Ella Buchan meets the people behind London’s growing number of urban wineries
Saturday 20 November 2021
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It’s a grey October morning in southwest London, the sky thick with dingy clouds, the air slashed with drizzle. Alex Hurley, winemaker at London Cru, barely notices. Deep inside the winery, housed in a Victorian warehouse tucked down a narrow alleyway, he’s busy cleaning French oak barrels in preparation for the next vintage of Pinot Noir or Bacchus.
London Cru’s facilities are surprisingly vast, from the garage-like entrance and the sleek tank room to the softer light of the barrel room and adjacent spaces with cosy, vintage-style decor.
It’s easy to forget you’re in an industrial pocket of Fulham. A winery this stylish should surely be surrounded by vine-striped hills, criss-crossing the landscape as far as the eye can see. Instead, its neighbours are storage facilities, boxy brown-brick factories, rows of townhouses, apartment blocks, and a hint of greenery on the horizon.
People who visit the winery are, Alex tells me, frequently surprised that it is an actual working winery. With a career stretching from his native Melbourne to Europe’s wine regions, he’s a little surprised to be here himself. “No one plans to make wine in London, do they?” he jokes.
Alex’s move – and the emergence of London’s urban wine scene – coincided with the growth in popularity of English wines, which he first tasted while studying in France. “Two of the chaps I studied with were from Kent and Sussex and were always sneaking English sparkling wines into blind tastings,” he recalls.
Following a stint working at one of the bigger Kent wineries, Alex found the urban model appealing because “you can move with the vintages and be more experimental”.
This was the capital’s sole winery when it opened in 2013. Three others – Renegade in the East End and Blackbook and Vagabond, both in Battersea, south London – have joined the scene since, with more expected to follow.
London Cru is owned by longstanding wine importer Roberson Wines, which has been bringing Californian wines to the capital since 1991. After a few years of buying grapes from Europe, under Alex the winery has switched to focusing exclusively on English-grown grapes and fostering closer relationships with growers.
While fizz is undoubtedly still the country’s “hero wine”, Alex is more interested in shattering preconceptions around English still wines. He believes the urban model – i.e. not relying on grapes from a single vineyard or region – is the best way to explore their potential.
“If you’re tied to a vineyard and the weather is especially cold one year, you can only really make sparkling,” he explains. “Around 80% of our wines are still because we can find the grapes.”
English reds are particularly challenging, yet London Cru has managed to produce an excellent example: a Pinot Noir Précoce, made using an early-ripening Germanic Pinot Noir clone grown in Sussex. The trick, reveals Alex, is not to fall into the trap of using varieties that simply aren’t suited to the British climate.
“If you try to produce red wines out of grapes from Burgundy, they’re very hard to ripen here. We don’t have enough sun,” he says. “I focus on grapes that are Germanic, so early-ripening varieties. The Précoce has a lovely ripe mature flavour and good acidity.
“When grapes come in you can’t have a vision of what you want them to be. Trying to make something from the grape that it doesn’t naturally want to be… it’s a mistake. I let the grapes tell me.”
London-made wines are certainly gaining respect. London Cru’s vintages have won several awards and are served in Michelin-starred restaurants.
Blackbook, crouched beneath the railway arches in Battersea, also makes still wines from English grapes. Their red, a Pinot Noir from grapes grown in the clay-rich soils of the Crouch Valley in Essex, regularly sells out, while the rest of their T-shaped production space is taken up by white wines fermenting in tanks or maturing within a stack of 70-odd barrels.
They do produce a Champagne Method sparkling, a critically acclaimed GMF that’s aged for two years in the bottle. With this and other wines, winemaker Sergio Verrillo – who owns Blackbook with his wife Lynsey – is primarily looking to create texture.
He runs the day-to-day operations largely alone, though volunteers come in to help around harvest time. “They could be from north London or around the corner. Everyone has a real passion for wine and wants to learn.”
Raised in Connecticut by an Italian father and Hungarian mother, Sergio grew up surrounded by family members who made their own “home-brew style” wines with fruit from California. He moved to London in 2008 to be with Scottish-born Lynsey and, after studying, travelling and learning from winemakers across Europe, opened Blackbook in 2017.
“The idea had been percolating since 2012,” says Sergio. “London had no urban wineries so we said, ‘let’s do one’. I applied for positions globally and we even almost bought a vineyard down in Kent. But it didn’t work out, so we came back to the London idea.”
By then, the other three wineries had already opened, which Sergio sees as a positive thing. “It can be competitive at times but there’s room for everyone,” he says. “We have quite an open dialogue. Alex at London Cru and I are good friends. We go out to dance and bounce ideas off each other. And we all try to get together post-harvest.”
We have four very different winery concepts, all equally good, and we are hearing of more opening up
“The scene is growing,” he adds. “We have four very different winery concepts, all equally good, and we are hearing of more opening up.”
The freedom to approach winemaking a little – or a lot – differently is what motivates Warwick Smith, who founded Renegade in 2016. Inspired by urban wineries around the world, and perplexed as to why London didn’t have more of a scene, he quit a career in financial services to set up on his own – despite having no background in wine and having to “learn everything along the way”. (He does have a winemaker, Andrea Bontempo.)
