Wine Bars of London
Discovering the best London's resurgent wine culture with Selector.
London’s wine scene is as textured as it is old; one of the world’s great wine cities. On a recent visit, staying at Locke at Broken Wharf, a trendy Thameside apart-hotel, that past, present and future seemed to almost stretch out for me. The riverside terrace of the modern bar-come-restaurant Solstice filled with guests and patrons drinking organic new and old-world wines beside the Millennium Bridge, the Tate Modern on the opposite south bank.
At one time drinking riverside would have been in the historic pubs of Wapping and the like, but as the Thames laps against a pebble beach below it’s not difficult to imagine the river in its industrial heyday as a portal for wine from the continent and casting back further to the earliest culture of wine on the British Isles.
The Museum of London suggests that those of high status during the Iron Age drank wine from Europe, and while vitis vinifera has been found in prehistoric excavations, viticulture and winemaking first came to Britain following the Roman invasion of 43 CE. Depending on your age, you may be thinking, “what did the Romans ever do for us?” Bordeaux has played its part in the English love of wine too, as far back as the 12th Century with claret being known as ‘the Englishman’s drink’.
So, while English wine culture is sometimes downplayed (most often by the British) it’s woven through the fabric of what it is to be hospitable. Bringing things up to date, the Capital doesn’t have one homogenous wine scene, more a multitude driven by passionate makers and purveyors. I found this moving east to west in a journey that took on urban winemaking, the rise of the modern wine-bar-comerestaurant, and to the highest culinary echelons.
Warwick Smith established the first incarnation of Renegade Urban Winery in 2016. “It was just the desire to make wine in a city and to be connected with the community, and to show how wines are made behind the scenes rather than just the marketing bullshit you see,” says Smith. The original Bethnal Green site was a railway arch with no floor drains, three-phase, access, or forklift says Smith.
Production has since decamped to a light industrial park in Walthamstow, even further east. As with Bethnal Green, it’s an area seeing a creative inf lux, Renegade’s neighbours being craft brewers and artisanal bakers. “Hipsterville,” says Smith. While the original site now operates as a wine bar and shop, the new winery is also customer focused. As Smith takes me through the impressive range he stops to point out where a kitchen and tasting bar is being constructed. “We’ll do rotating pop ups, we’ve got a garden at the back and a terrace out the front, we’ll do tours and tastings with our wines and loads of guest producers,” he says.
Renegade Urban Winery in London.
The view from Riverview Studio at Locke Broken Wharf, London.
ASKING THE QUESTION
Initially inspired by the urban winery movement in the US, and on a smaller scale in Australia with the likes of Jamsheed, production is as you’d expect of any winery. Fruit is sourced from across the UK and Europe; picking baskets sent out on pallet transport, with refrigerated trucks transporting it back to London at two degrees celsius.
“I thought ‘why doesn’t London have like 20 urban wineries?’” says Smith. “We’re not that far from the Loire Valley, not far from Burgundy really. People in London love boozing, they love wine, and they’d gone through that craft beer revolution.” Smith asked himself why the wine space wasn’t innovating in the same way as craft beer and Renegade was born. He’s quick to point out that they’re not alone, naming London Cru in Fulham, as well as Vagabond and Blackbook both in Battersea.
In the early days, Renegade used widely known varietals – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and English Bacchus – but have over the years “gone a long way off route,” using indigenous varieties like Negra Mole. Now, Smith says they’ve found their direction using conventional varieties but with an unconventional approach.
“We make a Sauvignon Blanc from a French Bordeaux vineyard but using a double yeast treatment – one from South Africa and one from Portugal – to try and make that wine much more tropical and aromatic, pulling it in the new world direction. And, really strange stuff like dry-hopped English Sparkling where we aromatase an English Sparkling base with New World beer hops – Citra, Mosaic, and Sabro – doing secondary fermentation in bottle. And we do some classics too, lots of Pinot,” he says, referring to a multi-country Pinot, inspired by the multi-vintage approach of Penfold’s Grange.
Across East London a swathe of wine bars-come-restaurants have over the past decade inspired well beyond their borough.
Sager + Wilde, in Bethnal Green, looks like an East End boozer on first sight with bare brick walls, a bar top fashioned from old paving stones, and furniture that carries the patina of many a late-night session. But it’s very much about the grape; a seminal wine bar experience both for drinkers and the next generation of the hospitality industry. On my last visit you had to book a spot at the bar; a French barman excitedly mining me for information of my home region, Margaret River.
Ed Thaw is a co-owner of Leroy, a one Michelin-starred modern bistro in Shoreditch, the crossroads of the East End and the City of London. “I used to work for Michael at Sager + Wilde and came from a thorough exposure to classical regions, styles, revered producers,” says Thaw. There is some focus on natural wine, often associated with newer venues (especially in the east), but “it’s got to be backed up by an understanding of regions and grapes and why they have evolved the way they do,” says Thaw.
The wine scene in East London is divided into “natty” and “less natty”, which is in turn “more diverse than the wine scene in the West,” says Thaw. But it’s not a distinction he worries about. “We’ve got a varied clientele and being as we are on the edge of Hackney and the City, we look after Suits and Trainers. That’s fine by me. Variety is still the spice of life, or man cannot live on the whims of graphic designers alone.”
