With a youthful energy and an uncanny eye for predicting a trend, Richard Bigg is the founder of one of London’s most popular Spanish restaurant groups, Camino, as well as being associated with legendary music venues across East London.
After founding Cantaloupe (1995) in Shoreditch and, more importantly, Cargo (2000), a leading underground music venue with a food offer well above what is usually on offer in a night club, Richard went on to establish the Big Chill Bar in Brick Lane (2004) and King’s Cross (2006), taking the name from an annual music festival. A year later, Bigg opened his first Spanish focused restaurant, Camino in King’s Cross.
There are now three Camino restaurants across London – in Shoreditch, Monument and King’s Cross – and his latest venue is Bar Rioja, the UK’s first bar dedicated exclusively to wines from Spain’s most famous wine region. This is located in the space formerly occupied by sherry-focused Bar Pepito, another of Richard’s daring ventures, which was named Time Out Best Bar in London in 2010.
This was the first of many accolades. Camino was named the Best Restaurant Group at the Spanish Wine Awards 2013 and was awarded ICEX quality restaurants from Spain certification in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Richard was himself ordained a member of the Gran Orden de Caballeros de Vino in 2020. We caught up to find out more about his business ventures and views on Spanish wine.
Richard, what prompted the move from cutting-edge music to Spanish food and drink?
Well, actually the two strands of the business continue in parallel, as we still run the Big Chill Bars as well as the Camino restaurants and Bar Rioja, but going back to the start, Cargo was huge fun, the music programming was terrific, real integrity, but very expensive. The cost of booking the artists meant we didn't actually make any money there. We had to sell it to get to fund everything else we were doing.
The same goes for the festival, it took up half the year, but it was only for one weekend, so eventually we knocked it on the head to continue with the two bars. And I said, “I love Spain, I love bars. Let's put the two together.” I ran that idea by my co-directors and they said, “Okay, let's do it.” And we found this old building with a gorgeous courtyard in King’s Cross, while the area was still pretty rundown.
Where does this love of Spain stem from? I read that you first visited back in 1984 with a girlfriend who dumped you in Zaragoza!
Yes, in the bar there’s a picture of the car that we drove there in, a little black Mini. I was 21 at the time and I’d never had Spanish holidays as a kid, it was my first trip. I’d been tasked with delivering her safely to a family friend’s house in the Sierra de Malaga, so even though we broke up in Zaragoza, I drove her all across Spain in this clapped-out Mini! Having grown up in the UK, I was used to little hills and nature being green and soft. To experience Spain in all its extremes was just fantastic.
And do you remember any of the food and drink you tried on this trip?
I have one powerful food memory. After I’d safely delivered her to her family, I went to stay with a school friend’s uncle in El Escorial. And they had a cook who made us a tortilla for the journey when we left. It was honestly the best thing I'd ever eaten in my life at that stage. It was soft and juicy and I was driving this little Mini, straight into the sunrise. So I could hardly see where I was going and trying not to drop tortilla all over myself. We make individual tortillas like that here now. Such a simple thing, though so easy to get wrong, but Nacho, the executive chef, and his team do an awesome job.
That first trip opened my eyes to how amazing Spain is. I went back a year later. Then I found myself just going back twice a year and more and more. Now, I have a Spanish wife, from Barbastro in Somontano, Aragón, and we’re there all the time.
You first opened Camino in 2007. How has the wine list changed since then?
It has gone through many evolutions; it has got longer and shorter in length. We've tried lots of different things.
Rioja has always sold well - I guess that's no surprise - and the more inexpensive wines. Try as I might, I find it harder to sell wines further up the list. And that's partly because of where Camino food is, high quality but fairly priced. The whole design of Camino is very accessible, informal and fun. I had Vega Sicilia on the list at one point at £600 for a Magnum, about 10 years ago, which was probably aiming too high. But we sure have tried. Then I think what suits us best is the length of the list we have now, which goes up to about £90 a bottle, but there's only 11 reds and 11 whites, a couple of rosés, and three Cavas. Four dry Sherries, three sweet.
It may be short, but I noticed some fascinating wines on the Camino wine list – El Tiempo Que Nos Une from Bodegas Cerrón, Camino de Navaherreros white from Bodegas Bernabeleva - how do these more unusual wines go down? Do certain customers come in looking for these types of wines?
Not many, but I don't want to dumb the list down. And I agree these two are terrific wines. I'm always going to have some more interesting things there, and they're always going to be on more modest profit margins. Big hint to anyone reading this is to go for the more obscure stuff and you’ll get more bang for your buck. And we've always wanted to be good value, particularly the higher up the list you go. If we make 25 to maximum 30 pounds margin, I'm delighted. And I want people to try it. I don't want to make it inaccessibly priced.
For example, the Chivite Chardonnay from Navarra is on the list here for £65 whereas it’s £105 in some other restaurants.
Which are the best-selling wines on the list?
Actually, alongside the house wine and the Albariño we stock, which always sells well, it’s a wine we added in the last year, a Tempranillo Blanco from Fincas Azabache in Rioja Oriental, where we've just been on a staff trip. That's a really good wine and it's overtaken every other white above the Rueda.
