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Urban wineries: the London scene

The Decanter team profiles London’s urban wineries and picks out the top wines to try

Jason Tesauro charted the rise of the urban winery in Decanter’s September 2020 issue. Though his article focused on the US, he explained that urban wineries are a global phenomenon, with examples springing up across the globe.



The motivations, personal narratives and philosophies behind these businesses vary, but they all add to the dynamism of a city’s wine scene, offering new and often exciting wines to try, as well as opportunities to visit, taste and learn.

London is home to four urban wineries: Blackbook, London Cru and Vagabond, all in southwest London, and Renegade in the city’s east. We introduce them – and a selection of their wines – below.

Blackbook 

‘Our ethos embraces a single fundamental goal: to make bloody good wine,’ says Blackbook’s founder Sergio Verrillo. He certainly has the experience under his belt to realise this ambition, and the wines that have been released since the winery’s first vintage in 2017 have met with a positive reception from critics and customers.

After a degree in viticulture and winemaking at England’s Plumpton College, Sergio spent time as a travelling winemaker – passionate about cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, he did stints at wineries including Greyfriars (England), De Montille (Burgundy), Ata Rangi (New Zealand), Mulderbosch (Stellenbosch), Calera and Flowers (California).

He and his wife Lynsey opened their urban winery in a railway arch in Battersea, southwest London, sourcing grapes from growers located within easy reach of the city, in Essex, Surrey, Kent and Oxford. As well as the core range, which unsurprisingly majors on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, there are regular experimental releases, and all wines are made with a philosophy that leans towards minimal intervention: indigenous yeasts, and low to zero sulphur use where possible. Texture is a priority, and most wines are fermented in old French oak, with a portion in stainless steel. All undergo a minimum of six months sur-lie ageing.

Experimental releases have included a sparkling Seyval Blanc, a Cabernet Noir, a Pinot Meunier and a Bacchus / Ortega blend. There’s also an English vermouth in the pipeline, aged in a concrete egg to bring out the aromatics in the base wine. The biggest seller by far though is the Clayhill Chardonnay, which has become Blackbook’s signature wine. Both this and the Clayhill Pinot Noir are impressive. ‘We want to show people that you can make good red wine in England every year,’ says Sergio. By Amy Wislocki

www.blackbookwinery.com. Wines distributed by Hallgarten Novum in the UK. Winery tour and tutored tasting of four wines (1.5 hour duration) available most Saturdays: £20pp.

London Cru 

Based in Fulham, London Cru was the first urban winery in the capital, launching in 2013. Owned by importer Roberson Wines, the idea was first dreamed up by Cliff Roberson and his team in 2010, inspired by the success of other city wineries around the world and the popularity of craft breweries and distilleries that were already springing up in London.

The plan was not only to create a working winery, but also to provide a place where Londoners could come to learn more about what really goes into the winemaking process – without even having to leave Zone One.

‘We get a really good cross-section of visitors – we’ve had lots of people from France – but it’s mostly Londoners. It’s also a lot of trade; sommeliers can get a really authentic experience, coming and helping us process fruit,’ says genial winemaker Alex Hurley. ‘It’s a real winery, making real wine. You can jump on a train, come just near Earl’s Court, and you’re in a winery that has all the bells and whistles.’

Originally from Australia, Hurley joined London Cru for the 2018 vintage. When it first opened, the winery bought in grapes from across Europe. But since 2017 it has sourced only English grapes from West Sussex vineyards, Hurley working closely with growers to focus on quality.

The 2019 vintage includes Petticoat Lane Pinot Gris PetNat (200 bottles), Baker St Bacchus (3,000) and Pimlico Road Pinot Noir Précoce (500), with a sparkling Pinot Meunier from Kent set for release in early 2021. ‘I’m a big believer in these early ripening varieties in the UK,’ explains Hurley. ‘So I’m not chasing Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I’m chasing things like Bacchus, which even in a cool year like 2019 can make a fabulous aromatic wine.’

Although the scale of the winery is boutique, the ambition and set-up are significant. ‘From the early days they had big investment into the winery, so we have state of the art,’ says Hurley. ‘There’s cooling and heating through the whole place, the concrete tanks are temperature-controlled.’ Because the winery is owned by an importer, he also has extra benefits – such as a supply of used premier cru Burgundy barrels to age his wines.

