Wine of the times

Matt Curtis uncorks the growing popularity of the urban winery


Warwick Smith is animated. The founder of London-based Renegade – a self-described urban winery – barely needs an excuse to pounce onto his soapbox and extoll the virtues of his developing industry. He’s passionate about wine, especially that produced by metropolitan-based wineries like his own. Speaking from behind signature thick-rimmed spectacles, he’s keen for me to taste a glass of a wine he makes called Bethnal Bubbles, named after the winery’s home in Bethnal Green.  

This tartly aromatic and easy-sipping pétillant-naturel (or pét-nat for short, meaning naturally sparkling) white wine is made using English-grown Seyval Blanc grapes, a hybrid variety which thrives in cooler climates like Britain. 2018’s long, hot summer gave British wine growers a bumper harvest, which was of huge benefit for urban winemakers like Warwick, because he relies on being able to purchase grapes from these farms in order to make his products. 

He admits he finds Seyval Blanc to be a little one dimensional in terms of flavour, although it does have a pleasingly crisp acidity. To enhance its flavour in Bethnal Bubbles, he dry hops the wine with Mosaic hops, imbuing it with notes of lychee, mango and freshly cut grass. Warwick is excited as he’s just put it into cans, as well as more traditional 750ml bottles. It’s supremely easy drinking; as accessible as Prosecco but with flavours that appeal to a different spectrum of drinkers. It screams aloud for hot, sunny days on a leafy patio.

Renegade Winery

“We are a winery, we are specialists in making wine. We are not a vineyard. We know a lot about viticulture, but this isn’t our focus,” he says, as he explains what he feels sets a more traditional, farm-based winery apart from his own. “We should not expect grape farmers to be world class winemakers. Just as we should not expect a grain farmer to be a world leading brewer.”

Tucked under its railway arch in East London, with its bar adjacent to stainless steel tanks filled with liquids undergoing fermentation and trestle tables laid out for happy customers to settle on, Renegade feels just like a modern brewery taproom. That it’s a stone’s throw from popular local beer spots such as Boxcar Brewery and Mother Kelly’s only accentuates this feeling. But that’s where similarities end, because the experience here is not quite the same as in your favourite taproom. Tasting through its range – from more traditional Riesling and Pinot Noir, to light and fruity wines made with other English varieties such as Bacchus – is just as much fun, however. 

“What’s fascinating is the way it presents itself: without pomp, circumstance or the need for a restaurant setting.”

Renegade is one of London’s four urban wineries, alongside London Cru, Vagabond and Battersea-based Blackbook. Compared to almost 130 breweries in the capital, it might not seem like a huge deal. But when you consider the wine industry as a whole, and how it’s perceived by people outside of it around the world, things get a little more interesting. 

Urban wine is at the intermediate phase that craft beer was perhaps six or seven years ago. What’s fascinating is the way it presents itself: without pomp, circumstance or the need for a restaurant setting. It’s dressed in denim and plaid, not a three piece suit, and this more relaxed approach could broaden the appeal of wine beyond its typical reach, perhaps even piquing the interest of the most hardened beer lovers. 

California love

In Berkeley, a few miles northeast of San Francisco, Donkey and Goat winery is buzzing in the late afternoon, California sunshine. The light catches large brimmed glasses with long, thin stems, causing the wine within to glow iridescently in shades of peach, puce and crimson. These wines are almost opaque, not unlike a New England IPA, due to being completely unfiltered and not containing any additional sulphites or finings (isinglass, used to clarify cask ales, is also often used in the filtration of wines).

The crowd looks like it would be just as content in a brewery as it would in a winery, as it relaxes, enjoying the fruity, playful wines that Donkey and Goat produces. Just next door is another winery, Broc Cellars, also taking its neighbour’s low-intervention approach to urban winemaking, but producing light, acid-forward wines that make me recall (a little, at least) the soft sourness of the Lambic produced by Boon in Belgium.

Funnily enough, at the end of this street is a brewery, The Rare Barrel, making sour beers, many of which are matured inside ex-wine barrels, imparting notes of tannin, oak and fruit as they do so. The brewery and these tasting rooms thrive next to each other, much like Renegade and its surrounding breweries in London. With beer drinkers constantly seeking new flavours and experiences, it’s easy to see how urban wineries might fit into the makeup of a city’s drinking culture. 

“The reason we started our urban winery is because we wanted to bring wine to the people,” Nicki McTague, vice president of operations at Denver, Colorado-based urban winery The Infinite Monkey Theorem, tells me. “We felt it was important to not only bring awareness to Colorado wine without having to travel several hours west to access the local vineyards. We wanted a place that people could gather, they could ask questions and learn about wine in a non-pretentious environment.”

