Forget unadventurous supermarket plonk – London‘s independent wine shops stock some truly exceptional bottles. Time Out rounds up the best outlets.
Bottle Apostle has three branches, the first in Victoria Park, the second in Crouch End, and the most recent in Clapham’s Abbeville Road. An independent wine merchant, it offers 16 rotating tasting samples from an Enomatic wine preservation system, plus 450 wines in total with an emphasis on Italy and Portugal, in-store tutored tastings, and a good selection of craft brews and ciders.
Douglas Blyde, spokesperson: 'The Cartwrights were established importers of St-Emilion’s fine wines; the Harrisons imported wine and speciality food from France’s south-west. The families were rival stallholders in Borough Market until they reconciled their differences by opening Bedales together four years ago. But Bedales isn’t just about France: our best-selling house white wine by the glass at our Spitalfields store is English and we stock a Soave made by the father of one of our employees, among many others. As well as trying to encourage diversity in what the customer takes home, we offer a fixed £8 mark-up on any bottle drunk on our premises.’
Trading from the same location for more than 300 years, with a magnificent Georgian cellar, Berry is historic yet keeps up with the times. Burgundy and claret lovers will drool at the hundreds of wines, but there are also decent (if smaller) selections from elsewhere in France, as well as Italy, Germany and the New World. The company’s own-label wines are top-notch. Great website too.
Phil Crozier, wine buyer: ‘I took the decision to make the Gaucho list exclusively Argentinian in 2000; before that there weren’t enough good ones but there’s been so much investment there, and the price-to-quality ratio is fantastic. People are much better educated now: they’ll come in and ask for Malbec and they know it goes brilliantly with steak, so I try to give them something special, like this Opalo (Mauricio Lorca ‘Opalo’ Malbec 2008/09, £20.35), which is grown in an area famous for roses and is incredibly floral and perfumed. It has no oak, and tastes like putting a bunch of malbec grapes straight into your mouth. Argentina is all about high vineyards and this torrontés (Colomé Torrontés 2010/11, £13.50) was made in Salta, which has the highest vineyards in the world. Almost none of our wines are available for retail elsewhere – I don’t want crossover with the supermarkets. We’re a very niche market, so we can put ultra-premium wines on the list and they sell.’
The television with the sound turned down, the red-and-white sign outside boasting wines from ‘Spain, Portugal, France, Germany’, the knowledgeable, softly spoken staff – everything about this wine bar (‘est. 1879’) is discreet and old-school. A library hush reigns within the dark-wood surrounds, as a professional, middle-aged and mainly male clientele – no journos these days, chiz chiz – quaff well-chosen wines from a 200-strong list that features many lesser-known producers: a 2008 Viu Manent cabernet sauvignon, for example. The enterprise also operates as a wine shop and runs a delivery service.
Friarwood has dozens of clarets on its list, including some less well-known petits châteaux – the best value for those of (relatively) modest means. The shop also makes decent efforts in the direction of Italy, the Rhône and Languedoc, and there are some New World wines in the mix too. If money’s no object, check out the Armagnac vintages on offer.
Handford isn’t the cheapest merchant in town, selling very little under £7, but it’s certainly one of the best when bottle prices climb into double digits. France is king here, with a strong showing not just from Burgundy and Bordeaux but also Alsace and the Rhône; there is a strong range of Italian and Spanish wines, too. Of the New World countries, South Africa is the best represented. Also check out the small but tasty selection of Madeiras.
HH&C is best known as a Burgundy specialist, though staff pride themselves on running a local shop where regulars pop in for everyday bottles – in addition to costly rarities, there's ample choice under £8. Knowledgeable, helpful staff ensure you don't feel intimidated despite the ritzy neighbourhood.
Hedonism is the ultimate in wine indulgence – two floors of the most covetable, most sought-after, and most expensive wines on the planet. The staff are very helpful, and you can try some of the fabulous wines served in tiny measures (for a small fee, of course). If you can’t afford a whole bottle of any of the big hitters, then there are also a few bottles for under £30.
Jonathan Wren, retail director: ‘Some people always buy the same wine; we encourage staff to say “This is fantastic, in the same price range, why not try it?” Our strength is Old World wine and we go for high-quality, small-production wines. We also ship some wines, which means we get the pick. I like to stock wines you can drink young, like those from Priorat in Spain – they’re so elegant. A good-quality young wine is better than a mediocre one that’s fully mature.’