‘Probably the downside is getting the fruit to the door from the vineyard, that’s the hardest part – though an hour in a truck on a cool morning in September’s doesn’t impact the fruit at all,’ adds Hurley. ‘Once that’s in the door, there’s no reason why the wine can’t be as good as wines from anywhere else because we have everything we need.’

Additional manpower is useful at key production times however, so London Cru runs a paid membership scheme; anyone can sign up to get hands-on in the winery three times a year. One-day WSET Level 1 courses are also available, alongside regular winery tours, tastings and food-pairing sessions and a ‘Winemaker for a Day’ experience.

‘A big part of our business model is communicating about wine, presenting the wines, getting people excited by English wines,’ says Hurley. ‘We’re a launching point for a lot of people. I mean this is the benefit of urban winery: we’re so accessible.’ By Julie Sheppard

www.londoncru.co.uk. Wines distributed by Roberson Wines in the UK. 

Renegade

Hidden behind a wall of graffiti near Bethnal Green, Renegade harbours under one of the railway arches, next to a furniture shop.

Feeling the vibration of the train a few times an hour, the urban winery packs everything it needs in one place – the press, small stainless steel tanks, a bunch of French and Hungarian barrels – used and new – plus a concrete egg with a happy face drawn on it.

It’s still a month until the first batch of grapes arrives from southern Europe, so these gears sit idle, giving space to a casual bar area. Although due to the global pandemic, customers in the daytime seem to prefer buying bottles over the counter and taking them home to enjoy.

Warwick Smith, owner of Renegade

‘We used to sell 85% of our wines to restaurants, now that has gone down to zero,’ said Warwick Smith, Renegade’s owner. He has had to adapt fast since lockdown and is now offering free next-day delivery to any UK address without a minimum order.

Before this venture, Smith had a successful career in asset management for 15 years. He travelled around the globe and developed a passion for wine. ‘I’ve seen the emergence of the urban winery in the US and Australia,’ he explains.

The rise of craft beer and gin made him wonder that if artisanal beer producers could source their hops from another continent, why not wineries? He decided to ‘take the plunge’ and quit his job in 2014.

‘London is really not that far from great grapes,’ he said. ‘Pfalz in Germany is seven hours away, including the ferry. And you’ve still got the whole of the UK to source vineyards from.’

After hiring a young winemaker from New Zealand, Smith launched Renegade in 2016.

From his nearest vineyards in Sussex to as far away as Puglia, whole bunches of grapes are picked at the desired ripeness and loaded to temperature-controlled (2°C) trucks, then driven all the way to the narrow railway alley in East London.

‘The earliest harvest we’ve ever had was the last week of August, in Algarve, Portugal. Then it’s usually Valencia, Lombardy, Puglia and Pfalz. England is always the last we pick.’

‘I’m not a terroir denier,’ stresses Smith, ‘But for me, grapes are fruits like apples and pears. They are raw ingredients. Grapes are grown but wines are made. The making side of winemaking, in my opinion, is much more important than terroir.’

He never imports more than 14 tonnes of grapes from one grower, which means he gets to cherry-pick the best fruits – and is happy to pay a premium for them.

This wide variety of raw materials allows Smith and current winemaker, Andrea Bontempo, to create a range of styles.

Renegade features people of different ages, gender and race on its labels

The winery’s portfolio consists of 12 wines, including a traditional-method sparkling Blanc de Noirs (sold for £100 a bottle as only 800 were made), a naturally fizzy Bacchus called Jamie, and a skin-contact Pinot Grigio called Araceli. Excluding the top sparkling, the rest are sold for £19 to £26 a bottle.

Though many of Renegade’s wines are made with wild yeasts, bottled with minimum use of sulphur and without filtration or fining, Smith is not willing to label them as ‘natural’.

‘There’s a bandwagon we could jump on. But I think it (natural wine) is generally misunderstood and not inclusive.’

‘I thought this was going to be a short-term project. If I fail, I’ll restart again at 40,’ says Smith, who has just reached that age but now has a booming business in hand.

‘He is now thinking about expanding beyond his annual 40,000-bottle production, though that means settling for a few popular products and making more of them. A second label of more ‘lighthearted’ drinks is also planned.

