many older bottles, it’s unique in that it offers customers a chance to purchase small tasting measures of a rotating roster of 80 different wines at any one time. You can therefore try before you buy, which is excellent. Or you could try something you are curious about, but could never afford to buy a whole bottle of.

Jamie Hutchinson and partner Dawn Mannis, who own the shop, are able to do this because they have 10 Enomatic machines. These sophisticated devices pour wine without letting the remainder of the bottle deteriorate through oxidation. This is because the wine is poured by the pressure from inert gas (in this case nitrogen), which means that oxygen is kept away from the wine even during the pouring process.

So how does the sampling process work? You go into the shop, and if you want to do some tasting you purchase a card with some money loaded on to it. You place your card into one of the machines, take a glass, hold it under the relevant spout, and then hold the button down for a couple of seconds. You get a tasting measure of the wine, and the money is taken from your card. Each sample costs a different amount, depending on the price of a bottle, and there are a range of different wines on tasting at any one time, varying from say 30 p to £30 per single pour. If at the end of tasting you still have money on the card, it’s refunded at the till.

It’s a great idea, so why haven’t other merchants done it? Jamie Hutchinson explained why. First, the Enomatic machines aren’t cheap: they’re over £5000 each. And perhaps more significantly, the licensing rules are tremendously complex. ‘We spent a long time getting permission from the local council’, explains Jamie. ‘They were very helpful, but it took us a long time. We had to get it classified as a tasting event rather than on-trade’. This is quite a complex business. The Weights and Measures Act (1985) means that it’s only legal to sell wine in 125 ml, 175 ml and 250 ml measures in an on-trade setting. It’s only because the Sampler’s activity is a tasting event that they can get round this. It means that they aren’t able to have more than a certain number of seats in the shop, and they aren’t allowed another toilet. Jamie is also unable to be specific about the measures the sampling machines dispense because of this rule – but they are more than enough for a proper taste.

Selfridges recently tried to so the same thing as The Sampler, but opened without getting the proper permission from their local authority and so had to stop. Together with Selfridges, The Sampler is supporting public consultation to take wine below 75 ml servings out of the weights and measures act. This would also allow restaurants to serve flights of wine, for example, in small measures.

So do the machines keep the wines in good condition? Yes, it seems they do. The shelf life depends on the wine. For whites, Jamie (pictured right) reckons they’ll keep almost indefinitely. Reds last 2–4 weeks in good condition. These days, an average red wine in the machine is there for five days until it is finished. Jamie uses a generator to extract nitrogen gas from the air because they get through so much of it. The electronics linking the machines to the till and which work out how much is left on a card is probably the most impressive bit of the set-up.

I got a card and was set loose on some of the wines on tasting. This included a high-end selection of trophy wines, which is probably a bit grander than what’s normally on offer. Great fun, and a really rare chance to try wines like this.

Domaine de la Romanée Conti Romanée St Vivant 1993
Beautifully elegant, perfumed nose is warm and open with subtle herbiness, hints of earth and nice spiciness. A bit of greenness, but in a nice way. The palate is earthy and spicy with good structure and lots of elegance. The fruit is beginning to recede a bit but there’s lots of complexity here, and some herby notes meshing well with spicy tannins. Some people I was tasting with were disappointed by this, but I found it thrilling, although I wouldn’t say it has a huge amount of evolution ahead of it. And it’s absurdly expensive, but it is DRC. 95/100 (£699 The Sampler)

Harlan Estate 2002 Napa Valley
My first time with this cult Napa wine, which sells for around £600 a bottle. Fresh, spicy, earthy aromatic nose with sweet blackcurrant fruit and warm, subtly tarry, spicy notes. Hint of chocolate, too. The palate is sweetly fruited and dense with really nice dense, spicy, slightly earthy structure under the rich, but not overblown fruit. It’s an accessible new world-style wine but it’s balanced and has a long finish. 93/100

Screaming Eagle 1999 Napa Valley
A rare chance to try one of the most sought after Napa cult wines. Wonderfully aromatic with perfumed, sweet, complex, beautifully poised nose of tar, herbs, spice and sweet berry fruits. The palate is evolving beautifully with notes of leather and spice under the elegant sweet red berry fruits. Really nicely balanced with beautiful fusion of complex spicy notes, fruit and structure. 96/100 (£1500 The Sampler)

Château Margaux 1934 Margaux, Bordeaux
It’s always a great experience to taste very old wine, even though it is a bit of a lottery. This elderly Margaux is an orange-brown colour, and the nose is earthy, spicy, mature and quite complex. The palate is light with some earthy notes and fresh acidity, as well as some meaty hints. Not much left here: it has a beguiling, faded, haunting beauty, but it’s beginning to taste of old wine. There’s real interest, but I suspect this isn’t a great bottle. 92/100 (£550 The Sampler)