Denver’s River North (RiNo, pronounced “rhino”) district, just outside of its city centre, is a thriving hub of small businesses such as breweries, tattoo studios, cafés and more. Old industrial warehousing has been converted into retail and production spaces, often decked with vibrant murals and graffiti. It’s home to several breweries, including Ratio Beerworks, Our Mutual Friend and Great Divide. The Infinite Monkey Theorem feels right at home in this mix. 

“The craft beer boom is parallel to what we’re seeing with the urban wine scene,” Nicki says. “It’s two cultures that bring people and agriculture together. We’re excited to see the growth and look forward to awareness around the non-traditional wine regions!”

In California, it’s a couple of hours’ drive from spots such as Donkey and Goat into the Sonoma and Napa valleys. This is old-school, West Coast wine country, where bottles may be poured elegantly from a white-gloved hand. It’s a world away from craft beer. To achieve a similar experience outside of a high-end restaurant is not possible in Colorado. But at The Infinite Monkey Theorem you could easily sink into the hard-edged, yet still cosy surroundings in its tasting room. And were it not for each sip of rich tobacco and black cherry noted Malbec from the glass in front of you, it’d be easy to forget you were in a winery, not a brewery. Therein lies the appeal to those who are seeking a non-traditional wine experience.

“People love wine and unfortunately not everyone has the resources to travel to traditional wine countries in order to enjoy the industry,” Nicki continues. “I love how non-traditional areas, such as Colorado, are really showing what we’re capable of.”

Blackbook Winery

Home is where the heart is

On its little stretch of industrial estate, with the under-renovation Battersea Power Station looming in the background, Blackbook Winery could also be easily mistaken for a brewery. Were it not for a large press in situ instead of a mash tun a kettle, that is. It’s run by husband and wife team Sergio and Lynsey Verrillo. A former sommelier at the likes of the (now closed) Gordon Ramsay-owned Maze, Sergio has turned his attention away from the selection and recommendation of wines to making them. 

“Urban wineries around the world tend to be a bit edgier and a little more experimental,” he tells me. “I think the appeal would be the same as [craft] breweries, bringing in the curiosity and local support. But anyone outside of the traditional bubble tends to seek these things out.”

For Blackbook there are upsides and downsides to being an urban winemaker. Sergio tells me he loves being able to open the doors to casual passersby, and that being city-based allows them to connect more intimately with their customers, changing people’s perceptions of how wine is made in the process. The downside is—hugely—cost. The square-footage of a small warehouse in central London is considerably more costly than the same amount of space on a farm in say, Sussex. 

However, it’s also evident Sergio enjoys being outside of wine’s more traditional comfort zone—while at the same time enjoying the creature comforts that city life can provide. 

“Being within a contemporary environment allows us to be at the epicentre of wine culture and London is arguably the eye of the European wine world,” he tells me. “We’d also seen the urban winery model working well particularly in the US and Australia and knew London would be a great fit.”

Another advantage of being in the centre of a big city for Renegade’s Warwick Smith is education: being able to show people the winemaking process and demystifying it could help people feel closer to it, in the same way beer drinkers have been able to with craft breweries. He also points out that being a wine-buyer instead of a wine grower gives him the ability to purchase the highest quality grapes available. 

“Being able to show people the winemaking process and demystifying it could help people feel closer to it”

Warwick is also excited that they are free from the types of historical appellation that winemakers in countries such as France, Spain and Italy must adhere to. While designations such as those in Champagne or Burgundy, for example have pedigree and historical relevance, they also restrict winemakers to specific grape varieties cultivated in those regions. You can tell he enjoys being unshackled, living up to his winery's namesake. 

“We are free! There is no real history of modern winemaking in London (and most cities around the world), so winemakers can do what they want,” Warwick says. “This opens up a whole world of opportunities. We can buy grapes from the best grape growing regions of Europe and make the wines the way we want to in London.”

What’s next for urban wineries, then? According to Warwick we can expect a lot more of them to appear over the next few years. With the major players of urban wine in Australia and the USA potentially looking further afield, possibly even opening up their own sites in cities like London. He’s confident however, that there’s plenty of room for growth within this emerging sector, and that more people discovering great, locally made wines can only be a good thing. 

“We’d love to be able to get more people involved in the making of our wines,” Warwick tells me. “More people pushing the boundaries and more people making great wine in the cities and towns of the UK and the world.”

“Hopefully one day, people will think of urban wineries as naturally as they think of urban breweries.”

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