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Bar Pepito prepares to shift focus from Sherry to Rioja

Richard Bigg, founder of Spanish restaurant group Camino, tells db about why King’s Cross’ Bar Pepito is switching from Sherry to become one of London’s first bars dedicated exclusively to the wines of Rioja.

Originally opened in 2010, the sub-300 square feet space of Pepito has been dedicated to the wines of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry DOP for more than a decade.

However, despite Bigg’s own personal infatuation with the region’s fortified wines, partly fuelled by extensive time spent in Andalucia, he believes that it’s time to change tack and look further north to the powerhouse of Spanish wine production.

“We’re not making the change because we’ve fallen out of love with Sherry, and we never will,” reassured Bigg, “but, it’s time for a change – all good things come to an end. Now we’re going to arguably make our lives a little bit easier by dedicating the same bar to something that everyone has heard of and likes.”

Indeed, though Rioja features on wine lists across London bars and restaurants, this is a very rare instance of a venue entirely dedicated to it. “I cannot understand why somebody hasn’t really gone for this in a big way before…It’s more powerful if you dedicate a bar exclusively to Rioja. I can’t think of one single wine region on the planet which has such a diversity of grape varieties and styles.”

Given that diversity, and the constraints Pepito’s small size puts on the number of wines it is possible to stock, the team at Pepito have had to be highly selective. So far, 210 wine samples have been tasted and assessed by Bigg, head of people and drinks Hannah Duffy Russo and executive chef Nacho del Campo. “There’s more to come, but the list is 98% complete.”

“I don’t want to have 100 wines on the list, otherwise people will say ‘I don’t even know where to start’,” explained Bigg. “I’ve got it down to 40 now, which was my target, I’m really going to resist trying to go over that number.” He also asserted the importance of ensuring that the descriptions on the list are “short, accessible, and not long-winded.”

Bigg stressed the importance of opting for quality over quantity: “How many Reserva reds does the customer need to choose from? Sure, there’s lots of different styles, but I’ve got it down to five, and I’ve also only got a couple of Crianzas. I’ve got plenty of Tinto Genéricos which do the job very, very well – they don’t all have to have oak on them”.

But, though highly selective, Bigg has still sought to showcase the whole gamut of red Rioja styles. “One extreme is the most traditional styles aged in oak, and on the other end we have Viñedo Singular and vino de autor – really modern, fresh, fruit-driven styles.”

While white wines may only make up a tenth of Rioja’s viticultural output, it is a category that Bigg is also particularly eager to feature: “This is an area I’m almost even more excited about than the reds…it’s not just all Viura, it’s also Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca.”

“We’ve got the various levels of oak ageing – the more modern styles tend to be French oak – an example at the modern end that I absolutely adore is Remírez de Ganuza, which just leaves you speechless. And then probably my favourite white of all is Viña Tondonia from R. Lopez de Heredia. It’s such a wonderful bodega, steeped in history.”

A new menu is also being developed to complement the wines. While the first thing visitors to Bar Pepito’s current incarnation see is a leg of jamón, the new version will greet them with countertop fridges filled with traditional pinchos/pintxos. Given that del Campo hails from Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the Basque Country, and Rioja Alavesa is situated within the territory, there will be a clear Basque influence on these small plates.

As part of this change, the Sherry paraphernalia will be taken down and the bar interior will be altered, thanks to B3 Designers: “We’ve got to maintain the charm, but we’ve also got to move up a gear.”

At present, Pepito is still open as a Sherry bar. As for when its transition to Rioja will be complete, Bigg said: “The earliest we can open is the end of April, which is pretty damn soon, but it may be May.”

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