The ambition this year, though temporarily halted by Covid-19, was to move Renegade to a bigger space and better environment. Though the natural lees stirring from the train vibrations will be missed, Smith says, as another train roared across the bridge above us. By Sylvia Wu

www.renegadelondonwine.com  Free next-day delivery to UK addresses

Vagabond

Vagabond’s buzzy, eclectic wine bars with their sampling machines have been popular with wine lovers since owner Stephen Finch opened the first one in Fulham in 2010. Before long there were five successful premises (there are now eight), and Finch was itching to try something new.

Meanwhile, Australian winemaker Gavin Monery was looking to spread his wings, after four years designing, building up and making wine at London’s first urban winery, London Cru (see above).

It wasn’t long before the two of them had joined forces to create the boutique Vagabond Urban Winery in the Battersea Power Station development, celebrating their first vintage in 2017. Production is more than 25,000 bottles annually.

Vagabond Urban Winery

‘The goal from the beginning was English wine,’ Monery tells me via a Zoom chat from Western Australia, where he and his young family ‘are trapped during this Covid mess’.

Quarantines, lockdowns and flights permitting, Monery is due back in London on 5 August to start bottling the 2019 wines, before heading out on a road trip around his contract vineyards in Essex, Oxfordshire and Surrey for the 2020 harvest.

‘Stephen went out on a limb and gave me the freedom to make whatever I wanted,’ he says. ‘So, having learned from my time at London Cru, I wanted to take local fruit from within 90 minutes’ drive of London and make English still wine that would stand up to anything made internationally.’

‘At Vagabond I’m concentrating on making what the UK can grow well: still whites, rosé, juicy, vibrant reds and some fizz.

‘The aim was mostly still wines, but I also make a pet-nat [pétillant naturel]. In the UK market, only 12% of the volume is sparkling, and of that only 2% is sparkling above £30 a bottle. We don’t want to fight with Nyetimber and Bollinger for that 2%.

‘We want to show people that Bacchus can be as good as Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, but truly local and special in its own way.’

The 2018 wines available via the Vagabond website and in-store, are topped by a whole-bunch-pressed Pinot Noir rosé that’s half-fermented in barrel with long lees ageing, creating texture to offset acidity without resorting to using residual sugar.

The Bacchus tastes quintessentially English – brimming with gooseberries, elderflower and hedgerow flavours – and the Ortega, made like a Chablis, shows lean flinty citrus notes in 2018 but more exotic and Viognier-like in the riper 2019 vintage. There is also that ‘pét-not’ from Frauburgunder (aka Pinot Precoce), a Chardonnay and, being launched in September, a 2019 vibrant Beaujolais-style Pinot Noir.

‘A lot of English wines are very delicate and I try not to mess with them too much,’ Monery explains. ‘Minimal intervention as a term is thrown around so much it’s become almost meaningless; everyone is doing it so it’s just quality winemaking now.

‘That said, I am pragmatic. While I do as little to the wines as I can, I will do everything required to make them taste their best.’

While Vagabond, like London Cru, does collaboration own-label wines with other wineries in South Africa, Argentina and Spain, the focus is overwhelmingly on English wines.

He reflects on his time at London Cru: ‘I’m still really proud of what I achieved there. We had the support of lots of London sommeliers but sadly consumers were harder to win over. We underestimated how important a sense of place is to them.

‘Consumers don’t just buy quality wine, they buy the story and the place. ‘At London Cru we took Syrah and Grenache from Spain, Chardonnay from Limoux and Barbera from Piedmont – all top sites – and handpicked them and chilled them en route to London, arriving 36 hours later.

‘Moving those wines to London didn’t lessen the quality, but it did lessen the sense of place. Hardcore wine geeks loved it but the general public was ambivalent. Unfortunately, to make a profit you need both.’ (Since 2017 London Cru has sourced only English grapes.)

Monery is convinced the English focus at Vagabond is the right one – with plenty of opportunity for experimentation and challenge.

‘England is one of the hardest places in the world to make top-quality still wine. Producers are still learning about their grapes, sites and terroir, and winemakers are still learning how to get the best out of them. We all have a long way to go, which is why working here is so exciting.’ By Tina Gellie

www.vagabondwines.co.uk/locations/battersea-power-station Wines are available to buy or drink in-store from Vagabond’s London wine bars or online shop. Blending sessions, tours and tastings available on request.


London urban wineries: 20 wines to try

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