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No matter where you live in London you’ll find an independent wine merchant nearby that can offer so much more than big-name brands and wall-to-wall deals. Andrew Catchpole assesses their true value
Sometimes in life all it takes is the smallest of shifts to change one’s habits for the better. It’s the same with wine. Or, more precisely, where you buy your wine, which can make all the difference to whether you end up with a memorable, soul-warming, tastebud-titillating tipple or a humdrum hooch that merely fills your veins with alcohol. And the simplest way to achieve something closer to vinous nirvana is to eschew the Stepford wines of the supermarket aisles and seek out the myriad fantastic independent merchants that continue to thrive throughout London’s boroughs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a straight-talking northerner, one James Nickson, manager of a branch of Cork’s Out in Warrington, Cheshire, who gave the best line I’ve heard on the subject. ‘Let’s be honest, if you have the faintest interest in food, you wouldn’t think about buying chicken on a two-for-a-fiver deal from a supermarket,’ he quipped. ‘So why would you do the same with wine?’
It’s a damning image but, whether in Warrington or Wandsworth, it’s one that holds true given the bland brands and omnipresent discounts that face the average shopper (and we all know that the discount price reflects the true value of a wine). Pop into any local independent merchant worthy of the name, however, and you’ll be greeted by a cornucopia of fascinating, hand-picked and sometimes off-piste wines, all listed because the buyer is passionate about unearthing good bottles and sharing these finds with customers.
‘Our business is, at heart, all about the advice and knowledge that we can pass on to the customer,’ agrees Nick Clark, one of the founders of Haynes, Hanson & Clark in Belgravia. With strengths in Burgundy and Bordeaux, but a plethora of great wines from every corner of the globe, this fine but friendly merchant is typical in the service it offers, as long as you are occasionally prepared to be adventurous with your wines. Part of the joy of an independent is that, while they do have regular favourites on the shelves, they also have a habit of stocking interesting finds. ‘As an independent, we buy off smaller producers, find more interesting and often better-value wines, and ship direct,’ says Clark.
It’s a theme picked up by Damon Quinlan who, along with founder Robin Davis, runs the excellent west London-based online company Swig. ‘Because of our size, we can spend more time sourcing smaller parcels of interesting wines and we might take a 25-case parcel, which means that our customers can hopefully drink more interesting and still good-value wines.’
Swig may do business online, but it fits the bill of a friendly local precisely because many of its customers live nearby, are known to the team and are welcome to drop into Swig’s small offices to discuss an order, to taste or to talk about the wines. The point is that local independent merchants come in every shape and size.
A favourite neighbourhood local is The Sampler, a hip, modern shop in the heart of Islington boasting one of those impressive (and hugely expensive) Enomatic wine storage systems, which keeps samples in perfect condition. For a modest price, you can mull over modestly sized samples of what can otherwise be immodestly expensive wines – often whatever has taken the fancy of the team that week. This is a fantastic way of sampling wines without great expense or any wastage.
As The Sampler’s Sebastien Crozatier points out, ‘It is our ability to choose wines carefully, based on our personal tastings, and buy from producers who anyway wouldn’t have the volumes to supply the supermarkets, that keeps our customers coming back.’ The wine lovers of Upper Street seem to agree and have kept The Sampler busy since it opened with a philosophy Crozatier describes as ‘little more than a love of wine’.
Vinoteca, just down the road from The Sampler in Clerkenwell, has taken this sampling idea one step further. It’s actually a wine bar, with great food, that also does off-sales of all the wines on its list. So you can drop by, have a tapas-sized plate of something mouth-watering and sample by the glass, then buy wines off the shelf just like in a normal store. I have to admit that I know the range quite well because it’s my brother’s (rather upmarket) local offie.
Does all this sound like a rosé-tinted view of the independent trade? Well, I’ve yet to meet a wine merchant who didn’t go into business because of a love of wine, usually bordering on obsession. The old wine trade joke – How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start out with a large one – hints at as much, and yet independent merchants continue to do well as the public’s interest in the quality and provenance of what we eat and drink grows and grows.
'Pop into any local independent merchant and you’ll be greeted with a cornucopia of fascinating, hand-picked and sometimes off-piste wines'
One myth to dispel right here and now is that independents are pricier than their supermarket rivals. Virtually all independents offer a few decent bottles at little more than a fiver, but, these days, if you are looking to scrape by on less, I’d recommend turning instead to the cheapskate supermarket shelf where they keep the Hogarthian-quality gin. It’s worth stressing, though, that even at the most modest level, independents typically rise to the challenge of sourcing wines that are more than just present and correct, instead offering some flourish of character and regional identity. Call it the yum factor – a quality that somehow seems lackingin cheap, big brand wines.