Both food and wine “move this place forward together,” says Thaw. Leroy has developed in reaction to where things have gone with wine, he says, in that the more you start to see wines become ubiquitous the more “you run away from those kinds of wines.”
Ed Thaw (owner) and Simon Shand (chef) of Leroy in Shoreditch, London.
Leroy is a one Michelin-starred modern bistro in the East End of London.
With social media, the world is smaller and less interesting, he says; restaurants and lists being the same in Melbourne, Copenhagen or anywhere. What he terms TGB, or “Trendy Global Bollocks.”
Now with outposts from Shoreditch to Marylebone, St. JOHN is intertwined with modern British gastronomy, and while its nose-totail ethos is what is most often celebrated, wine is central to the story. Producing their “own label” wines, their involvement “is complete,” says co-founder Trevor Gulliver. “We are winemakers ourselves in France, and our folk on the wine team are always involved with me in the process, and our wider St. JOHN team generally provide the additional benefit of their and our customers’ feedback.”
Working with the Sichel family in Bordeaux for over 25 years, Gulliver says “the UK market was very different then with plenty of claret, but we don’t do standard. We wanted a cuvée that ref lected both terroir and vintage, our sourcing practices for the kitchen, and the standards of cooking we had set ourselves.” The goal, he says, was a wine that would “become a happy staple for our customers both in the restaurant and at home.”
Gulliver describes St. JOHN’s commitment to operating a fully functioning wine business. As well as making wine they import all the wines that they list, only working directly with producers. They enjoy, he says, “being able to introduce wines into the UK from producers that would otherwise struggle to gain entry into the marketplace here.”
It’s a business built on relationships. “Beyond more good things in prospect there exists a true fidélité with those families and wineries we have worked with over the years,” says Gulliver. “Problems shared in difficult times lead to better good times.”
St. JOHN wine bar founders: Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver.
St. JOHN Macon Villages wine from Burgundy (image credit: Sam A Harris).
WINNING IN THE WEST END
Heading towards the West End the Capital’s wine lovers have taken to Noble Rot, which started life a decade ago as the now feted wine quarterly, before opening its original bar and restaurant on Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, and later additions in Soho and now Mayfair. There’s a similarity to St. JOHN, in that while they are at the top of their game in a hospitality sense there’s a casualness (yet well-practiced) that underpins what they do.
A Saturday night in London you’d perhaps expect to be turned away, bookings essential, but walk-ins at Noble Rot in Bloomsbury, and then at the original St. JOHN on the eponymous St. John Street in Clerkenwell, are both possible, and both experiences that would top anyone’s list of places to be, anywhere in the world.
At Frog by Adam Handling, you find a different style of dining, this one a Michelin-starred fine diner in Covent Garden bucking the oft-repeated idea that fine dining is dead or irrelevant. London diners seemingly didn’t get the memo. Although Handling – the thirty something chef behind a growing empire, focused on bold modern British cuisine – is a Krug ambassador, it’s an English-produced Sparkling that serves as a welcome.
Head Sommelier Nadia Khan says “we like to showcase the excellence of English wines, Sparkling and still. English grapes get better each year through the champenoise method, and we have a section on the wine list at each of our restaurants devoted to them.” It’s very much part of the ethos across the group, she says, “that we support local producers, and we work with different wineries, mostly award-winners, at each of them restaurants around the UK, complementing the menus.”
Farmhouse veal medallion by Alain Duccase at The Dorchester (image credit: Food Story Media).
The interior of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.
On Park Lane at the edge of Hyde Park, The Dorchester has recently had the most extensive refurb in its history. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester remains a jewel in the crown, holding a coveted three Michelin-stars. While there could be the expectation of a rigid approach, it was clear at the time of visiting that the relationship between Executive Chef Jean- Philippe Blondet and then-Head Sommelier Vincenzo Arnese was one that strove for mutual respect.
Blondet says that when changing a dish on the menu it could take four days to come up with a match, and sometimes, “we cannot find an agreement.” In that case it’s not always that the kitchen will win out. “I mean, I listened to him a lot,” says Blondet of Arnese, admitting that they had recently reached such a stalemate. It was back to the drawing board for Blondet’s dish.
The restaurant runs three different wine pairings, including a discovery list showcasing lesser-known grapes and regions. It adds interest says Arnese, alongside something more classic. It’s a balancing act having three distinct lists he says, “an extra level of difficulties, because when you create a new pairing you need to have three different wines that go well with the dish. If you see the list, everything that is by the glass is basically there because it pairs with one of the plates.”
“Wine pairing is a tricky subject because a lot of restaurants see the wine pairing as a possibility to move stock, but it is not the way we see it,” says Arnese. “It has to be perfect for what we do, and it has to pair with the food.”
Hailing a black cab outside The Dorchester, my driver regales me of his favourite London restaurants, as I keep an eye on the meter. His favourite, Alain Ducasse. I counter with my morning in Walthamstow, close to his “stomping ground.” He laughs in surprise at the thought of making wine in East London, and the extremes of the city which we both love. “That’s London for you son,” he says. “Rags to riches in the space of a day.”