The taste of London
This is odd. One moment I’m walking towards West Brompton tube and turning off down Seagrave Road towards The Atlas pub. The next I’m in a winery. Can this be right, in central London?
Stainless-steel tanks, check. Row of nice old oak barrels from Burgundy, check. Concrete floor with drainage channel, check. Conveyor belt for sorting grapes, check. Australian in wellies peering at a vat of bobbing syrah grapes easing their way towards fermentation as Citizen Cope echoes around the room – check.
“Yeah,” says the Australian, who is called Gavin Monery. “It does feel a bit weird. I live 10 minutes away and I’m used to being in the middle of nowhere to make wine.”
This is London Cru, London’s first winery. It’s quite a project. The idea is to make wine from grapes grown in France and trucked here in refrigerated lorries.
The first batch – four tons of chardonnay – arrived a couple of days before my visit and has already gone through a basket press and into barrels. “We picked early because I wanted natural acidity and to get away from that tropical spectrum,” says Monery, lifting the top of a shiny vat of the “last press” juice, which is kept separately because it contains more solids. It looks like very good chicken gravy and has the gentle fragrance of fresh pineapples.
By the time winter begins the whole place will smell of young wine, as sauvignon blanc from Touraine in the Loire, syrah and chardonnay from the Roussillon, merlot from Jacques Lurton in Entre Deux Mers in Bordeaux and cabernet sauvignon from one of the Mas Coutelou vineyards near Béziers in the south of France all gets going on the transformation that will turn sweet, luscious grape juice into alcohol.
But isn’t this all just a bit of a gimmick? I spend my life listening to winemakers talking about the care they take to get grapes – especially white ones – to winery as cool and as quickly as possible, to maintain quality and precision. Is it possible to make good – as opposed to decent but essentially mediocre – wine in a one-time gin distillery, now a wine store, in SW6? And why bother trying when the odds are stacked against such a venture? It isn’t exactly cheap after all – the sorting table, crusher and de-stemmer alone cost £27,000. The lovely barrels from Chassin in Burgundy are more than £500 apiece.
“We got talking about it in the pub over the road,” says Monery, who grew up in Margaret River in Western Australia and spent time working there as a cellar hand. “What could and couldn’t be done. I’ve seen commercial grapes trucked for eight to 10 hours in Australia – without refrigeration, which we’re using. They do this sort of thing in New York and San Francisco, I thought there was no reason why we couldn’t too.”
His ambition for quality is high. I’d expected the aim to be an £8-ish wine that would actually sell for £10-£12 (think of the uplift offered by scarcity value). But Monery says the intention is to produce wine that can sell for £15 a bottle, which is another matter altogether.
“I’m trying to get a good reputation myself, so my main stipulation was that this not be a gimmick. The last thing I want is catastrophic failure.”
As for the last question, a few minutes among the tanks is enough to make you think – well, why not give it a go?
The venture is being backed by Cliff Roberson, of Roberson wine merchants, at the Olympia end of High Street Kensington, along with a private investor. Monery takes takes two months out of his day job at Roberson every year to make wine; he has worked at Chave in the Rhône, too, and with choice Burgundy producers. Cliff Roberson owned the space already: he freed it up by shifting some wine out into storage elsewhere.
As for the grapes, they come from trusted producers, all of whom are long-time suppliers to Roberson.
“There were no contracts,” says Monery. “It was all done on a handshake. But that’s how it is sometimes. When I made my own wine in Burgundy I didn’t know until two days beforehand if I was getting any grapes. I’ve worked for people there who didn’t know for sure until the grapes turned up in their driveway.”
Monery says he’s off to a flying start. There was a nervous-stomach moment when the doors of the refrigerated truck were opened, “But the grapes were all in beautiful condition, thank goodness.”
This does of course raise an important point. How good will Roberson’s relationship with its growers remain if Monery makes a better wine than they do, using their own grapes?
Monery grins. “There is the possibility that could happen. I’m sure I can.”
No gimmick: Gavin Monery, main picture, checks on what he believes will be a better wine than the French produce. Above, the syrah grapes that make up London Cru’s first city-produced batch