You can, of course, shop online or by phone with a list to hand at almost any of London’s good independent merchants and sit back while they deliver to your door. Then there are the en primeur offers (and not always A-list Bordeaux expensive), in-store tastings, monthly payment plan offers, cellaring, personal advice from highly knowledgeable staff, case discount and deliveries, sale-or-return party deals, exciting bin ends, and many other great reasons to use an independent merchant.
However, it’s the Aladdin’s-cave allure of the wine merchants’ shelves, coupled with the highly knowledgeable and often quirky characters who run or work in them, that makes the old-fashioned shopping experience so satisfying in these stores. Wine, after all, is a pleasure to be savoured and that can begin with a journey of global possibilities right there in the store. Better still, like the wines, the merchants themselves come in every conceivable shade and style, many with a speciality in a certain region or regions of the world.
For a relaxed, modern, easy-going lifestyle appeal, South African ex-sommelier Kate Thal’s Green & Blue takes some beating. When Thal opened
her first outlet in East Dulwich, the combined organic wine shop, bar and deli fast became a hit with south Londoners who realised that they could take home
a fairly priced bottle of anything they’d been supping or pop back in to stock up from a great global selection.
To the east, Hackney has its own gem in the shape of the Bottle Apostle in Victoria Park, where tasting is pretty much a religion. Four Enomatic machines have their wines changed regularly throughout the week and there are frequent tastings in the cellar room beneath the shop. ‘We have winemakers over hosting events, such as New Zealand legend Larry McKenna just last night, and we also run tastings that tie in locally, such as cheese and wine with the Ginger Pig deli next door, and fish and wine pairing with the fishmonger that has just opened,’ says manager Tom Quinn
'Our business is, at heart, all about the advice and knowledge that we can pass on to the customer’ Nick Clark, Haynes, Hanson & Clark
West and south-west Londoners may prefer the likes of smart Italian-laden Lea & Sandeman in Kensington, Chelsea, Chiswick and Barnes, or Bordeaux and Burgundy specialist Roberson Wine in Kensington, while the denizens of South Kensington need look no further than Jeroboams for their fix of cheese and wine. Wimbledon, meanwhile, has the excellent Wimbledon Wine Cellar. For north Londoners (and the odd Arsenal supporter) there’s the small but perfectly formed Highbury Vintners on Highbury Hill, while residents further north around Hampstead Heath are blessed with Wine of Course in Highgate. There is a merchant for just about every tribe and neighbourhood of London and the list could run and run.
The best thing about them is the open and democratic air that pervades all the modern London merchants. Even the grandest of grandees, Berry Bros & Rudd of St James’s Street, long ago ditched its policy of no visible wine in the shop, embracing instead a new, open era of tastings, friendly service, an excellent online shop and all the other good things that put you at ease when you shop for wine (the tastings in the old cellars are among the friendliest and most atmospheric you could hope to attend). Wine snobbery is so 1980s, and congratulations to Berrys, an excellent all-round merchant that led the charge from the top.
All in all, shopping at independent merchants is a virtuous circle, supporting local businesses that are, in turn, supporting smaller wine producers,
both rooted in their communities and typically eager to pass on the passion, knowledge, charm and personalities behind the liquid in the bottle. All this while having a spot of fun, and at no or very little extra charge. Now that’s a deal I call good value for money.
'It’s the Aladdin’s-cave allure of the wine merchants’ shelves that makes the experience of shopping in these stores so satisfying'
Berry Bros & Rudd
3 St James’s Street, SW1A 1EG
0800 280 2440; www.bbr.com
95 Lauriston Road, E9 7HJ
020 8985 1549; www.bottleapostle.com
Green & Blue Wine
38 Lordship Lane, SE22 8HJ
020 8693 9250; www.greenandbluewines.com
Haynes, Hanson & Clark
7 Elystan Street, SW3 3NT
020 7584 7927; www.hhandc.co.uk
Lea & Sandeman
170 Fulham Road, SW10 9PR
020 7244 0522; www.leaandsandeman.co.uk
348 Kensington High Street, W14 8NS
020 7371 2121; www.robersonwinemerchant.co.uk
266 Upper Street, N1 2UQ
020 7226 9500; www.thesampler.co.uk
0800 027 2272; www.swig.co.uk
7 St John Street, EC1M 4AA
020 7253 8786; www.vinoteca.co.uk
Wimbledon Wine Cellar
1 Gladstone Road, SW19 1QU
020 8540 9979; www.wimbledonwinecellar.com