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Wine List Confidential: The Wilderness, Birmingham

Douglas Blyde makes his way to Birmingham’s The Wilderness to meet “unconventional” head sommelier and “industry icon” Sonal Clare and taste his way through a menu that takes inspiration from Japan, France, Scandinavia, and the Midlands.

Cool, unconventional … although its all-black paint job, mirrors, scrawled aphorisms and pumping soundtrack will not work for everyone,” evaluated Good Food Guide of The Wilderness. Amidst the jewellers of Birmingham’s Warstone Lane, the sweet-smoke-smelling, 22-seat restaurant is found down an alley which leads, too, to the aptly-named 24 Carat Bistro. The destination is “a real blueprint for the future of ambitious, ingredient-driven cooking”, noted our guest, Tom Fahey, a restaurateur whose Terrace Rooms & Wine on the Isle of Wight also adheres to those words.


Originally “Nomad” until chef-patron Alex Claridge received an objection from the heftier hotel company of the same name, The Wilderness acquired today’s name from a Twitter poll. “It was the fourth on the list, added only to provide the requisite number of options,” recalls head sommelier, general manager, and industry icon Sonal Clare. “It won by 70%, and here we are…” Emanating speakers in the eaves, the soundtrack includes Black Sabbath, whose lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, hails from Birmingham, Iron Maiden, and Joy Division – whose musical canon has been known to dominate an entire service. Black even informs the napkins. The overall effect is meant to recall the subculture in which Claridge grew up. He recalls: “Birmingham had goth clubs, but when it became prettier, they got shut down.”


Born on an Ealing council estate in a modest vintage, Clare scoped GQ’s “Best Sommelier” award at the city’s Michelin-starred Purnell’s, which he managed, along with its liquid assets. While at this Krug Ambassade, he performed a now legendary dance, grasping one magnum per hand, around the Maison’s long dinner table. “I’m partial to Krug Grand Cuvée with Mum’s samosas,” he notes. At The Wilderness, Clare’s full-colour, heat-bound magazine wine list shows swagger, opening with the mission statement, “Fine Wines From Around The World Without The Bullshit”. Realised with the photographer Thom Bartley and designer Jack Casling, the impactful result, which we expect to become collectable, is “fun and disruptive, with integrity,” says Clare, who wears a boa constrictor in the parting image. Beyond wine, the accomplished cricketer, known for a memorable line in hats, is colour blind, “which does not help me when assessing wine…”

Clare. Image from Thom Bartley.

Wines by the glass range from Cramele Recas’s politely orange 2021 Ville Timisului Solara Romanian (£11/175ml) to Napa’s The Mascot 2017 at £100 via Coravin, reaped from Harlan Estate’s younger vines. Further demonstrating Clare’s inquisitiveness, there is a Cretan Thrapsathiri 2021 from Idaia (£15) and a Pineau De Charentes Blanc from Pierre Ferrand (£8/75ml) to ease post-tasting menu reflection.

Effervescent pours by the glass include Bollinger’s PN AYC18, which reads like an Irish numberplate (£35/125ml). Sparkling wines by the bottle include a library from Henley producer Hundred Hills, the rare “Sarawak-pepper” scented (according to Stefan Neumann MS) Saignée, and Sugrue South Downs’ “Zodo” (zero-dosage) MV. From Champagne, “timekeepers” comprise Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage, crowned by the 1998 Grand Vintage Collection (£300), with Salon Le Mesnil Blanc De Blancs 1999 at £1,600. The latter are priced at – or below – retail.

Still wines by the bottle range from the 2018 Mencia reaped from a collector of vineyards located on the St James pilgrimage way – Losada Vinos De Finca Bierzo 2018 (£45) to the “sous-bois” scented (Neal Martin) 2011 Lafite (£1,300). Clare has ensured interest at every price band, evidenced in Eschenhof Holzer’s 2020 “Space Invader” Müller-Thurgau from Wagram and a Georgian Saperavi in the form of Bedoba from Kakheti – both from 2020, and both at £60, then Suertes Del Marques 7 Fuentes from the Canary Islands (£70), Bargylus 2014 Vin Rouge from Latakia (£90), Mastroberardino’s rare 2016 Radici from Campania (£100), reaching to Château d’Yquem’s dry “Y” from 2020 (£350) at a shade below retail. In addition, an off-list selection of wines is available if one gives Clare the code word “please”.

The compendium of Beaujolais is also notable, a result of a sortie Clare took to the region. Having been “struck by how well” such wines age, “it seemed only right to bring a few beauties to The Wilderness.” Examples include magnums of 2015 Griffe du Marquis Fleurie by Clos de la Roilette (£170).

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the forthcoming cocktail selection, refined by the master of subtlety Rueben Clark, who also directs research and development at Silverleaf Bar in London.


Prepared in an open kitchen, dishes by Claridge and head chef Marius Gedminas are French in style with Japanese, Scandic, and indeed Birmingham influences. “Marius is a very calm and thoughtful chef,” says Clare. “He balances out Alex’s eccentricities and appetite for wild experimentation. They’re both very technical and experts at creating balanced flavours.”

In advance of today’s lunch, Clare, replete in a “Jesus Rocks” embellished belt, liaised with two guests in our booking over their choice of BYO bottles. He was happy to advise on decanting, glassware, and point of service.

