To reach south London’s Blackbook Winery, one must negotiate a narrow corridor between warehouses, dodging reversing delivery vans, before finding an unmarked entrance beneath Battersea’s rumbling railway arches.
“You don’t mind if I stick a few labels on while we talk, do you?” asks Sergio Verrillo, welcoming me into an industrial space stacked high with wine barrels and empty bottles. He’s dressed in a faded T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops, already peeling back a roll of stickers in Mondrian primary colours, the finishing touch to a batch of his 2019 Chardonnay.
Founded in 2017 by Verrillo, an American expat and former sommelier in high-end restaurants including Maze on Grosvenor Square, and his wife, Lynsey, who has a day job in the corporate world, Blackbook is an independent English wine producer and “urban winery”. It specialises in still wines: pinot noir and Chardonnay particularly, sourcing grapes from within two hours’ travel of its premises. “So I can visit growers and maintain that relationship,” says Verrillo, “we want to embrace locality and the British weather, for
better or worse, and encourage our little industry and place it on a higher pedestal.”
The setting might seem incongruous but the thinking behind it makes sense. “We set up in the city because neither of us wanted to live in the countryside,” adds Verrillo, who looks a bit like a cross between the actors Adrien Brody and Luke Wilson (somewhere in a New York brownstone, a shiver passes through Wes Anderson) and has the outline of Chinese characters tattooed on the inside of both of his biceps. “We love London, it’s the wine epicentre of Europe. Other countries produce more, but I can’t go to France and get American wines from Santa Barbara that I love. I can throw a stone within half a mile of here and find quality wine sellers. Even Sainsbury’s has Australian, American… Romanian wines! We love the city, so we tried to embrace that as a USP.”
Think of English wine, if you do at all, and it will likely be the sparkling kind grown and bottled in the rolling hills of Kent and Sussex. Grapes used for sparkling varieties are less weather-dependent and easier to maintain in our fickle climate. But while it accounts for barely 30 per cent of UK production, a growing number of British winemakers are finding success with still wines.
“Many UK winemakers are looking beyond trying to mimic styles such as Champagne,” says Brodie Meah, co-founder of the influential London wine bar, restaurant and delivery service, Top Cuvée. “We are starting to see English wine really come into its own. Using lesser-known [grape] varieties that are actually suited to our climate results in much more interesting wines than simply trying to replicate those from another part of the world. Being a new industry means there’s less of a status quo, so we’re seeing people experiment more right off the bat.”
Vineyards that are making still wines worth paying attention to include Tillingham in East Sussex, Westwell Wines in Ashford, Kent, and Gutter & Stars in Cambridge. In the “urban wine” scene you also have Renegade in Bethnal Green, East London, and, across the pond, Brooklyn Winery in… where else?
“People definitely thought we were a gimmick at first,” says Verrillo, “but we’re going into our fifth vintage and I think we’ve proven that we’re not a one-hit wonder. We don’t have to be under a railway arch, we could be in the countryside. You never know how people are going to react, but it’s been positive for us so far.”
“They’re the definition of ‘dynamic duo’!” says Ewan Murray of The Wine Society, who has stocked Blackbook’s wines since the early days. “Hugely talented and hard-working, but most importantly not afraid to be self-critical, which is enormously important for winemakers. The best British still wines are honest and unadulterated. We’re a marginal climate so the wines should be fresh and lively in the glass, not masked with excessive oak or residual sugar. We’re making British still wine, not Burgundy. Embrace the acid!”
With the increasing popularity of wine among a younger, trendier demographic, as demonstrated by the success of Top Cuvée and other wine bars, shops and distributors like Clapton’s P Franco, Bloomsbury’s Noble Rot, Forza Wine in Peckham and Birmingham’s Loki Wine, there is also a sense of ample opportunity in marketing wine to an affluent, city-dwelling audience that doesn’t mind spending £30 on a nice-tasting bottle with an appealing label and backstory.
“In the next few decades, the old guard of the wine industry is going to disappear, and who will take over as the main market?” says Hannah Crosbie, wine writer and founder-host of Dalston Wine Club, a pop-up tasting event that moves around venues in London (she recently partnered with Renegade for an evening). “Not everyone can afford to go to a château in Bordeaux. Not everyone can speak French, but any Londoner can go to the cobbled arches of Bethnal Green and see wine being made. It’s just another way the curtain of the wine industry is being pulled back for the public, and I love to see it.”
Verrillo agrees. “A lot of wine is full of old, rich, white guys. How do you get people outside that demographic? How do you break down those barriers?” One plan is to visit secondary schools to talk to pupils about wine as a career. “It [wine] is a real gateway,” he says. “You don’t need a degree and you could be a winemaker, viniculturist, distributor. You can work in a restaurant and travel!”
As that plan ages in a barrel, there is the more immediate concern of maintaining the momentum of the last few years. Blackbook now offers around 10 wines. The Chardonnay is ready to go, there’s rosé on the way and, while Brexit can hardly be called a positive for business, it has, says Verrillo, at least encouraged more people to buy homegrown products. “We’ve been making wine here in the UK since the 1970s. It’s been a struggle to be taken seriously, but there are lots of people making some weird and wonderful stuff and I think it’s starting to pay off.”
With that, he positions his last sticker and admires his work for a moment. A van beeps in the background, a train lurches and rattles overhead. “If we can make good wine with fruit grown in local places, then we’ll be happy.”
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