Argentina’s wine embassy

Gaucho, an international steakhouse chain, has single-handedly raised the profile of Argentinian wines in the UK and other markets. Adam Lechmere pays a visit.

The interior of Gaucho is as luxurious as the steaks and wine.
The interior of Gaucho is as luxurious as the steaks and wine.

Going into the Gaucho in London’s Piccadilly on a fine spring morning is a slightly disorienting experience. It’s dark, the walls are extravagantly mirrored, and every surface is either gleaming silver or black and white cowhide. I’ve never seen the inside of a Buenos Aires bordello, but can understand what one critic meant when he compared Gaucho to one. Whatever the time of day, you almost expect to see a girl in a (cowhide) bikini on the bar tops. “A bordello? Yes, that’s the idea,” Phil Crozier, Gaucho’s director of wine says deadpan, puffing clouds of aromatic steam from his electronic vaper.

London is now so well-served with upmarket steakhouses and Latin American restaurants that it’s easy to forget how long Gaucho’s been around. Anyone wanting a pedigree steak nowadays has the choice of the violently expensive Smith & Wollensky, the ever-expanding Hawksmoor chain, Mash, Portland and a dozen others. Richard Caring of the Ivy has a steakhouse, as does Marco Pierre White.

There’s just as much choice if you want Latin American, from Peruvian to Brazilian-Japanese fusion.

But before them all there was the Gaucho Grill, as it was known. 

Wine juggernaut

Gaucho is the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Zeev Godik, who opened the first one in Amsterdam in 1976. The UK chain was launched in 1994 in a basement in Swallow Street, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus (it now occupies all four floors of the building and is the flagship branch).

Back then there were just 13 wines on the list, Crozier remembers. At first, Gaucho was a “pan-South American” restaurant, with a Peruvian element as well. It wasn’t until the early part of this century that they decided to go all-out Argentinian, in particular with the wine list. Now the group’s 18 restaurants – in and around London, in Leeds and Manchester, Dubai, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires – carry 194 Argentinian wines, all but 10 of which are exclusive to Gaucho. Many of the wines are developed in close consultation with winemakers like Susana Balbo, Roberto de la Mota, or Alejandro Vigil of Catena Zapata.

The bearded Crozier, who dresses in tweed and has something of the lugubrious air of a screen detective, is a world authority on Argentinian wine. Some would say he is the authority. Andrew Maidment, UK director of Wines of Argentina, considers him key to the success of Argentina. “Phil is often the first person to take on new, small wineries, in the process assisting them in getting a foothold in the market. In that sense he has been instrumental in getting us to the position where we could experience the growth we are currently seeing today.” 

As part of his mission “to educate and enlighten” his customers, Crozier has developed a series of tasting menus that highlight key aspects of the Argentinian terroir. One flight demonstrates the importance of picking dates: two Malbecs from Altamira harvested a month apart. Another, from Mendoza, shows four wines picked from separate parts of the same vineyard, to highlight the difference soil makes.

“Argentina is just discovering its soils,” he says.

Close relationships

Do the kind of people who come to a steakhouse really want this much detail? Yes, Crozier says. Gaucho customers aren’t what you might expect. “There is an equal number of women and men. They tend to be aspirational – you can get intellectual types. They want to learn about wine.” 

Crozier knows his way around the meat, which is sourced and aged as impeccably as the wine. It comes from 24 farms and is shipped over – the group gets through 7.5 tonnes a week – but the wine list is his empire. As well as the bespoke cuvées he makes with Argentina’s premier producers, there are also Gaucho’s own vineyards at Lunlunta in Mendoza. Every corner of Argentina, from Salta in the north to Patagonia, 2,500 km to the south, is covered. “I have not seen another buyer or restaurant group anywhere in the world that has such a close relationship with the country from which they buy,” Maidment says.

Gaucho is that rare entity in the modern corporate world – an international chain with a unique character. Not all the branches are as louche as the Swallow Street HQ (some are wholesomely bright), but it sets the tone. The décor seems to say, “this is where you come to learn about red meat, and red wine – grown-up stuff”.

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