Hello. Yes, I am still here. Apologies if the content on this site has dried up somewhat, but I've been busy creating a new wine magazine. Yes, a proper magazine, made of paper and everything. Its called Root + Vine and has been published by the lovely folks at Root + Bone.
Fed up buying wine magazines and not reading them, I decided to create one that I wanted to read. Most of the wine writing I enjoy is stories about wine. Not the formulaic; I visited a wine region, I met some winemakers, it was beautiful, the wines were great and here are some wine recommendations with some waffle and a score out of 100 that most of the magazines out there churn out.
Anyway, I pitched the idea to the guys at Root + Bone and they went for it, on the proviso that I sorted the content. So I have spent the last 6 months or so building a vaguely coherent concept for a wine magazine, and asking my favourite wine writers and winemakers if they would write a story about wine. Amazingly, most of them obliged and before I knew it I had enough content to fill a magazine. Add in some beautiful illustrations and a bit of graphic design wizardry from Mark Calderbank and bob's yer uncle.
I wrote a couple of things for it too. Here's one of them... if you want to read the rest of it you'll need to buy a copy.
You can buy it by clicking here, follow the "magazine subscriptions" link, select the Root + Vine box and checkout. A complete bargain at £7 delivered to your door anywhere in the world, particularly if you live in Australia or somewhere else far away.
Cutting the Fruit's Commute
The concept of an urban winery first came to my attention on a trip to California in 2012. Although beneficial in introducing me to the concept of the urban winery and developing my understanding of Californian wine, the trip imposed lasting physical and emotional scars. It was the first long-haul flight we took with our then 23-month old son. I still endure a nervous tick in my left eye which started during that flight. If you ever meet me, please try to ignore it.
Once off the plane, things improved. We hired a house in Santa Barbara for a week. Not only is it a beautiful place full of beautiful people, but it has an urban wine trail. This was a new concept to me and I loved it. There is a website with map of the downtown area, annotated with various cellar door outposts of wineries from the surrounding area. The concept is simple; print off the map, wander about the downtown area, visit the cellar doors and taste (or just drink) the local wines. My favourites were Au Bon Climat and Municipal Winemakers. Yes, it is basically a socially acceptable pub crawl, but it is also a great way to get to know the local wines without having to fight over designated driver status.
A few years later and London’s first urban winery, London Cru, was born. I visited quite early on, and although very well made, I was left a little cold by the wines. Made from fruit trucked in from all over Europe, it felt like a gimmick. As much as I enjoyed the Chardonnay and the Barbera, neither was a London cru was it? They were crus from somewhere in France or Italy.
Fast forward to 2018 and a Mayfair restaurant adds an urban winery page to its wine list. Was I about to get my dream of downtown Santa Barbara being recreated in London? Well, not yet. Only one of the four urban wineries featured on 34 Mayfair’s list, Renegade Wines, is from London. The man responsible for shining the light on urban wineries is Guillem Kerambrun, Group Head Sommelier & Wine Buyer for Caprice Holdings & Birley Clubs. A self-proclaimed “locavore”, Guillem has a passion for local produce, and it was this passion that led him to discover Renegade in the first place. He had previously worked with Redhook urban winery in Brooklyn and when Les Vignerons Parisienne gave him exclusivity for his wines in the UK, Guillem decided he had enough traction to create the urban winery section on his list.
The last of the four urban wineries on the list at 34 Mayfair is Dorrance, run by Christophe Durand. Dorrance’s urban winery is in Cape Town, where Christophe makes and sells his wine produced from fruit trucked in from Swartland, about an hour north. This makes sense to me. It is still a bit gimmicky, but at least the fruit comes from just up the road. Christophe was happy to admit to me that the gimmick element is the very reason he set up shop in the city, “there are loads of wineries in Swartland so you need to work hard to stand out from the crowd?” Making Swartland wines at his urban winery in Cape Town gives him a differentiator.
It was during a visit to Renegade Wines’ urban winery in Bethnal Green where my epiphany happened. I tasted a Bacchus from Oxfordshire which was still ageing in an amphorae style concrete egg. After tasting the other wines in the range made from imported grapes, it was like putting the light on in a darkened room (or cellar). This was exciting and delicious. Floral, peachy and a brilliant softness to the texture. It had much more energy and precision than the same grapes aged in barrel.
This is exactly what London’s urban wineries should be about. Winemakers messing about, experimenting with amphora or whatever else takes their fancy, exploring the possibilities of English wine, using English grapes. Finding out what works. Pushing forward the boundaries of the English wine scene and making urban wineries an important part of the scene rather than just an oddball gimmick. Surely that’s more fun and more valuable than making Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux.
Fortunately, someone who can actually make wine shares my view. Sergio Verrillo and his wife Lynsey launched the Blackbook urban winery in Battersea earlier this year with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Significantly Blackbook is wholly focused on producing English wines.
Whilst studying oenology at Plumpton College, Sergio worked with a variety of UK wineries, learning about our climate and techniques. This convinced him that this country could create quality, arguably world leading still wines, not just good fizz, “With careful site selection, collaboration between winemaker and grower and a diligent winemaking process, I see immense potential in making high quality still wines here. Not just with hybrid varieties such as bacchus or dornfelder, but with pinot noir and chardonnay too.”
But my dream of an English wine pub crawl in London don’t stop with the urban wineries. Why don’t any English wine estates have a London tasting room? I can’t think of anything better than wandering along the Southbank or around Spitalfield Market, dropping into different tasting rooms for a few glasses of English wine. I’m sure the tourists would be keen too.
The WSTA (The Wine and Spirit Trade Association) has an English wine trail map, which helps you plot around the cellar doors of its member wineries. But that involves the getting in a car, driving around the countryside and, worst of all, spitting out the wine. You could have clusters of tasting rooms around London where you walk around, drink as much wine as you like and then get the tube home. That sounds like much more fun.
OK, I admit I am pretty much mandating a carbon copy of Santa Barbara in London, but come on, who has original thought these days anyway…