Image credit: Richard James

Alongside The Red and the Black by Iron Maiden, lunch opened with a slim of pastry and rich of substance, bavette croustade with kombu and brown butter. With this, Clare served one of his “hacked wines”, intended “for the adventurous amongst you only” being “wines we have f*cked with, pulled apart, put back together, manipulated and recreated”. Poured in a Lehmann glass, the bouncy “sparkling Riesling” is an off-dry Kabinett from Germany … that we have made crazy fizzy like champagne.” While Clare acknowledges such an approach is “controversial”, it does “remove a bit of that stigma attached to the world of wine.” Clare urges caution beyond the confines of the restaurant, though. “Don’t try this at home with your SodaStream or you’ll lose your warranty.”

Delivered to Paranoid by Black Sabbath, lunch proper began with bluefin otoro with thrillingly contrasting jalapeño enriched dashi and sorbet, and smoked olive oil. With this, Clare offered two liquid collaborators with the words, “Welcome to Birmingham.” The first was a Spiegelau of hazelnut and orange blossom-scented Marsanne-led Saint Joseph Blanc (E. Guigal Lieu-Dit 2021) from a bottle bearing a robust portrait of the legal father of Jesus, patron saint of workers, and master of feast days. It looked like Claridge. The second was a ribbed cup and carafe of barely polished, nearly 18% strong, junmai sake: Konishi Shuzo, Shirayuki Edo “Genroku Redux”. With mushroom, fig, and cocoa notes, this relic proved the victor.

Chef Claridge sauced the next dish of Wye Valley asparagus and smoked eel at the table. “I apologise for being complicit in asparagus season,” he remarked of the lightly blanched then barbecued stem served with wasabi emulsion, “bastardised” Thai green sauce with finger lime, and smoked eel taramasalata. It being World Sauvignon Blanc Day, with this, Clare poured two renditions, brought via corkage, being the frustratingly zephyr-like Didier Dagueneau Blanc Etc 2018, which had barely budged in six years, alongside the leaping, greeting golden retriever that was the spectacular candied kaffir lime skin evoking Dog Point Section 94, from 2008.

As Brown Sugar careened from a speaker accurately marked “LOUD”, Clare went rogue with his next pairing, picking the modest in rank, value, and alcohol, Rosé d’Anjou – Les Grands Cedres 2022, presented in a tardigrade of an ISO copita. The bulky wine brought sweetness to a well-spiced, scallop-shaped veal sweetbread, brined then cooked low and slow, with a vital lemongrass curry sauce.

The next BYO bottle, Clos Stegasta Rare 2018, encapsulated organically tended Assyrtiko drawn from a 4,000-year legacy of grape growing on the island of Tinos 35 minutes ferry ride northwest of Mikonos. It was treated to a much more amplifying Burgundian vessel to accompany lightly-poached smoked trout, which had swum against the tide in a chalk stream, pepped with a yuzu beurre noisette ponzu sauce which continued to show Claridge’s fondness for acidity, roe, and homemade confit trout XO, finished with a mushroom tuille.

As The Final Countdown debuted today’s playlist, being number one in 25 countries in 1986, Clare lined up big Bordeaux Riedels for BBQ “cull yaw” chop – being a sheep no longer fit for breeding, though worthy for serious diners, with wild leeks, and a wild garlic sauce. The English muffin on the side was substantial in size and pleasure-giving potential, heightened by a mustard-like hit. The smooth, BYO Beaucastel 1998, reminiscent of aged venison, five spice, and pomegranate, showed how time is an ingredient when it comes to fine wine, while Clare’s dark plum, vanilla, and liquorice-scented Leeuwin Art Series 2018 Shiraz, unfurling beyond a Rangoli-like label, worked best with the dish’s seaweed purée, which acted like mint sauce. Though enjoyed by your reviewer given its personality, the other guests in the group found the albeit well-crisped fat on the chop overly ample. One even talked of enhancing surgery involving food-grade glue.

After a pre-dessert sorbet involving Amalfi lemon and yuzu, including freshly grated zest, with an engagingly textured birdfeeder-esque buckwheat disc, topped with shrill marigold leaf, Clare brought him final wine. We finished as we started, with Riesling, albeit not “hacked”, but as per the winemaker’s bottling. From Rheingau vineyards planted on the orders of Emperor Charlemagne, Schloss Johannisberg Gelblack Trocken 2022 brought pep to a cute, low, Riesling poached pear with cinnamon & bay leaf ice cream with cinnamon.

Last word

“There are no traffic wardens in this part of Birmingham,” said the unconventional Clare not of cars parked outside, but the range of glasses which had accumulated on our now heaving table. Meanwhile, Claridge is not a conventional culinarian, as he shared throughout today’s meal. “I didn’t do chef school – look at my eyes,” he told us, adding about his previous job at Deloitte, “I would have been a sexy accountant.” He revealed his impulse to cook stemmed from an urge, while at university, to triumph over anorexia.

Come the summer, Claridge and his team will open Albatross Death Cult, a 14-seat omakase counter in a Grade II wharf specialising in “good shellfish, raw, or shoved over a flame.” Of the zeitgeist, he opined, “Food gets terrorised by costs, policy, politics, and social media.” And of rising menu prices, he noted, “It’s all broken, all bollocks; I don’t want it as expensive as it is.” Asked about the sequel’s name, Claridge was also frank. “There were times during this project I wanted to die.” Fortunately, as per the adage, “struggling vines make great wines”, Claridge, Clare, and their team have, while in and at The Wilderness, maintained a hit – and we look forward to trying what will likely be the smallest, most detailed, and rare restaurant in the country’s second-largest city.

Best for

  • Visual drinks lists
  • Rock soundtrack
  • “Hacked” wines and 0% ABV flight
  • Growing sake selection

Value: 96.5, Size: 93, Range: 94, Originality: 100, Experience: 98; Total: 96.3

The Wilderness – 27 Warstone Lane, Birmingham, B18 6JQ; 0121 233 9425;;

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