Château Petrus 1983 Pomerol, Bordeaux
A little disappointing considering the reputation of Petrus, but still an attractive mature Pomerol. Warm, spicy and earthy on the nose, with some sweetness. The palate is earthy, slightly herby and has fresh acidity, with some evolution. Quite structured but the fruit is beginning to recede a bit. An attractive, savoury wine, but some way short of greatness. 92/100 (£850 The Sampler)

Château Le Pin 1995 Pomerol, Bordeaux
This cult Pomerol is very appealing, but surely you don’t have to spend a grand to get something like this? Lovely sweet aromatics showing subtly leafy sweet red fruits. Quite complex. The palate has some firm savoury character with nice spiciness and freshness. It’s balanced, earthy and fresh with nice bright fruit and a hint of nice greenness. 93/100 (£1000 The Sampler)

Château Mouton Rothschild 2000 Pauillac, Bordeaux
Earthy, spicy and slightly rustic on the nose. Quite firm. Is there some brett here? The palate is earthy and dense with a robust spicy character. Dense and firm at the moment but lacks real elegance. To be honest, I expected a bit more from this. 91/100 (£700 The Sampler)

Château D’Yquem 1983 Sauternes
Totally beautiful.
This is concentrated and perfectly balanced with dense, complex spicy lemon/citrus flavours with waxy, spicy notes and wonderful depth. Drinking perfectly now. 96/100

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1990 Southern Rhône, France
This is a lovely, light, evolved wine drinking at its peak. Complex, warm, spicy and earthy with a lovely earthy, spicy character, as well as some meaty funkiness. A savoury style with lots of interest. 94/100 (£160 The Sampler)

Jamet Côte-Rôtie 2004 Northern Rhône, France
Fresh, bright, slightly meaty red fruits nose. The palate is quite smooth with dark, spicy, meaty fruit and good acidity. Spicy and a tiny bit rustic, but with lots of interest. 91/100 (£39.99 The Sampler)

Yves Cuilleron Saint Joseph Pierres Leches 2005 Northern Rhône
Very fresh, spicy red fruits nose is bright and quite refined, with a lovely freshness. Juicy, bright, expressive palate with some peppery spiciness. Finishes quite grippy. Lovely bright Syrah. 90/100 (£16.99 The Sampler)

Domaine de la Grange des Pères 1996 Vin de Pays de l’Herault, France
Probably the top wine from the South of France, and it’s great to get a chance to see how this ages. The answer is, pretty well. This has a complex, aromatic, spicy nose with lovely sweet, dusty aromatics. The palate is super-elegant with lovely earthy spiciness and nice acidity. Expressive, spicy and bright. 93/100 (£55 The Sampler)

Yarra Yerring Dry Red No 2 2004 Yarra Valley, Australia
95% Shiraz and 5% Marsanne and Viognier. Beautifully aromatic with sweet, forward cherry and herb notes on the nose, as well as a hint of nice greenness. The palate is sweet and nicely proportioned with lovely spicy warmth and sweet cherry and plum fruit. Just delicious. 93/100 (£37.99 The Sampler, £34.50 BBR)

Ben Glaetzer Wallace Shiraz Grenache 2006 Barossa, Australia
Lovely bright smooth liqueur-like cherry fruit on the nose. The palate is sweet and smooth with lovely purity of fruit and a bit of spicy structure. Satisfying and quite elegant. 90/100 (£12.99 The Sampler)

Greenstone Shiraz 2006 Heathcote, Australia
First vintage of this wine. Beautifully aromatic and bright with some nice spiciness and a liqueur-like edge to the elegant palate. Fresh, spicy and forward, this is full of interest, and made in a much lighter style than most Aussie Shirazes. 91/100 (£15.49 The Sampler)

Clos de Caillou ‘Le Clos de Caillou’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2004 Southern Rhône, France
Sweet, warm, herby spicy nose.
The palate is rich and bold with warm spicy fruit. An elegant spicy style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with robust tannins under the fruit. 92/100 (£59.99 The Sampler)

Haciendo Monasterio 2005 Ribera del Duero, Spain
Very deep coloured.
Supersweet nose of blueberries, blackberries, vanilla and cream. The palate is dense, spicy and full with masses of sweet dark fruit and spicy oak. Almost over-the-top in a very modern style, this intense wine needs some time to show if it is serious or not. I find it a bit obvious now. 92/100 (£38.99 The Sampler)

Astrales 2004 Ribera del Duero, Spain
Very sweet, lush, intense nose with ripe fruit and oak. Dense, spicy palate is bold and extracted with lots of weight and quite a bit of oak. An obvious but tasty style. 89/100 (£25.95 The Sampler)

Contact details:

The Sampler
266 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 2UQ
Tel: +44 207 226 9500
Website: www.thesampler.co.uk 
E-mail: jamie@thesampler.co.uk

Wines tasted 12/08  
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