Scottish people bristle when citizens of other parts of the United Kingdom use cliches to describe us, but we don’t have such issues when weaponizing them against each other.
For example, Edinburghers may tell you that residents of Glasgow — my city — are feckless and violent and often inebriated. In return, we Glaswegians may point out that those same critics from Edinburgh are entitled, aloof, and, worst of all, inhospitable.
If there is, or was, any truth in this, there’s also irony in knowing that despite Edinburgh being roughly half the size of Glasgow, it has a larger and more diverse food and drink scene, especially at the high-end. It also has double the number of tourists so, professionally at least, the Scottish capital has learned to do hospitality very well.
However, to me, a bitter and perhaps even jealous outsider, the vast numbers of visitors have corrupted the city’s personality; much like Rome or Amsterdam, it seems to exist for them, rather than its own residents. With 3.7 million annual tourists, Edinburgh — beautifully preserved and beloved by UNESCO — has evolved to sell a Scottish fantasy, presenting a semi-mythic version of itself smothered in unnecessary tartan and honking bagpipes.
Unusually, though, this need to entertain tourists does not extend to Edinburgh’s rapidly expanding wine scene; across the city, bars old and new, instead, focus on local clientele. As the pandemic took hold, travel quickly halted, and locals looked to support nearby businesses, this policy suddenly seemed very wise.
The wine newcomer
Spry is one of the newest arrivals in the capital. Opened just as Covid-19 was about to clamp its jaws around the global hospitality sector, it is a natural wine specialist — part shop, part bar and restaurant. “For the first, deepest part of lockdown, we were doing deliveries ourselves,” co-owner Matt Jackson told me from behind his bar on Haddington Place. “Now, hopefully the worst of it is behind us so we’re not doing that anymore. Our approach is to be much more personal, and our wines should be hand-sold … We really just want to be a neighborhood wine bar.”
This former hi-fi store is not a cozy place — the décor calls to mind an art gallery more than a bar — but the modern design perhaps reflects modern trends. “Our wines are as close to grape juice as possible,” he said, before detailing a portfolio that swung through Europe’s classic wine-producing nations, but also included a few in Eastern Europe as well as the U.K.
Leaving Spry, I headed over to the ruthlessly middle-class neighborhood of Stockbridge, a stronghold of wine lovers.
Walking along cobbled streets, I realized I hadn’t been offered a glass of wine in Spry. I wasn’t entitled to one and hadn’t asked, but still, this made me smile — the most common slander directed toward Edinburgh’s perceived lack of generosity is summed up by the definitive phrase, “You’ll have had your tea.” It means, “I assume you are adequately provisioned so I will not offer you anything — and don’t bother asking.” It may have been a new business, but at that moment Spry seemed very local.
Good Brothers is hardly ancient itself, having only been in operation since 2016, but in the fast-moving world of Edinburgh wine, it is now seen as part of the establishment. Some of Edinburgh’s many tourists make it this far down into Stockbridge, but for the most part, the clientele has always been affluent locals.
While the surging omicron variant was in the process of shutting down plans for a raucous festive season, the pandemic had not dealt a hammer blow to Graeme Sutherland’s business. “We transformed this place into a wine shop and deli, as well as moving into online delivery,” he said, pouring me a glass of tap water. “It did really well — so well that we’ve just opened another specialist wine shop. We went into lockdown with one business and have come out with seven.” I took a sip of water, then looked at the teeming bar, then took another sip as he spoke.
If expansion of a high-end hospitality business at a time of crisis sounds unusual to you, then you have perhaps not been to Stockbridge. This is a neighborhood laden with delis and bakeries, Michelin-starred chefs involved in scandal, a stadium for the English game of cricket, and cheesemongers — so many cheesemongers. All of which is a shorthand for money; there is a lot of wealth around these parts, and it should be no surprise that people spend some of it on wine.
Sutherland described the sense of competition between Edinburgh’s wine bars as healthy, but he quickly acknowledged that there are nearby businesses offering things he doesn’t. Among them is the nearby cheese-and-wine emporium Smith & Gertrude.
As with their nominal rivals, they had to be fleet-footed in 2020, quickly creating hampers full of wine and cheese for home delivery. “It’s been rubbish from a bar perspective, but we shifted to a shop, then to online deliveries and it’s been amazing,” affable co-owner Duncan Findlater told me before the place opened that cold afternoon. That was likely why no glass was forthcoming, but I instead assumed that his seven years of doing business in Edinburgh was long enough to have adopted the city’s traditions.
Over those years, Findlater had seen the wine scene first grow, then become increasingly niche. He’d also noticed that prices have come up with local appreciation of viticulture. “When we started, it was a challenge because people would see a glass of wine for nine quid [$12] and if you look at our Tripadvisor reviews from then, people were saying things like ‘What are they doing? This is horrifically overpriced.’ Now we regularly have glasses on for 12 quid [$16] and we can showcase much more interesting wine.”
Long haul wine
Yes, Edinburgh can be expensive and hospitable — professionally at least — but I have often wondered if it also knows how to have fun. For that, I left Stockbridge and walked back toward the city’s historic center. While the other bars had been beautifully designed, and their owners’ clear visions were driving them and the city’s scene forward, things immediately felt different in Le Di-Vin.
“I’m lucky I’m established and busy,” said owner and human whirlwind Virginie Brouard, as she spun over to my table inside her cavernous bar. We shouted our conversation over the noise of the other customers, many of whom were flush-faced with the festive spirit and plenty of wine. Here, the shackles seemed to be off, a bar that didn’t care if you were local or not, so long as you wanted to have a good time. There had been no deli or home-delivery service here — this was unmistakably a wine bar for drinkers.
Brouard opened in 2008, before wine had the cultural standing it now does in Edinburgh, but had never faced such challenges before, caused by both the pandemic and Brexit. “I hire new people, but they have never opened wine before — they are just a pair of hands. What can I do?” asked the boss, though I knew she wasn’t waiting for an answer.
“Look, this is the best wine bar in Edinburgh,” she said in a happier moment. Then, leaning into the mic I was using to record the conversation, added with a smile, “The best in Scotland, actually.” I had no idea if she was joking, but as she waved at a waiter and a huge glass of Rioja arrived in front of me, I found myself inclined to agree.
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Despite only being open for a few weeks at the onset of the pandemic, young owners Matt Jackson and Marzena Brodziak’s first venture into the busy wine market has survived and is Edinburgh’s only dedicated natural wine bar. As well as selling bottles to take home, they have a small restaurant and sell Scottish ciders, as well as wines from England and even Wales.
While Good Brothers’ range of wine is as diverse as any in the city, it is going to promote South African companies where possible in 2022. Between travel bans, poor access to vaccines, and various labor crises, that country’s wine industry suffered disproportionately through the pandemic. Look out for them in the Stockbridge location and in the sibling bar, Little Rascal, in the west of the city.
Though there are 30 wines by the glass and plenty more in the cellar, Le Di-Vin feels a lot more relaxed than other wine bars around Edinburgh. It’s also been around longer, having been opened in 2008. As well as a range of bar food, you can pop next door into La P’tite Folie for a more formal French meal, too.