Patrick Sandeman, joint owner: ‘We stock New World wines but the Old World is our speciality. France is our biggest seller but we’ve been moving towards Italy in the past decade and lately towards Spain because I feel the most extraordinary winemaking in Europe is happening there. France is so constrained by legislation, winemakers can’t do their own thing and won’t work together so they’re falling behind. In Italy, and now Spain, winemakers have studied abroad and they’ve got great ideas, great technique – and great terroir. We look for individuality, character and integrity; take this Acustic (Vinyes Velles Nobles 2005 Bodegas Acustic, £11.95), from Montsant, a small area next to Priorat that makes delicious wines but doesn’t charge as much for them. Or this Tuscan wine (Tassinaia 2004 Castello del Terriccio, £22.95), which speaks of Italy’s west coast. Every country makes dull wines but there are always exceptions; we’re just trying to find those exceptions.’
The pun-lover’s favourite wine shop, now well into its second decade, has repeatedly been named Best London Wine Shop by the International Wine Challenge. It’s not hard to see why: its list is exceptional. Fans of French, Italian and Australian wines fare best, but all the bottles here are chosen with care. Specialising in smaller producers, P&S unfailingly hits on prime producers even in areas, such as Rioja and Chianti, where it’s easy to spend too much and get too little.
A small shop in Holborn, packed with wines from all over the world, and unashamedly aiming for the £10-£15-a-bottle drinker, although they do stock the cheaper end – and of course, zoom up to Bordeaux, Burgundy, Supertuscans and other top-end wines. Owners Matt Harris and Marc Wise also run two wine bars, in Leadenhall Market and Bow Lane, where wines can be bought off-trade or drunk in-house for a flat-rate corkage.
This spacious shop has been providing well-heeled Kensingtonians with wine since 1991. It’s clear that Kensington loves France because the country dominates the list, with extensive offerings from Bordeaux and ample choice in Burgundy. And even if other regions and countries are represented in lesser quantities, they are in no way of lesser quality. A fine merchant.
Jamie Hutchinson, joint owner: ‘In Tuscany, we spotted the Enomatic machines [which allow opened wines to stay fresh for several weeks, enabling the shop to offer small samples cheaply] and thought: What a great idea. People can try ten interesting wines and hopefully they’ll like a couple. We carry about 40 Champagnes, all by small growers who spend their money on wine, not marketing. Chapelle (Clos de la Chapelle Instinct Brut Champagne 1er Cru, £21.60) is a premier cru, but it’s cheaper than the famous ones. Independent merchants aren’t more expensive. We are immensely proud of our wines, which we take great effort sourcing. We’re blessed in this country, we’ve got more variety of wine available than anywhere else because we don’t make much of our own.’
Daniel Illsley, owner: ‘I was an actor, became disenchanted and started working in a wine shop, and wine just jumped up and seduced me. I’m interested in people with understated personalities making extraordinary wines, rather than egotists making unexceptional wines. I opened this shop because I felt people deserved better choices – there’s so much wine they don’t get to try. And wine is so wonderful. Everything – from geology and history to landscape and personalities – has wine running through it.’
There’s no doubting the commitment to quality here, but it comes at a price. At Uncorked, the prevailing assumption is that its customers have plenty of money. Reassuringly, though, even the cheapest wines are excellent of their type; it’s hard to spot a duff producer in the whole list. France is the focus, with great offerings from the Rhône as well as Bordeaux and Burgundy; Italy is well represented, too. The New World selection is mostly an afterthought, although California is represented by many of its finest vineyards.
The Winery’s list is a real pleasure. It avoids big brands, emphasising individuality: even the Champagne list is dominated by small growers. What’s more, it specialises in German wine, an area that’s fallen out of favour with many drinkers. Burgundy is another major strength. The formula clearly works – this place is a local institution.
Well established as one of London’s best wine merchants, Wimbledon has shops in Wimbledon and Chelsea. One of its many virtues is a commitment to sensible value: you can do well here with less than a tenner, although wines from the pricier parts of the world are stocked. The shops specialise in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italy, although the New World is also represented.
A small, enterprising list (with excellent wines from France and Spain especially), plus a huge range of vintage Armagnacs from a single producer. Established in 2003, this Archway shop specialises in natural and organic wines from Europe. It also has some unusual spirits (Japanese whiskey, Hungarian Unicum) and foodstuffs.
Simon Taylor, owner-director: ‘I was at Sotheby’s for 23 years, as a picture expert and then as a manager. But I got fed up with meetings, admin and making people redundant, so I left in 2002 and set up my wine business the next month. Now I’m owner, director… in a small wine business you do everything.
