Scratch beneath the surface of our city and you'll find some real hidden gems. So we have set out to explore the best-kept secrets and unsung heroes of Birmingham. This week, Ellen Manning ventures to Loki Wine...
On a recent visit to London, I fell in love with a wine merchants and tasting venue called The Sampler. What a great idea, I told everyone, to have a place where you can pay a small amount for machines to dispense tasters of fine wines. Somewhere you can wile away a few hours with friends exploring wines in a social setting. And not just that, but somewhere where you can tap into the expertise of wine buffs there to choose some bottles to take home with you.
If only the Midlands had somewhere like that, I thought.
Well actually, it does.
I’m not sure how Loki Wine has managed to stay under my radar for so long. It’s been thriving in the heart of the city centre for several years, yet I’ve been missing out until relatively recently, much to my shame. I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case. And despite my unforgivable lateness to the Loki party, my first visit showed me that while I’ve been blissfully unaware of its greatness, this little gem definitely hasn’t passed other people by.
Tucked in the ornate and opulent Great Western Arcade, Loki is a low-key tardis of a place. Its walls are lined with wines from across the world, with tables in the middle where judges and barristers can be spotted enjoying a tipple after long days at the nearby courts. Upstairs is a wine bar with Chesterfield-style sofas and tables reserved using scrabble tiles, where you can attend one of its many events, enjoy a platter of meats or cheese with your wine, or just pass the time with a glass of vino in hand.
Aside all this, what makes Loki stand apart is its array of specialist machines that will dispense you varying sized glasses of 40 different wines chosen by owner and wine fanatic Phil Innes chooses and his trusty band of fellow wine-lovers. When I visited, eight of the slots were given over to Riesling to tie in with Loki’s 31 Days of German Riesling event, but the offering is change regularly - so even if you make it your regular drinking haunt, you’ll never be stuck for choice.
Loki’s name - that of the mischievous Norse god - is no accident, but a reflection of the owner’s desire that wine should be fun and sociable and not the serious preserve of a privileged few. I was pleasantly surprised to find that bottles weren’t just at the top end of the price range, but many were easily in line with your average supermarket price for a half-decent bottle.
If you haven’t done anything like this before, it’s quite simple. Get yourself a tasting card, pop it in the machine, then dispense yourself whatever size taste you want. The prices will start at around 60p, rising the more expensive the wine is. No expert at this tasting malarkey, I enlisted the help of Phil and his colleague Paul to guide me through a little solo tasting expedition. As I tried to remember all the advice I’ve had in the past about sniffing, swirling and swigging, I soon fell in love with one of the Rieslings. From there I was led to something slightly different in the form of a Mahi Sauvignon Blanc and then on to another one whose name I clearly should have written down as it escaped from my mind amid all the excitement.
Trying to perfect my tasting skills, I listened intently as two barristers gave their own judgements on the wines they’d just tried - sharing tales that proved they were far more experienced wine buffs than I. But somehow it didn’t seem intimidating and I felt rather at home sipping on my various tasters and trying to work out what I liked most.
Up the stairs, I passed Loki’s many certificates and accolades - it’s won 11 major national awards in the past three years. I guess you could say that Loki to Birmingham what a good vintage wine is to many - rather excellent to those who are interested, and subtly under-the-radar to those who aren’t.
Once upstairs, I tried a rather nice Fleurie suggested to me by Phil while quizzing him on what had led him to open this unique little place in the middle of Birmingham. The answer boiled down to pure passion. He loves wine and he wants to pass it, and all the joy it brings, on to others. Just hearing him talk about the coup in the form of a forthcoming tasting dinner with Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell - who are behind some of South Africa’s finest chardonnay and pinot noir - is enough to convince you of his passion for what he’s doing and his desire to bring the big hitters out of London to Birmingham.
Of course, you don’t have to be a pro to appreciate Loki and, indeed, enjoy yourself. I’m certainly not the former, and I definitely managed to achieve the latter. While I’ve been daunted before by rows and rows of bottles lining walls from floor to ceiling like some kind of alcohol-filled library, I didn’t find myself intimidated here. In fact, a simple description of a forthcoming dinner and what we planned to serve meant I walked away with a list of several suggestions from the guys at Loki that I just know are guaranteed to impress.
To learn more, I could always go back for one of their many wine tastings and, indeed, gin. I may not be a wine buff, but somehow the idea of spending an afternoon learning about wine or gin in a place that seems to combine an olde-worldly wine bar feel with the passion of a young and endlessly enthusiastic staff sounds spot on to me. And even if you don’t want to indulge in an organised session, a walk through the picturesque Great Western Arcade and through Loki’s door is like stepping out of bustling city life to a hidden corner of quiet, wine-filled fun.
Benjamin Franklin once said: “Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance.” It may not apply to daily living for some of us, but a trip to Loki definitely made my Wednesday afternoon less hurried and tension-free than the average. And who can complain at that?
Review written by SWOOPE content partner Ellen from Eat with Ellen. Check out her blog here: www.eatwithellen.com.