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There’s a revolution under way on the London wine scene, with a host of cool venues offering artisanal bottles full of new tastes and flavours. Square Meal meets the movers and shakers.
It’s strange to think that until just a few years ago, it was virtually impossible to go out and drink a glass of serious wine on a whim in central London. Pretty much the only way, particularly if you were interested in trying something new, was to go to a top restaurant. But the seeds of change were sown back in 2008, when Oli Barker and Ed Wilson opened Terroirs in Covent Garden. Its produce-led small plates menu and emphasis on natural wines from independent producers proved immensely popular, and three sister restaurants have followed. In their wake, a new generation of importers, retailers, sommeliers and restaurateurs is reshaping London’s wine culture, responding to young consumers’ growing interest in artisanal food and drink.
This has created more demand for organic and biodynamic wines – those produced from vines cultivated without chemical fertilisers or pesticides – and natural wines (made according to more radical methods at vinification stage), which tend to be high on natural yeasts, low on sulphites, and sometimes unfiltered – essentially, wines that have been ‘left alone’, with no technical jiggery-pokery in the winery.
London now has some of the coolest, most innovative wine bars and retailers around, the best of which are introducing wine lovers to new tastes and flavours.
There’s no minimum spend at Will Palmer and Ian Campbell’s wine-led local, nor any service charge, and mark-ups are determinedly slender. Their aim when they opened in 2011 was to give Londoners a place to encounter thrilling wines without the expensive trappings of a restaurant. Beneath blackboards with chalked-up enticements – Richard Haward oysters, foie gras en cocotte, roast wood pigeon with endive and walnuts – customers are seated at wooden bistro tables. The wine list focuses on the Old World, but apart from that, ‘there are no rules’, says Campbell. There are 10 reds and 10 whites to try, and since Palmer and Campbell buy only 10 cases of each, rotation is swift.
What to drink: 2010 The Crusher Viognier, Wilson Vineyard, Clarksburg, California, USA; 2006 Castello di Ama, Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy.
Raef Hodgson and his team started out by dealing wines from small producers in the Auvergne, going on to cover all of France, Italy, Slovenia and Spain. They import everything themselves, championing natural and biodynamic wines. ‘It happened organically,’ he says. ‘We gathered together wines from producers we really liked, thinking that people in London should be able to drink them, too.’ The bistro serves seasonal, produce-led dishes that are just right with fresh, lively wines.
What to drink: 2011 Sébastien Bobinet, Du Rififi à Beaulieu, Loire, France; 2010 Daniele Piccinin, Bianco dei Muni, Veneto, Italy.
East London’s booming food scene has undoubtedly helped this independent wine merchant. Milena Bucholz and Florian Tonello see the interest in more natural styles of wine as going hand-in-hand with trends in food, music and fashion. ‘We showcase producers who are true to the grape and to the soil,’ says Bucholz, while Tonello adds: ‘We want to prove that natural wines don’t have to stink or be too wild.’
What to buy: Pascal Potaire, Les Capriades, Pétillant Naturel NV, Touraine, Loire; 2007 Jérôme Lenoir, Les Roches Chenin Blanc, Chinon, Loire.
The queues outside Sandia Chang’s bar are really something – so are the gourmet hot dogs. But at the heart of the operation is Chang’s dedication to grower Champagnes – made by grape growers rather than the big Champagne houses. Production is usually tiny, but the results can be very good indeed. ‘There are hundreds of grower Champagnes coming out of France but nobody knows about them,’ Chang says. ‘I wanted to see people explore beyond the brand names.’
What to drink: Vilmart, Grande Réserve NV, Champagne, France; Christophe Mignon, Brut Nature NV, Champagne, France.
Giuseppe Gullo comes from a family of Sicilian winemakers, knows many of his producers as friends and likes to emphasise the rustic qualities of wine – hence the name Dalla Terra (‘from the earth’). The enoteca/caffè showcases wines from producers who lean towards natural methods. ‘Young winemakers want to do things differently,’ says Gullo, ‘but what we’re selling must be accessible and approachable.’ Dalla Terra serves simple food and is open all day, so its appeal is broad, even if many of the wines are esoteric.
What to drink: 2001 Poderi Bertelli, St Marsan Rosso, Piedmont, Italy; 2004 Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia, Tuscany, Italy.
Noble Fine Liquor is a new-generation wine dealer set up by two friends from New Zealand who agree that ‘food, wine, coffee and beer’ are really important. Co-owner Liam Kelleher feels the capital’s wine scene is ‘picking up’, but that ‘London still isn’t spoilt for choice in terms of wine bars that aren’t actually restaurants.’ Alex Whyte, who works at Noble, as well as operating Tutto Wines, importing terroir-led Italian wines, points out the great divide in the London wine world. ‘People are dogmatic here: there’s a friction and separation between the classical establishment and the hardcore natural-wine camp.’ Bridging the gap, the shelves at Noble are stacked with both classic Burgundies and unfiltered, no-sulphur wines. ‘Only stuff we like – that’s our ethos,’ says Kelleher.
What to buy: 2009 Cristiano Guttarolo, Anfora Primitivo, Puglia, Italy; 2008 Domaine Michel Lafarge, Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France.
Will Lander and Josie Stead, new custodians of the 150-year-old Quality Chop House in Farringdon, have won a reputation not only for their well-priced set dinner menu, but also for serving interesting wines by the glass and at accessible prices. Stead moved to London from Melbourne in 2005, and found the London wine scene relatively lacking. ‘I’d be dumbfounded when bar staff asked what size glass I wanted but not what I wanted in it,’ she says. Lander adds: ‘We try to represent the world of wine in 90 to 100 bottles. I don’t know if people have become more knowledgeable or if they’re just more willing to try something different.’
What to drink: 2009 Verget, Mâcon Vergisson, La Roche, Burgundy, France; 2009 Château la Colombière, Réserve, Fronton, France.
At the end of 2012, rumours were spreading of a fine wine pop-up in Shoreditch where you could drink Puligny-Montrachet by the glass. Sager & Wilde’s Thursday evening gatherings took place over just a few weeks, with guests sipping top Burgundy and Bordeaux – even Château d’Yquem – with a bell rung whenever something exceptional was opened. Charlotte Sager-Wilde, who is behind the venture with her husband, Michael, says: ‘There was nowhere for people to drink great wine by the glass without paying crazy prices. We want to encourage people who are just getting into wine, and offer real value – great products at low margins.’
What to drink: 2004 Domaine Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France; 2001 Henschke, Mount Edelstone Shiraz, Eden Valley, Australia.
Friendly independent wine sellers with Enomatic sampling machines.
Small-plates restaurant offering natural-wine thrills.
Rustic wine bar and shop that does what it says.
Relaxed Soho restaurant serving super-seasonal small plates and natural wines.
Tiny Spitalfields wine bar that specialisies in all things Italian.
Excellent wine merchants with flat-rate mark-ups for drinking in.
Enlightened retailer with around 80 wines available to sample, including grower Champagnes.
Informal wine-led bistros that serve Prosecco on tap.
This feature was published in the spring 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.