A Welshman’s Pub is His Chateau

storyOne of the perks of being the ‘wine guy’ in a small village in Wales is that I have a certain amount of influence over what wine is offered in our local pub. I must admit that having an old friend as the pub owner – and a close family member as an employee on site – helps too.

When I first moved to the village of Llangors – located in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park in mid Wales – from the industrial valleys of south Wales in the early 1990s it felt like an idyllic place to live; beautiful countryside, the largest natural lake in the southern part of the country, a close-knit community, and two pubs. Little has changed in the last quarter-century here except, perhaps, for the pubs which have had to adapt to survive.

Rural pubs, traditionally the centre of the community, have been closing at an alarming rate in recent years. The Castle Inn in Llangors used to be a very typical ‘spit and sawdust’ sort of place, serving beer, cider and not much else. If wine was served, it was out of a box, and you drank it at your own peril.

Times and tastes have changed, even in rural Wales. Wine consumption now competes with beer, and people are expecting drinkable wine by the glass and bottle in their pubs.

The Castle Inn has been transformed under the stewardship of Mike Tunnicliffe and his small team of dedicated employees. Thankfully, they have done this without sacrificing the old pub’s charm. It continues to offer excellent local ales and ciders in very traditional surroundings, but now it has an extensive food menu, with everything sourced locally.

To compliment the food, and to appease those who prefer the grape to the grain, Tunnicliffe needed a good, affordable, wine list. Although most pubs now provide a selection of wines by the glass and bottle, it is rare to get an imaginative selection at pub prices. Typically, the wines on offer are from the New World; Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Chardonnay from Australia, and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from South America. Nothing wrong with that; good producers from those countries make some of the best wines in the world, and many of their affordable, mass-produced wines are ideal as ‘pub wines’. These offerings can be somewhat generic, however, and for true wine lovers it can be frustrating looking for better choice and quality.

After many hours of painstaking research (aka marathon tasting sessions at The Castle with Tunnicliffe and his team) we came up with a small selection of wonderful wines that now sit proudly on the shelves of the newly refurbished bar area. My step-daughter, Ailish, works at The Castle and has recently developed quite a palate for wine. Although Sommeliers are not currently associated with pubs, if ever that were to change, she would be an ideal candidate for the post.

I have already admitted, in a previous column,that I am a confirmed ‘Rhoneaholic’. I do believe that wines from the Rhone are the best value quality wines in the Old World. Needless to say, the Castle list is now very well represented with examples from that region of southern France.

One of the many nice things about Rhone Valley wines is that it is pretty easy to learn a ‘rule of thumb’ in relation to their quality and what to expect for your money. The basic wines are simply called Côtes du Rhône. You can get tremendous value at this level, although the less expensive versions (under £5 UK per bottle) are unlikely to be spectacular. The next step up is the Côtes du Rhône-Villages, made by a smaller number of communes and generally to a higher quality. Expect to pay around £8 UK for a good bottle. Next up the scale are the named villages – so the bottle will say Côtes du Rhône-Villages, followed by a named village such as Cairanne or Séguret. These wines can offer superb quality and value (typically around £12 UK per bottle from a good merchant).

The most prestigious wines from this region are the Crus, identified by their village name without the requirement to include Côtes du Rhône-Villages on the label. Perhaps the most famous of these is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, named after the village near Avignon where, in medieval times, the papacy built a castle and planted many of the vineyards still under cultivation there. Other wonderful wines in this category are made at places such as Vinsobres, Rasteau, Vacqueyras and Gigondas. Prices can vary tremendously at this level (from under £10 UK to hundreds and even thousands of pounds per bottle from the top producers). It is unlikely that you will buy a bad wine in this category, but you may end up spending more than you need to. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, can occasionally be found for around £10 UK per bottle but a good Côtes du Rhône-Villages for around the same price could well be a nicer wine. It is also possible to spend far too much on one of the named wines and find out that a big percentage of the cost was ‘for the name’. So although the above ‘rule of thumb’ is useful, it does not replace the type of painstaking research alluded to above if you want to be really sure of your Rhones. My advice would be, find a small corner of a cozy pub, line up your chosen candidates, and take notes with the aid of family and friends.

Personal Recommendations

Boutinot: La Cote Sauvage, Cairanne (Red): £10.50 UK bottle.
Boutinot: Les Coteaux, Côtes du Rhône Village (Red): £7.50 UK bottle
Domaine Chante Cigale, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (White): £15.95 UK bottle
Domaine Chante Cigale, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Red): £19.95 UK bottle
Paul Jaboulet Aine: Secret de Famille, Côtes du Rhône (White): £9.95 UK bottle

Dr. Michael Davies is an author, historian and wine expert in Wales.