London's wine scene: the growing trend for wine by the glass

Words by
Nina Caplan

24th April 2018

London has been a city of wine-lovers for centuries, but a new thirst for informality and wine by the glass is refreshing the capital for discerning drinkers

For centuries, colonial domination abroad and vineyard-unfriendly rain at home meant wine-lovers in London had a craving for the juice of conquered lands that continued long after these colonies gained independence. It was a thirst these former colonies were happy to quench. The upshot was a city second to none for buying bottles. Until recently, however, there wasn’t anywhere decent to drink them.

How things have changed. The proliferation of wines by the glass (thanks largely to Coravin and Enomatic machines, able to preserve opened bottles, sometimes for weeks) has enabled the timid to venture into the wilds — such as Georgia or an unknown patch of France — without paying for a whole bottle, which might prove a mistake. The natural wine movement has also changed the conversation, serving wines that range from fabulous to faulty without fear of complaint; send it back and you’re the philistine.

The natural wine craze has calmed down, believes Daniel Illsley, whose third branch of eclectic shop Theatre of Wine opened in Leytonstone in east London a year ago.“That battle has been won. There’s a counter-movement, somewhere between ‘It’s natural, so it’s good’ and contempt for all these wines.”

The Humble Grape

The Humble Grape

According to Mark Gurney of Brixton restaurant Salon, which has launched its Wine Store next door, the fixation on natural wine “is transforming into a fantastic appreciation of all wine — from classic Burgundy to the funkiest Jura”. Illsley, for his part, is thankful that younger sommeliers “have stopped being so preachy” and “a new generation of discerning, educated drinkers is really paying attention”.

In 2016, Xavier Rousset, the Master Sommelier whose mini-chain of wine-focused bars, 28°-50°, helped to educate that current crop of sommeliers and drinkers, opened Cabotte and Blandford Comptoir: the former a Burgundy-centric restaurant with an impressive number of this notoriously complicated region’s wines by the glass; the latter a sophisticated Mediterranean eaterie. Now, he has the Pinot & Chardo wine club, offering special prices on fine bottles, as well as corporate bespoke tastings.

Western Laundry

Rousset recognises that this new wave of wine-loving is not confined to east and west London. With Deptford’s Winemakers Club, the second, foodier outpost of the Farringdon importer/shop/bar, it even extends south of the river. Like Salon, the Winemakers Club skews towards natural and biodynamic wines, but without fuss, and combines drinking in with the option to take a bottle home.

A similar approach is found in Islington with The Brewery Below, a pop-up basement restaurant in Borough Wines’ shop, beside its nanodistillery, and the Humble Grape, the excellent third outlet of the wine shop/bar. So, too, does Linden Stores, a family-run store in Highbury with a frequently changing modern-British menu. Meanwhile, in Victoria, once a desert, thriving restaurant/wine shop M Wine Store added M Wine Bar last December.

“It has taken a lot longer for people to realise that the principles of food provenance apply to what they drink,” says Jérémie Cometto-Lingenheim, co-owner of Canonbury restaurant Primeur, and now its seafood sibling Westerns Laundry in Drayton Park. He believes this is radically altering London’s wine landscape.

Blandford Comptoir

The cosmopolitan and relaxed Blandford Comptoir

Will Lander, champion of great food and fuss-free fine wine, has also seen a thirst for informality. The founder of the Quality Chop House and Portland restaurants is also behind the relaxed eaterie Clipstone. Jacob Kenedy of Soho’s acclaimed Bocca di Lupo has opened Plaquemine Lock, a Creole restaurant in a defunct Angel, Islington pub that, a year after opening, has a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Even the hip Whitechapel Gallery has a weekend-only bar, After Hours, under the aegis of the owners of 10 Greek Street and 8 Hoxton Square, two of London’s best wine-loving restaurants.

Private members’ clubs, bastions of tradition, are also adjusting to changing desires. Robin Birley is about to supplement 5 Hertford Street in Mayfair with Oswald’s Wine Club, named after his artist grandfather. Grant Ashton’s 67 Pall Mall, which has 500 wines by the glass, has proved so popular that he has just expanded on to a second floor. Just opposite, purveyor to royalty Berry Bros & Rudd has a slick new shop, just round the corner from its original building and townhouse dining rooms.

Berry Bros & Rudd Townhouse

Berry Bros & Rudd Townhouse

Casting an eye at one of Britain’s earliest former territories, Bordeaux, takes us to two legendary First Growth producers, which have colonised in their turn. The new Four Seasons Hotel’s plush corridors hide invitation-only club Ten Trinity Square, a joint venture with Château Latour. And last year, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos, whose mother owns Château Margaux, opened Clarette, a beautiful, converted Marylebone pub with an impressive by-the-glass range. She chose London because “the openness to exploration gives you more freedom to offer diverse, exciting wine lists”. The venues have changed and so have the wines, but Londoners are just as thirsty.