Tom Cannavan's   

Try before you buy - in a restaurant?

by Philippe Boucheron, 04/02

Imagine you are sitting in a restaurant and the sommelier doesn't advance towards you with a sneer and a family bible sized wine list. Instead he simply invites you to join him at his wine-tasting table to select three wines that you feel you might enjoy with your meal!

  This is not a pipe dream but just one of the innovative ideas that restaurateur Stuart Campbell has introduced at Savannah, the first in a chain of groundbreaking restaurants a stone's throw from Oxford station. He already has plans for Reading and Guildford. The name comes from the green grass on which the cattle that provide his beef – the restaurant's speciality – graze throughout the year on Namibia's verdant South West African slopes.

But back to the wines. There are sixteen each reds and whites, and two rosés, all available either by the bottle, priced at between £9.90 to £39.00, or by a 175ml (large) glass which costs from £2.80 to £9.90. In addition there are three Champagnes from £24.50 to £38.00 per bottle. Top priced is Bollinger, but there's also a Grand Cru from Ambonnay for only £5.50 a 125 ml flute. There are also three delicious dessert wines from £22.00 a bottle. These include a patrician 1990 Vin Santo from the Marchesi de' Fescobaldi's Tuscan estates for £24.00 a half bottle, or £8.30 a 100 ml glass.

Your tasting samples are served in special Riedel glasses that hold a 10 ml measure in their hollow stems. You can even roll the glass, with the wine, over the white top of the table to see the colour and then enjoy the aroma captured in its tulip-shaped bowl, before letting the flavours flood over your palate.

Between services the opened bottles are held under gas in a refrigerator, and marked with a pen to show date and time of opening. All open bottles are tasted before service and any not entirely fresh is immediately discarded.


Oxford's gown and town has taken to this exciting wine tasting experience like the proverbial duck to water. In the evening the sampling table becomes a hive of activity while dinners debate the merits of Australian River Gum Shiraz-Cabernet (£13.00 a bottle or 3.60 q 175ml glass), a Malbec-Syrah from Patagonia (£17.00/£4.60) or a Gran Recosind Crianza from Spain's Costa Brava (£19.50/£5.20).

The whites include a 1999 Saint Véran from Southern Burgundy (£21.00/£5.60), a Pouilly-Fumé (£24.00/£6.30) or a magnificent 1994 1er cru Puligny-Montrachet (£39.00/£9.90).

But how long will it be before other restaurants catch on to this brilliant taste-before-you-buy idea?

Park End Street