A most historic lunch

PUBLISHED: 13:35 18 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

The wine and the conversation flowed when Philippe Boucheron dined with leading wine merchant James Tanner at Shrewsbury's Drapers Hall

The wine and the conversation flowed when Philippe Boucheron dined with leading wine merchant James Tanner at Shrewsbury's Drapers Hall.

A couple of months ago I lunched at Drapers Hall in Shrewsbury with James Tanner, the managing director of Shropshire's eponymous wine merchant. It was one of those happy occasions when my guest, the venue, the food and - naturally the wines - were all in perfect harmony.

James is a modern wine merchant running a family business founded in 1842. Shrewsbury's Drapers Company pre-dates that by some 400 years receiving its Royal Charter from Edward IV in 1462, the hall itself dating back to 1576. Chef/Patron Nigel Huxley opened his restaurant on the ground floor livery hall some nine years ago and offers excellent, well-measured Anglo-Saxon dishes created with great care and skill from local produce.

There are still people in the wine trade who believe that food and wine are different entities and should be kept apart. Thank goodness James Tanner is not one of them. He recognises that they are natural partners and feels strongly that the best way to combat alcohol abuse is for families to switch off the television and eat together round the table sharing a bottle of wine. "This would educate young people about the proper place of drink in the home while actually helping the digestion, as a glass of wine does help the food go down."

We certainly practised what he preached, enjoying an excellent bottle of Pinot Noir from one of Chile's oldest wineries in the Aconcagua Valley, as we lunched in some splendour under oak beams surrounded by original wood panelling. The bottle was of course, like the rest of the restaurant's wines, from Tanners which supplies leading restaurants between Manchester and the Cotswolds as well as throughout Wales.

Purists, or wine snobs to give them their correct name, might look askance as we enjoyed this cherry-fruit wine with its refreshing acidity throughout our meal - including our seafood starters. James began with a most magnificent mussel-decorated lobster bisque that had me green with envy until my own seared scallops cooked in a melted gruyere fondue were placed in front of me. This was a nicely balanced dish made all the better when I removed the quite superfluous decoration of raw red onions.

James followed with a steak while I settled for lamb cutlets, both excellent examples of local produce carefully prepared and perfectly presented. The lamb, tender and full of flavour, was pristinely pink under its delicate herb crust and accompanied by both a well-studied mint pesto and redcurrant jelly. As we ate James explained to me that although his company has retail branches in Bridgnorth, Hereford and Welshpool its website (www.tanners-wines.co.uk) is now creating as much business on-line as an extra shop.

As the Pinot Noir flowed, so did the conversation covering such wide-ranging topics as

screw-tops - James is in favour, specially for aromatic whites; organic wines - Tanners finds a stronger demand for these from restaurants than retail customers, but a butterfly symbol in their interesting and informative list indicates wines from environmentally friendly producers.

I was interested to learn how an independent family-owned wine business fared in a highly competitive world full of supermarkets and deep discounts. James was most sanguine, explaining that while the average high street multiple stocked big brands Tanners specialised in wines from smaller, quality-conscious producers. It also stocked the small châteaux Clarets and domaine produced Burgundies that are so much enjoyed by British connoisseurs.

Tanners is one of the few wine merchants that has been supporting growers' champagnes that are a special favourite of mine. The Drapers Hall list includes one of these, the elegantly expressive Grand Cru champagnes from Michel Arnould whose chef-de-cave Patrick Arnould, is, like James. the fifth generation of his family to run the business.

Over our desserts, a crisply caramelised crème brûlée for James and my trio of English farmhouse cheeses, we talked about the still buoyant Port trade while sipping a pair of most delectable 'pudding wines'. From Australia's Hunter Valley in New South Wales there was a brilliant botrytised late harvest Semillon while from St-Jean-de-Minervois on the Mediterranean came a Muscat vin doux naturel with an amazing depth and breadth of fruit.

As we strolled down Wyle Cop from St Mary's Place, where Drapers Hall is located, we talked about the huge range of around 1,300 wines and spirits stocked by Tanners. This, James was quick to point out, "does not include some 800 bin ends and special's in short supply that we keep for particular customers." In his modesty he did omit to tell me that yet once again his company had been won the International Wine Challenge award as Independent Wine Merchant of the Year, but then Tanners invariably walks off with this accolade.

On the drive home I pondered over Shrewsbury's good fortune in having two such precious jewels - a top flight restaurant in a medieval guild hall and arguably England's finest wine merchant outside London. Is it just luck or has it something to do with the magic that is Shropshire?

Drapers Hall

St Mary's Place


Tel: 01743 344679

Tanners Wines Limited

26 Wyle Cop


Tel: 01743 2345 00

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