The name Rioja certainly helps sell it and maybe the word Tempranillo has helped. But for me, that wouldn't be enough unless the wine was very good. But it is. It’s got terrific balance and drinks really well and it absolutely flies out the door. I think it helps that it has a very attractive bottle as well.
As for red wines, Beronia Reserva is the best selling red at Camino Monument. It’s on the list for £47.50 but sells more than twice as much as the house wine. We’ve worked with Gonzalez Byass for years and went on an impressive trip with them last July.
So do the 4 Rs (Rioja, Ribera, Rueda and Rías Baixas) dominate in the way they do in Spain?
Rioja yes, but Ribera Del Duero, no, as much as I love it. We’ve got the Pago de Los Capellanes here, which is just so correct, pretty much faultless. But consumers here think it’s expensive at £70, even though it’s £120 elsewhere. So it's phenomenal value, but people don't understand it. Although maybe in some circles they will, of course.
Rueda does well by default, we say, if you like Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll love Rueda, it's got such similar characteristics. A bit more tropical, I suppose. The DO Rueda has been doing a campaign in the UK, sampling in events like Taste of London, which I think has helped raise awareness.
Albariño is so popular. People just don't even think about it now. They just have it. That's why we sell it at our Big Chill bar, even though it's a music-led bar with dancing that turns into nightclub, more of a beer and cocktails crowd. But we have a very short wine list, which includes a Verdejo, an Albariño, a Tempranillo and a Rioja. The Verdejo and Tempranillo are effectively the house wines but we’ve found people prefer asking for a variety rather than requesting the house white or red.
What other Spanish wine regions and varieties do you think British consumers are now becoming aware of?
Godello may follow in Albariño’s footsteps, although it’s not there yet. Rías Baixas is becoming more known for blends beyond just Albariño, people are starting to say “Oh yes, I’ve had some wine from Rías Baixas,” although if it has Albariño in the blend, that helps with the recognition.
There are a lot of regions like Utiel Requena, Valencia with wonderful grape varieties like Merseguera but I think that’s going to be extremely niche for a while yet.
Catalonia has good prospects beyond Cava, which is the one product people know. We’ve got a Montsant Garnacha Blanca, which is terrific; I love that. We’ve got Scala Dei from Priorat in the reds. I was just reading a really good article by Beth Willard on Terra Alta. I recently went to Tarragona on holiday and enjoyed some Garnachas Blancas there.
As you mentioned Cava, do people come into the restaurant asking for it by name or do they just ask for sparkling wine?
Our regulars know about it, but some people who have never been to Camino before ask for a glass of Prosecco and we explain politely that we have a traditional method Spanish sparkling wine instead. I’d love to see the image of Cava change and for people to understand that it’s traditional method and it’s better than Prosecco, which is made using the tank method. However, whether they understand it or not, it sells like wildfire. It's part of the offering for bottomless brunch as well.
Are there any Spanish wines that you'd like to buy more of but you think - or you've found - that they don't go down well with customers?
I’d love people to have more sherry. In fact, we’re opening a terrace area with a real pared-down drinks list with a couple of aperitifs, including a Tio Pepe and tonic. I think that's a fun way to introduce people to Fino. I love it on its own, but it’s fun like that as well. Then we’ve got a couple of vermouths, a couple of G&Ts and four dry sherries for people to choose from before they go to their table. They are the ultimate palate cleansers and get the taste buds prepared for your meal.
As for other wines that are a hard sell, Txakoli is an interesting one because I love a glass of Txakoli when I'm in a bar overlooking La Concha in San Sebastian on a sunny day before lunch. That can be great, but generally I find Txakoli a bit austere and surprisingly expensive. I really always want to love it more. I know there are different styles of Txakoli, but I tend to find them relatively expensive for what they can be. Maybe it’s just the ones I've tried.
And what about red Garnacha, have you seen the trend for new style Garnachas from Sierra de Gredos, Méntrida, Aragón reach here?
I'm seeing Garnacha more in supermarkets, which is a great thing. And there are Garnachistas like Norrel Robertson MW who have been flying the flag for the variety and the Aragón region for a long time. I think it's important that people know it's a Spanish grape variety originally. I think it's getting more recognition. I love the fact they're not uprooting it all in Rioja anymore. I tried the wines from Sandra Bravo of Sierra de Toloño at the Rioja Residency tasting. Very high altitude Garnacha, so subtle, I loved it. That’s the sort of wine I’ll be looking at including in the next version of the Bar Rioja wine list.
That brings us nicely to Bar Rioja, which occupies the space previously inhabited by the sherry-focused Bar Pepito. What happened? Did the sherry trend come to end? Was it Covid?
It was a combination of things. It didn't close down. It continued to trade. To be honest, I couldn't believe it was so successful in the first place. I thought, hey, let's give it a shot. Try and dedicate our bar to what was not the coolest drinks genre at the time, but I loved it. And I also was well aware that all the real experts end every tasting with sherry and they offer staggering quality for the money, consistently high. Best food matching wine on the planet. I've been drinking it since I was very young because I used to get it at my great granny’s house.