'We tend to like wine made on the edges [of familiar regions]. For instance, this malbec (Vicien Malbec, Argentina 2006, £6.25) is from some of the remotest vineyards in the world, 5,000 feet up, on the edge of the Andes mountains in Catamarca, north-west Argentina. There’s no hail, no bugs, no fungus – no rain, either, they get their water from snowmelt. It’s a frankly insane place to make wine. But this tastes pure and fruity, with none of the jamminess Argentinian malbecs sometimes have. The sauvignon blanc (Fryer's Cove, Sauvignon Blanc, Bamboes Bay, South Africa, 2007 £10.25) is from another place on the edges: Bamboes Bay, 300km up from Cape Town, where the vineyards are in sight of the sea. The Atlantic is freezing there: the wind off them keeps the grapes cool and means they can make intensely flavoured wines.
'But if you told me I was only allowed to drink the wines of one region for the rest of my life, I’d go for Languedoc-Roussillon in France. In this country, we think of their wines as chugging wines but there are some marvellous small producers. They’re fantastic value – this is the best source of good reds in the £6-£9 bracket in the world. And the area’s full of young, hungry winemakers like Geraldine and Xavier Peyraud (Mas des Brousses, Coteaux du Languedoc, Terrasses du Larzac, 2005, £10.95). Her family have been here 500 years; his are winemakers from Bandol. Their land is crammed right up against the Massif Central. They work hard, they know what they’re trying to achieve and the result is a wine like this, balanced, elegant and rounded. It’s for drinking now – all our wines are, it’s in the nature of mail order. We have a warehouse and a courier and if you order before 1pm you can be drinking your wine by the next working day.’
James Bloom, partner: ‘I was a focus-puller in the film industry before I fell into the wine trade. Swig started in 1996 as a Hampstead shop but by 2001 we’d outgrown ourselves - we either needed more shops, which we didn’t like the idea of, or none at all so we became exclusively mail order. We try to find wines that punch above their weight, like this New Zealand red (Waipara West Two Terraces Red 2003, £9.95) which costs a tenner but tastes like £15. It’s one of our top-selling reds.
'We’re like our customers: we have to be careful what we spend, so we look out for wines that over-deliver. Like this Chilean (Vina Leyda Pinot Noir Cahuil Vineyard 2006, £11.00). Lots of New World pinots are just fruit bombs but this is earthy and delicious. And, while often you can open a Burgundy pinot noir for £20-£25 and be disappointed, this delivers at less than half that price. And it gives a real sense of the place it’s from. The Priorat (Artigas Bodegas Mas Alta 2005, £16.00) does too: it’s good value for a Priorat, which is an expensive part of Spain, but you do get what you pay for - the vineyard is very near Clos Erasmus, which goes for hundreds of pounds a bottle, so it really is good value.
'Swig got a reputation as a South African wine merchant because one of the founders was from there and had good connections, and four years running we won SA specialist in the International Wine Challenge [the wine world’s Oscars]. But that seems a bit limiting… we want to say “that’s not all we do!”
Ewan Murray, Head of tastings & events: ‘The Wine Society is a cooperative that was founded by the Royal Albert Hall architect, Major-General Sir Henry Scott, in 1874. He’d organized an International Exhibition and some of the Portuguese wine had been mislaid, and the Portuguese complained. So Scott held luncheons to sell the wine and they were so popular they evolved into the Society. People have to join, but they don’t need to be recommended now – you can sign up online. And although we have to make a working profit, of course, all other profit gets ploughed back into offering members the best possible wines at the best possible prices.
'This Champagne (The Society’s Champagne, £23) sums up the Society. It’s from a small house, Alfred Gratien, that we’ve been dealing with since 1906. The winemaker is the fourth generation to hold the job. So there’s a fair bit of stability there. The Maby (Domaine Maby La Fermade 2005, £7.50) is from the southern Rhone, just across the river from Chateauneuf-du-Pape; it uses the same grape varieties but you can drink it much younger – and of course it’s a lot cheaper. It’s a lovely wine, made by Richard Maby who’s the younger generation of an old Rhone family.
'Chardonnay has had a hard time: winemakers targeted Chardonnay Girl like the Conservatives target Middle England, with the result that lots of people turned their noses up at it. But this New Zealander (Kimeu River Chardonnay 2004, £15.50) isn’t in your face or oaky, like lots of New World chardonnay; it’s more like a Burgundy. With these three wines, I wanted to show you what the New World can do, what the Old World can do in new hands – and as for the Champagne, well, I think it’s just the Wine Society in a bottle.’