A whitewashed warehouse lined with gleaming metal tanks. A winemaker, hands stained purple, checking on the grapes as they trickle their way through a quietly wheezing wine press. If you’ve ever visited a winery, this will be a familiar scene. The difference is that this one is in London.
Adam Green and his colleagues at London Cru, the British capital’s first commercial winery, want their new project to inspire an interest in wine that is sometimes lacking in the British consumer, all too often happy with supermarket plonk and fearful of being branded a snob by expressing a preference beyond red or white.
Using Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera grapes carefully trucked in from France and Italy, Green and his colleagues – including experienced Australian winemaker Gavin Monery – are planning to make about 20,000 bottles of wine that will be ready for drinking next year.
“Wine is quite remote from a lot of people in the UK. We want to bring the experience and understanding of how wine is made to the city,” said Green, pointing out seven huge oak barrels full of Syrah.
Drink less but better
“There’s been a big upswing in interest in gin and breweries and craft beer but about 70-80 per cent of wine in the UK is bought from a supermarket – people aren’t being encouraged to drink less but better,” Green said.
London Cru hopes to change that. “There’s a good audience of people who are interested in food and maybe not interested enough in wine to go on a wine holiday but would come if it was on their doorstep, “ Green added.
London Cru hopes to price its wine below £15 a bottle, or at the most, below £20, but the team is keenly aware that this is still about three times the price of the average bottle in Britain, so making sure the quality of the wine justifies that price is of paramount importance.
“We want to make wines that stand up really well. We don’t want people to think they’re paying for the fact that the wine is made in London. The one thing it can’t be is a gimmick,” said Green.
London Cru is sourcing the grapes from carefully selected vineyards – relationships forged by its backer, Roberson Wines, help on that score. The team chose not to use British grapes, preferring to work with known growers, but that could change in future vintages.
Grapes on the go
The big question mark at the beginning was over the logistics. Could the grapes survive their journey to London?
The first batch arrived “looking like they did in the vineyard”, Green said. But early in October the project had to overcome a serious setback, losing seven tonnes of Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc grapes it was due to receive from France whose levels of rot – thanks to a rainy summer – meant they were not in a good enough condition to survive the journey. The team decided not to take the risk of using the grapes and ending up with a lower quality wine.
Some of the missing grapes have been replaced with Barbera grapes from Northern Italy. Once in situ, the grapes are sorted, pressed and vinified separately and stored in barrels until the team decides how to blend them.
Moving the grapes outside their home region means the winemaker has forfeited the right to an “appellation” status – the certification that guarantees a wine from a particular region – but it does open up the possibility of exciting new blends and Green is already looking forward to exploring the possibility of bringing in grapes from Spain, Germany or elsewhere in Europe.
“We don’t want to do a blend of Languedoc and Bordeaux just to make the news,” Green said. “In the first year we’ll have to stick with wines that are familiar to people but if it all goes well then in future we can take more risks.”
And while some growers were wary of the project to start with, others have now approached London Cru, wanting to be involved next year.
Green, co-founder of the project, which by a neat historical quirk is based in a former gin distillery, in Earl’s Court, West London, hopes bringing the winemaking to the British capital and allowing customers to see the process from grape to bottle will spark interest comparable to the surge in popularity of locally-brewed craft beers and London gins.
Through social media, supper clubs with wine pairings – eventually featuring London Cru wines – tastings, a wine “lab” where customers can learn how wine is made and create their perfect blend, the team wants to make wine more approachable.
“We want people to be able to approach and ask questions and express their opinions without fear of ridicule,” says Green. Next year customers will be able to buy a barrel and have it blended to their exact specification. And the really keen will be able to go over to the vineyards and help with the harvest.