Across the road from the Oliver Spencer store on Lamb’s Conduit Street is Noble Rot. Part restaurant, part wine bar, we spoke to Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew ahead of their reopening next week. While we may have saved a few pennies during lockdown by not having a place to turn to as we left the office, we look forward to heading over to the other side of the street and hopping from region to region through wine.
What came first - the writing or the wine?
Dan: Writing came a long time before a love of wine for me, as I wrote about music for Melody Maker, Jockey Slut and i-D magazine while at university in Manchester in the ‘90s. As well as a passion for the actual craft of writing I wanted to meet interesting people, and it was a way into my first jobs as an A&R (Artists & Repertoire) man at Parlophone and A&M Records. When I became fascinated by wine I applied the same logic to writing about a new passion.
Shop Their Looks
Dan: Writing under the influence can go either way. Losing inhibitions, and the critical voice in your head, can be liberating. Equally it can lead to pished nonsense. But I quite like editing my writing after a couple of glasses.
For people not particularly knowledgeable about the wine industry, can you explain the very difficult process of getting those two letters ‘MW’ after your name?
Mark: The ‘Master of Wine’ is part-marathon ‘blind’ tasting, where students have to identify 36 wines, and an epic part-academic degree. The number of people that pass is very low, and there are only around 400 Masters of Wine. I knew a guy who was in the programme on-and-off for 15 years and spent over £50k trying to become an MW, so I was relieved to get through the course in six years.
How do you both know each other? And how did the magazine first come about?
Dan: I met Mark in the late-noughties when I was Managing Director of Island Records on Kensington High St and he worked in the wine shop next door. I would pop out during the day to buy wine and we bonded over a shared love of Burgundy. We started to drink together after work and I went to many of the fascinating ‘vertical’ tastings Mark organised of cult wines such as Coche-Dury Meursault and Chave Hermitage in the shop basement, where we’d compare different vintages of the same wine. The idea for the magazine came about because we wanted to write and read about authentic artisanal wine within the context of gastronomy and the creative arts, unlike many more mainstream magazines who present many beige commercial wines in isolation.
Describe life pre-Noble Rot for you both?
Dan: Have you read ‘Kill Your Friends’ by John Niven?
Mark: I’d been working as a wine buyer for a few years. It was a job that I really enjoyed, though I had no previous experience before I got into it. An early visit to respected natural grower Jeff Coutelou in the Languedoc opened my eyes to the impact of chemical-led industrial farming – the neighbouring vineyards to his were almost dead – and instilled a love of small-scale artisanal growers in me.
Was it always the aim to open restaurants or did the idea just naturally evolve?
Dan: The idea ‘evolved’ soon after we realised you can’t make a living out of an advertising-free wine and food magazine! We originally dreamt up the idea of opening a Burgundy-themed wine bar called ‘Bourguignon’ while almost freezing to death at La Percée du Vin Jaune (‘Opening of the Yellow Wine’) festival in the Jura in February 2014. When we got back to London I mentioned it my friend Stephen Harris, who as well as being my wife’s cousin is the genius chef behind Seasalter’s The Sportsman, who said he’d help with the food. We quickly found investors, including The Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, who is a consultant and integral part of Noble Rot magazine and trawled Central London looking for slightly run-down restaurants with character. Then we found Vats Wine Bar on Lamb’s Conduit St…
In a nutshell, describe Noble Rot’s raison d’etre...
Dan: No frills, no fuss, just to drink honest, authentic wine with people you love.
What’s the best part of doing what you both do?
Dan: Being able to explore the wines we love drinking. Connecting a community of likeminded people with the magazine. And the buzz of a restaurant full of merry Rotters from all over the world.
Are you seeing the effects of global warming on the wine industry? For example, are new regions popping up because of it or others finding it tough?
Dan: Global warming is having profound effects on wine. We recently visited Radda in Chianti, a part of Tuscany which was previously considered too cool to consistently ripen Sangiovese, but which, due to rising temperatures, is now in a golden era. For a more extreme example, look how much English wine has improved over the last decade. It’s early days but the roots of a world-class winemaking culture are here.
Natural wine - it seems to divide people - what’s your take and how does one go about experiencing the best of it?
Dan: Whether a natural wine, or conventional wine made with sulphur/added yeasts, only a small percentage of each category is very good. We love drinking the best natural wines – say Thierry Allemand Cornas, or Il Paradiso di Manfredi Brunello di Montalcino – as much as a mature Chateau Haut Brion, or Krug Champagne, which are decidedly not natural wines at all. Likewise, we like to listen to Lonnie Listen Smith as much as Beethoven or Aphex Twin. We just like good, well made wines of all denominations that are true to where they are grown.
Have you ever both totally disagreed on a wine?
Mark: Hardly ever. So much so we can’t remember the last time!
Where would you say are the most underrated winemaking regions right now?
Dan: Sherry, Mosel valley, Chianti, Muscadet, Naoussa in Greece, Burgundy’s humble outlier appellations.
Tell us about the Rotter’s Road trip - it sounded like a blast!
Dan: The Rotter’s Road trip documents 7 years of us continuously exploring European wine regions. Some of them are old and famous – Chablis, Pomerol and the Cote d’Or – while others, such as Tenerife, Mount Etna and Gredos Mountains near Madrid, are rediscovering lost winemaking cultures and vineyards. It was amazing for us to meet the people behind our favourite wines and tell their stories. And eat and drink like lords along the way.
What’s the most memorable wine-tasting you’ve attended? (perhaps the best ones were those you have absolutely no recollection of)
Dan: A few years ago we were invited to a tasting of some of the greatest vintages of the five Bordeaux First Growths at the Four Seasons in Park Lane, which we wrote about in ‘Wine from Another Galaxy’. There were only twelve tasters including us, and we drank mind blowing bottles of legends such as 1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1945 Haut Brion, 1959 Ch Margaux and 1961 Latour, among many others. It really was the proverbial embarrassment of riches, and by far the greatest wine dinner we’ve both ever been to.
What are you really looking forward to drinking this summer?
Dan: I’m looking forward to travelling to Jerez to drink and write about the many underrated wines, both fortified and unfortified, made there. The trip was originally scheduled for March 2020, but something big got in the way.
Mark: Being able to share any bottle with friends again will feel fantastic, but more than anything I’m craving Santorini Assyrtiko with grilled octopus at a Greek island taverna. I went on a tour of the Rathfinny estate last year and was really amazed by the whole setup there - what do you think of English winemaking?
Dan: There’s a lot of very good English wine, and it’s only getting better. Some of the producers we love selling in our restaurants include Tillingham, Harrow & Hope, Hambledon and Breaky Bottom.
You’re down to your last £100, which you have judiciously decided to spend on a good meal and a glass of wine - what are they?
Dan: I’ll save mine for the start of grouse season in September, then go for one of the glorious birds roasted and served with bread sauce, watercress and a glass of Clape Cornas 2010.
Mark: I’ll have a glass of 2010 Meursault from Coche-Dury with a plate of the best prawns I’ve ever tasted - Gambas de Palamós.
What’s next for Noble Rot? I hear rumours of a bottle shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street?
Dan: Indeed – we’re opening ‘Shrine to The Vine’, the wine retail part of our import company Keeling Andrew & Co, on Lamb’s Conduit Street later this summer. And getting back to the very serious business of serving Rotters glorious food and wine at both of our restaurants from May 17th…