Venture off bustling Castle and Dale Streets and you might your new favourite street in Liverpool – a Diagon Alley-style that peculiar little somewhere-only-we-know snickelway that hosts your next favourite something in Liverpool. It’s R And H Fine Wines – the city centre’s only independent wine merchants, owned and run by Devin Stewart.
R And H Fine Wines isn’t just any wine shop though. With his personalised recommendation and delivery service, it offers much more than a simple transaction, explains Devin.
“The shop offers a look into, and an opportunity to try and buy, real wine. Wine that isn’t mass produced, that isn’t filled with additives, that tastes delicious and includes wine that you won’t find anywhere else in the North, let alone Liverpool.”
Though Devin had the nous to make it as wine merchant, having worked in Oddbins and various restaurants, he didn’t necessarily have the inclination, being more interested in rock’n’roll stardom, then a budding law career inspired by impending parenthood.
But when Oddbins closed Devin decided he’s rather sell booze to lawyers than become one – his personal recommendation service has ensured a steady trade. The next logical step was a shop of his own and when a unit became available on Queen Avenue it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
R And H Fine Wines is cosy and intriguing, offering up wines and spirits that draw admiring glances from people who know their drinks – and an opportunity to delve into something new and thrilling for those who don’t. The bottles lining the shelves might as well be books, as with a story to tell. Stories like the one behind Fat Pig, the wine named after bankers who refused the initial loan to get the vineyard off the ground.
“The guy makes it biodynamically – it’s chemical-free – and the label tells the story of the bankers who refused him the money to get his business of the ground. You can get that for under a tenner and I think that’s a bargain.”
Provenance is something Devin takes seriously (like his music – he compared one of his wines to Tom Waits while we were interviewing him) and the like Fat Pig, much of the wine in R&H is organic or biodynamic, something the proprietor feels strongly about.
“I like handmade wines that speak of the place they are from and that surprise and excite – and sometimes disappoint. These tend to be organic or biodynamic wines. Sustainability is commendable and I do believe that organic or biodynamic agriculture should be applauded – and ethically outweighs a market demand for cheaper wine.
R And H Fine Wines certainly offers plenty of choice, but if you don’t know much about wine that’s not necessarily a good thing. So here’s the 64 millilitre questions. What’s good and affordable?
“It might sounds obvious, but if you buy a bottle of wine you’re paying around three pounds for taxes and duty. Pay a fiver and that doesn’t leave a lot of money to spend on the wine, especially given that it’s probably been transported from abroad. Pay a little more and for ten or twenty pounds you’re hopefully paying a much larger proportion of your cash on the wine itself.
“For a tenner I’d suggest Gran Cerdo – the Fat Pig – that’s a very good expression of a young, vibrant Tempranillo from the heart of Rioja. You can get that for under a tenner and I think that’s a bargain.
“You can get inexpensive wines from Argentina and Portugal that are consistently good, with a little more depth to them. They both deliver. Spain, outside of the Rioja region, is also a good bet. Jumilla offers some excellent value.
“If you want something nice – perhaps as a gift or for a dinner party – I might look to Puglia in Southern Italy. Some of the Primitivos have such a depth of flavour it’s mind-blowing for £15-20 – or you could get a good Burgundy for around the some money.”
Needless to say R And H Fine Wines sells all of these bottles. But it’s the combination of the wine stocked in the shop and Devin’s knowledge that makes it such a fascinating place. Tell him what you like, what the occasion is and Devin can recommend you a wine that might not be sold anywhere else in the country. For the cost of a couple of cocktails in one of Liverpool’s polished-concrete bars.
And what of bubbly? With Christmas approaching it’s Cava and Prosecco season, but Devin is keen you don’t think of them as a cheaper version of Champagne.
“It took me a while to get my head around Cava and Prosecco. Sparkling wine from throughout the world is often an imitation of Champagne; they use the same grapes and procedures. But with Cava and Prosecco in Spain and Italy you need to remember what they’re designed for. It’s not necessarily to have the richness or complexity as Champagne.
“I’m a late convert to Prosecco – it’s not too alcoholic and it’s a wonderful celebration drink. The cork flies across the room; there’s a pop and there’s fizz but that’s where the similarity to champagne ends. If you remember that they’re not imitations of Champagne you can enjoy them for what they are. There’s more Prosecco in my personal stash than anything else at the moment.”
That’s all well and good, but if you’re a wine naif, what should you look for? Devin recommends figuring out what you like and what you want it for and branching out from there.
“If you want to get into wine you can find out all sorts about a bottle from the internet – the vineyard will almost certainly have a website so you can find out about the grape and its characters.
“If you like Rioja, for instance, there’s a good chance you’ll like Malbec. With white wines like the New Zealand Sauvignon you might like the Sancerre
“If you like a bottle of wine, find out about it from whoever’s given it to you, served or sold it to you. Or if you can find someone who knows about wine, talk to them – they’ll be able to recommend some more you might like if you can tell them what you usually enjoy.”
Dev might know his wine, but he’s no no wine snob. Despite the fact that R And H Fine Wines is full of the stuff he’s pretty phlegmatic when it comes to wine and how you drink it. As far as he’s concerned, if you enjoy it that’s good enough for him.
“The thing I love about wine is that you can just drink it and enjoy it – you don’t need any knowledge of it to simply enjoy drinking it. But, like music, if you don’t feel it then what’s the point? You’re better off listening to something you like; it’s the same with wine.”
“My wife asks me, when she’s drinking wine, if she can detect certain flavours in there – as far as I’m concerned if you can taste it that’s fair enough. Drink it – and see if you like it. I’m sure as Hell not going to tell you what you can taste!”
R And H Fine WinesQueen Square