So I thought, well, there's not a lot to go wrong. It was a small bar designed to be very Andalusian. And the success was beyond my wildest dreams; we even won the Time Out Bar of the Year Award in 2010. It generated lots of publicity for us. I thought it would last six months, or maybe a couple of years or two, but it lasted 13 years. And the reason we switched it was because increasingly I was seeing people coming to the bar but just drinking regular wine, and we only had a very short wine list on purpose. So I thought, why fight it? And I’d been thinking about opening a Rioja bar, maybe in the West End, but I thought actually, why don't we do it right here? Just flip it from Sherry to Rioja. I will always love Sherry. It's brilliant and always will be. I’ve a very big space in my heart for it. But let's have a go with Rioja. It's a much easier sell. So that's what we did. So I spent some time putting this together with our head of drinks, Hannah Duffy Russo, and our executive chef Nacho del Campo who is from the Basque Country.
Do you think people understand what Rioja is? That it's a wine region?
The English love Rioja, even if they don't know exactly why. Some say, “I love Rioja, it's my favourite grape variety”, or think that it’s the generic name for Spanish red wine. It doesn’t matter, as long as you like it.
But we’ve found that 90% of the people come to Bar Rioja because they are already fans, many have visited the region, loved Calle Laurel. And if they don’t know that it’s a region, they will when they see the massive map on the wall!
I heard you say that you couldn’t have opened Bar Rioja ten years ago. What has changed? The region and the wines available or consumer attitudes?
What made me determined to open it is how far the wines have developed. The great stuff was always great. But all the new types you have: the Vinos de Pueblo, Vinos de Zona, Viñedo Singular wines. Whilst traditionally, Rioja wine makers are master blenders and just brilliant at it and the barrel ageing system can produce awesome wines, I think it's incredibly important to celebrate the single vineyard plot or the single area of the town as well.
But the biggest change for me has been in the quality of the whites; they’ve come on leaps and bounds. I want to be absolutely proud of every wine on the list. I wouldn't put a wine on the list unless we as a tasting team loved it. And there used to be some unoaked Viuras that I thought were frankly a bit bland. But they are so much better now. And we've got the single varietals, we've got blends, got brilliant Garnacha Blanca from Abel Mendoza. It's just super, at all the various stages of ageing.
What we try to do with this bar is celebrate the best of the tradition and at the same time do the absolute best of the modern styles. In my book both are equally Rioja and deserving of the prestigious title of the brand.
I want to keep it interesting. I want the real enthusiasts, the geeks and the crazy wine nerds to find something really interesting that they love. For example, we’ve got the amazing Ripa Rosado from the husband of Maria José Lopez de Heredia: a rich and textural rosé. All available in 75ml and 125ml samples as well as by the bottle, as we want people to come in and try lots of different styles.
Do you think there are any other regions that you could dedicate a whole bar to?
No, I can't think of any other region in the world that could do it so well and cover so many styles from dry whites and reds to sparkling and even sweet; we have a Moscatel from Bodegas Ontañon. Maybe Bordeaux has the recognition, and a good range of styles, but it wouldn’t be right, it could be regarded as too snooty.
How did you select the wines for the list? Do you import any directly or do you buy through importers?
We tasted 220 wines in total. We did it over several different sessions and it took about two or three weeks, category by category. All blind, had no idea what they were, except that they were Crianzas or barrel-aged whites.
I work only through importers. I did consider importing directly at one point, but the costs, the brain damage of all the logistics and the paperwork, especially, after the continuing nightmare of Brexit. No, I’d rather leave it to the experts. We’ve got very good relationships with a handful of about nine superb suppliers. And I have been approached by quite a few people who are trying to sell me more wines now, which is very flattering. We're bound to take on one or two more. But there are 43 wines on the list, and I can’t have 43 suppliers!
What do you think Spanish wine offers that is unique?
I'm not sure anywhere can compete quite as well with Spain in terms of value for money. My feedback to those reading this in Spain would be that your wines are great but your marketing could be better, so lots of potential for growth there. But meanwhile, we can enjoy fantastic value at every price point. Arguably the best value for money is at the higher end, perhaps not Vega Sicilia, but there are some astonishingly good wines from Ribera del Duero and Rioja. Why is it so cheap? It just doesn't make sense.
Okay, last question. Which three Spanish wines would you take to a desert island?
Well, one of them would definitely be probably a Palo Cortado. A nice old one, 20, 30 years old. It would be spectacular. Then I have to choose a white and a red. Let's go for the Sierra Cantabria La Nieta. I absolutely adore that. That's on the list at Bar Rioja under my made up category, the “Big Guns”. And then for a white, either a bottle of Celler Batlle Gran Reserva Cava from Gramona, which has been aged for almost 10 years, or a very old Albariño from Pazo Señorans, which I'm lucky enough to have tried in their bodega. If I could have a rosado as well, it would either be the Ripa or Viña Tondonia, if I could actually get my hands on any!