The radical transformation of the London wine scene

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In a 2022 summer travel survey, London emerged as the top destination for Americans traveling to Europe. Those interested in its wine culture will encounter a very different scene than in years past.

Over the past decade, the London wine scene has moved from stifling snobbery to increased accessibility. The posh spots that boast Coravin listings are alive and well, but the city’s wine culture has also democratized. It has been encouraged in part by natural wine fairs like RAW WINE and The Real Wine Fair, which have helped introduce consumers to organic and biodynamic practices.

Beyond natural wine, London supports Sherry or bubble only bars. Venues in the town provide access to South East England’s booming wine industry, where producers make Champagne-quality fizzy in small batches that may only be drunk in the vineyard or, well, in London.

Centuries of British wine history precede this moment. In 1152, King Henry II married the French Aliénor of Aquitaine. The union with a dowry that transferred possession of the towns and vineyards of Bordeaux and Gascony to England for the next 300 years.

In 1386, Portugal and England signed a treaty to establish a trading alliance that would intertwine the fortunes of the Douro Valley with British trade. In 1955, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Wine and Spirits Association established the Institute of Masters of Wine, the examination of which confers the most prestigious title in the world of wine.

In other words, England and the people of London have long trafficked in fine wines.

For those planning a trip to London or curious about the evolution of its wine, here’s a look at the scene through the eyes of the people who helped shape it.

Wine bars and restaurants

In 2016, Charlie Mellor founded The Laughing Heart “on the darkest stretch of Hackney Road”, he says. He wanted to explore design, music, art, lighting and storytelling around wine.

“The Laughing Heart is a cultural and creative practice,” explains Mellor. “We see our work as multidisciplinary. It’s not just about serving food or wine, but how those ideas come together,” says Mellor.

London’s wine scene is changing, he says. But with this change comes complications.

“It’s definitely less tense, which is great, although sometimes I think it comes at the expense of the quality of work people do in wine,” says Mellor. “It’s too easy to get a good job in wine. I don’t miss the stuffy nonsense about wine, but I do miss the people who work hard to learn more about wine. Let’s lose the imposters and keep the narrative groovy and laid back.

A nomadic journey through the hills and valleys of Europe, the Cœur qui Rit wine list gives pride of place to natural producers.

“Within these parameters, wine can be very diverse,” says Mellor. “We love funky stuff, but I want to have something for everyone, at a wide range of price points.”

When he’s not at the Laughing Heart, Mellor heads to Hideout, a new spot nearby.

“These guys have a deep cellar that stems from years of collecting from the owner,” he says. “They don’t put everything all at once, but rather drop by drop on a shorter list.”

Silver Lining, founded by Sarah Maddox and her husband, Alistair, opened in 2016 on Morning Lane in East London’s Hackney district. It was originally a natural wine bar, but the success of the duo’s Orange Wednesdays, where skin-to-skin glasses of wine were offered for five pounds (about $6), led them to redesign the concept. In June 2020, following the pandemic shutdown, Silver Lining reopened as a wine bar and boutique specializing in orange wines, the first of its kind in the UK.

Sarah says the London market has changed, especially since consumer curiosity has exploded. “Where wine tastings could previously present barriers due to expense or being business-focused, they are now more relaxed and accessible and have become social events,” she says.

A torrent of requests from customers looking for wine tastings led Sarah to launch Tasting Notes. It is a monthly series, where she sheds light on different topics.

“During the pandemic, people have chosen their own wines to enjoy at home, which naturally led them to look for ways to educate themselves more,” she says.

Silver Lining’s list includes approximately 50 labels that showcase the category’s range of styles and flavors. Although the pours change weekly, there’s always a Georgian wine offered by the glass “to pay homage to the birthplace of amber wine,” she says.

With moody blue walls and modern, colorful oil paintings, Silver Lining’s vibe serves as an extension of the couple’s living room. When venturing out of ‘home’ they can head to Planque or Sager + Wilde, Bar Crispin, The Mulwray, P. Franco and Leroy in Shoreditch, all of which lean into natural wine to varying degrees. various.

Brodie Meah worked for years in high-end restaurants before striking out on his own.

“My background in fine dining led me to believe that wine was sold in a way that was anti-customer,” he says. “He was deliberately portrayed as exclusive and intimidating.”

His first business, Top Cuvée, opened in London’s Highbury area in 2019, co-founded with Max Venning. Unlike most in the industry, it was a pandemic triumph, thanks to the duo’s ability to pivot via food delivery and wine retail.

Hot on the heels of Top Cuvée’s success came Cave Cuvée, a Parisian-inspired underground natural wine bar in Bethnal Green, east London.

For Meah, Cave Cuvée is above all the atmosphere. A disco ball and “epic sound system” encourage fun rather than commotion, he says.

“One of the first things we tell people when they start working here is that wine bars don’t have to be an educational experience,” Meah says. “We don’t automatically give people a spiel on every wine they drink. Really, it’s about going out, socializing, and drinking things that taste good.

Bright restaurant interior
Image courtesy of Bright

Outside of work, Meah frequents Bright, a favorite neighborhood restaurant for his winemaker dinners, and Quality Wines in Farringdon, where he enjoys Nick Bramham’s cooking.

He also likes The 10 cases. “It’s like a good quality sanctuary in what can feel like a wine desert in central London,” he says. “It’s the perfect meeting place in the middle of a shopping trip.”

Meah thinks the pandemic has opened up the mindset of consumers.

“The closures have seen people divert their restaurant budgets to buying wine and cooking at home,” he says. “People could research the wines, which built their confidence and, as we know, once you’ve tasted the right wine and developed the confidence to enjoy it, there’s no going back. back.”

Hotels in London for wine lovers

Travelers looking for great sips from the comfort of their accommodation are spoiled for choice.

The Connaught’s velvet-curtained Red Room, just off the chic Champagne Room, has an extensive wine list including seasonal selections. Options range from a glass of Vega Sicilia 2011 Unico via Coravin for £165 ($202) or a down-to-earth Morgon 2018 from Domaine Marcel Lapierre for £18 ($22). The bar’s pink onyx bar and fireplace with red highlights add to the elegant ambience.

At Hoxton Hotel’s in the Holborn area of ​​central London, the team behind Cave Cuvée have opened a wine bar and shop, Rondo La Cave, stocked with snacks and Orange Wine Wednesdays. The adjacent pop-up, incubator kitchen hosts Chet’s, a four-month stint in collaboration with Kris Yenbamroong, the idea behind cult natural wine and Thai food spot Night + Market in Los Angeles. Spicy noodles, skin-to-skin wines and deafening music keep the crowds buzzing all night long.

Although not a wine bar per se, Pizzeria Mozza at the adjacent Treehouse Hotel on Regent Street offers a shortlist of Italian sips to accompany its Neapolitan-inspired pizzas. Bottles from Tuscan winemaker Bibi Graetz are £33 ($40) while glasses of Vermentino, Fiano and Chianti can be had for under $10. The quirky and playful hotel encourages socializing in its common areas. Don’t be surprised if you come across like-minded travelers willing to share a bottle or two and a pie.

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