The production space squeezes presses, tanks, 60 oak barrels and bottling equipment into a railway arch in Bethnal Green, in the East End. Tables (where people can linger with a glass or bottle) are squeezed between stacks of barrels, next to amphorae and on the cobbles outside. They’ve just built a new winery in Walthamstow, east London, close to several breweries. “Our plan is for this space to be more like a taproom and to keep the old space for barrel ageing,” says Warwick.
Renegade, as the name suggests, goes against the grain (or grape) even in the context of London’s trailblazing wineries. They buy “brilliant fruit” from around 15 small, family-owned vineyards across Europe and the UK, taking advantage of London’s proximity to so many established wine-growing regions. “We have one of the longest harvests in the world because we buy from all latitudes. We go from August in Portugal up to November for colder parts of England. It’s quite chilled out.”
Then, it’s all about using that fruit to make wines with “a more innovative approach”. London isn’t restricted by the rules of an appellation. There’s nothing to stop a winery here from casting aside many of the established norms. In fact, Warwick believes that’s exactly what an urban winery should do.
“We don’t want to buy grapes and make wine in the same style as in that appellation. We like a more innovative approach. What can be done without rules?” he says. “We don’t give a toss about appellation guidelines. One of the best things about doing it in London is you can just do what you want.”
At Renegade, this means making an English sparkling (Bethnal Bubbles) and dry-hopping between the first and second fermentation. It means using Hungarian oak instead of French, and it can even mean a three-country Pinot Noir blend. This 2020 experiment, using grapes from Germany, Italy and Suffolk, is still in the barrel, though Warwick is hopeful it will spark further multinational or multi-regional blends.
“I’m interested in where the boundaries of wine will be in the next 15 to 20 years, and the urban scene is where experiments can happen.”
While the London scene has only emerged in the past decade, urban wineries are nothing new. Nor is the production of wine away from vineyards. There’s the “garagiste” movement, which emerged in Bordeaux in the 1990s and has spread across the globe. Now there are people making wine in garages or warehouse spaces in prominent regions such as Napa.
Going back further, what is now San Francisco’s South of Market (or SoMa) neighbourhood had a clutch of urban wineries in the mid-19th century, coinciding with the Gold Rush. Grapes grown in the countryside were crushed, fermented, blended, stored and traded in the city. Alex points out that a similar model was the norm in Austria, with grapes transported to towns and cities for processing.
No one asks, ‘where’s your hop field?’ Yet people come into the winery and ask, ‘where’s your vineyard?
Warwick reckons this history has become obscured by the glamour and romance of the vineyard; the image of a winery surrounded by vines is so attractive and engrained. “That’s the story that’s been told, and it’s more glamorous than hard hats, warehouses and high-vis jackets,” he says. “But people don’t think twice about breweries being in Clapham or Brixton. No one asks, ‘where’s your hop field?’ Yet people come into the winery and ask, ‘where’s your vineyard?’”
He, along with his fellow London wine pioneers, hopes these urban wineries can function as hubs of education, community and innovation. The scene has ample room to grow, though it might take some time.
“The concept is about being more egalitarian and to get away from the stigma surrounding wine,” says Andy at London Cru. “We can involve people, bring [the winemaking] to their hands and eyes. Along with Blackbook and Renegade, we’re doing some of the most interesting wines on the English scene.”
At Renegade, this isn’t just about making wine in London – it’s about making London wine. “The more people doing this in London, the better,” says Warwick. “For the urban scene to be successful people need to push boundaries so it has its own point of difference. We need to make wines not made anywhere else.”
Urban wineries around the world
Urban wineries flourished in the French capital before phylloxera wiped out many vines in the 19th century, and there’s been a recent revival spearheaded by Winerie Parisienne. Their first location is in the 11th Arrondissement and was joined by an Eiffel Tower pop-up in 2019. The city grows grapes, too, with around ten vineyards including one in Montmartre.
The Golden City had around 100 urban wineries, established during the Gold Rush, before the devastating 1906 earthquake. It’s only in recent years that the scene has returned, albeit on a much smaller scale. The dozen-or-so today include Dogpatch Wineworks, in an old textile mill, Harrington Wines behind an old metalworks, and Bluxome Street Winery, which is in the city’s original winemaking hub, SoMa.
As with the craft beer movement, Brooklyn is the hub of NYC’s urban wine scene. Red Hook Winery sources its grapes from the state, including the Finger Lakes region, while Brooklyn Winery uses fruit from across the US. There’s even a rooftop vineyard, Rooftop Reds – the first of its kind.
Melbourne’s first urban winery, Noisy Ritual, opened in 2016 and sources its grapes from across Victoria. It was followed three years later by Jamsheed, where people can try wines while watching winemakers at work. Both serve food and regularly have live music, too, so have become popular community hubs.
There are four wineries in Tokyo, each creating unique and experimental wines with Japanese-grown grapes. They include Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Fujimaru Winery in Koto Ward, focused on natural wines, and Book Road, housed in a garage tucked down an alleyway in Taito Ward.
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