London’s new wave wine bars
From Sager + Wilde in Hoxton to The Remedy in Fitzrovia, London has become a playground for a new wave of wine bars offering quality drops in a relaxed setting.
The unthinkable has happened: wine has become hip. Once the preserve of the old and privileged, in the UK capital at least, attitudes towards wine have shifted and it is now being embraced by a legion of converts in their twenties and early thirties who see it as cool to know their claret from their Beaujolais.
While signs of the change have been bubbling away under the surface for years, the opening of stylish new wine bar Sager + Wilde in Hoxton last year cemented wine’s place in the hipster pantheon. Doing her bit to help bring wine to a younger audience is former fashion model Ruth Spivey, who runs a pop-up wine bar, Street Vin, at peripatetic food market Street Feast in Hackney on Friday and Saturday nights, serving little known drops from the back of a van. But the winds of change aren’t solely sweeping through East London.
The French founders of the impossibly cool Experimental Cocktail Club have opened their first London wine bar – Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels – in Covent Garden to twin with a bar of the same name in Paris’ chic Saint-Germain district; while Fitzrovia has its own hip hangout in the form of The Remedy, an adorable 30-seater wine bar with an impressive selection of orange wines and a blues heavy soundtrack.
The Remedy in Fitzrovia
What sets these bars apart is their unstuffy approach to wine, the quality of their offering and the pulsating passion of their staff, who are on hand to wax lyrical about every last drop.
Launched by Seattle-born David Clawson and southern Italian Renato Catgiu, who met while working at natural wine and small plates pioneer Terroirs in Covent Garden, The Remedy opened on Cleveland Street last November. Clawson came by way of German wine specialist The Winery in Maida Vale, while Catgiu has wine in his blood, having been born into a family of Sardinian winemakers.
Hailing from a finance background, Clawson was inspired to open The Remedy after falling in love with the natural wine bar scene in Paris. Coming close to opening in London’s trendy East End, the pair stumbled upon the Fitzrovia site by chance.
Named in honour of wine’s elixir-like ability to ease the stresses of the daily grind, the focus at The Remedy is on European rather than natural wines, though a great deal of them happen to be either organic or biodynamic. Edgy estates share a list with traditional domaines, the common thread being that all of the wines featured are made on a small scale by people with a story to tell.
Whether or not a wine makes the cut on the list seems to be as much about the winemaker or estate owner behind the label as the contents in the bottle. “We wouldn’t call ourselves a natural wine bar as we’re not dogmatic about it in any way and we don’t want to be pigeonholed,” Clawson insists.
The Remedy’s 15 wines by the glass, which change daily in order to keep things fresh, are chalked on a blackboard and rubbed out when they get to the dregs. A large proportion of the bar’s 130-bin stock is sourced from organic- and biodynamic-focused importers such as Les Caves de Pyrène and Aubert & Mascoli.
A “Cellar” list at the back of the menu, meanwhile, offers a selection of stellar old vintages at indecently reasonable mark-ups, such as 1973 Monte Real Gran Reserva Rioja from Bodegas Riojanas at £60 a bottle.
“We want to make wine fun and accessible, hence our icon list offering great vintage wines at crazy prices,” says Clawson, adding, “A lot of our regulars order exclusively off that list.” Split into sections running the gamut from “cleanse” and “quench” to “nourish” and “feed”, among some of the better-known names on the main list are Lebanon’s Château Musar, Rioja stalwart López de Heredia, Bierzo pioneer Descendientes de J. Palacios and Craig Hawkins’ Swartland project Testalonga.
After a glowing review from Time Out that flagged up its orange wine offering, the bar has unintentionally gained a reputation for extra-skin-contact wines. “We have people coming in specifically seeking out our orange wines, which is amusing as we never set out to be an orange wine specialist. Now we’re keen to add to our orange wine line-up to keep our customers happy,” says Clawson. All food is sourced from small producers, and the decadent lardo grissini with mushroom cream has already become a signature dish.
Also on the menu is burrata, monkfish cheeks, field mushrooms on toast, Maldon oysters, cured meats and cheeses. In a bid to lure wine lovers to the sleepier side of Fitzrovia during the weekend, there are plans for winemaker dinners and tutored tastings on Saturdays.
“A decade ago, London’s wine bar scene was a wasteland, but it has changed beyond recognition over the last five years,” says Clawson, who “hates” the idea of being seen as hip due to the term’s transitory nature. “As they do with food, people care about what they are drinking now and where it comes from. Wine may be having a moment in London, but it’s part of a greater provenance trend that won’t be reversed,” he predicts.
Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Covent Garden
Across town, cherubic Julia Oudill holds the fort as head sommelier at the recently opened Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels in Covent Garden, owned by the French founders of the Experimental Cocktail Club in China Town.
In contrast to The Remedy’s trendy industrial décor, CVS is more plush, homely and comforting in character, filled with velvet chaises longues that tempt you into whiling away a lazy afternoon in its cosy clutches to a soundtrack that flits from Pharrell Williams to Lenny Kravitz.
“All of the sites owned by the Experimental Cocktail Group share an interior designer, so while they all have their own identity, a reassuringly familiar design thread is weaved throughout,” says Oudill. Nestled in Neal’s Yard, like The Remedy, CVS takes bookings, which is rare for a trendy new opening in the capital.
The wine list is a labour of love, with a strong leaning towards the south of France in a hat tip to Biarritz born Oudill’s homeland. French wines make up the bulk of the list, with copious offerings from Burgundy and Champagne, where a light is shone on small growers. Also like The Remedy, a large chunk of CVS’s selection is sourced from Les Caves de Pyrène.
Oudill was plucked from CVS in Paris to open and steer the London site. “The natural wine movement is still going strong in Paris so we thought we’d have a bit of fun with the name and call ourselves a ‘supernatural’ wine bar, as we think all of the wines on our list have a certain magic to them,” enthuses Oudill, who believes that Londoners are more open-minded about experimenting with unusual wines than their Parisian counterparts.
“French people think they know all about wine simply because they are French. Londoners, in contrast, aren’t afraid to ask questions and are thirsty to learn more about wine,”she says.
The role of the sommelier is particularly important at CVS, as tasting notes and descriptors about the wines have been deliberately omitted from the wine list, leaving the sommelier free to tailor recommendations to a guest’s taste and mood. “We wanted the conversation between the guest and the sommelier to be an important part of the CVS experience, and taking away the tasting notes encourages interaction,” offers Oudill.
In contrast to the weighty, 500-bin wine list, the menu at CVS is small, perfectly formed and designed for sharing.With an Italian chef at the helm, on-trend burrata makes an appearance, as does crispy baby squid, buttermilk frog’s legs, described by Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler as “balletic” in their delicacy, and the Posh Madame – a croque madame stuffed with a quail egg and truffled prosciutto.
Cheese, not surprisingly, comes from neighbouring Neal’s Yard. Among the wines currently on offer by the glass are Albert Mann Cuvée Albert 2012 (£9), Egon Müller Mosel Riesling 2011 (£10) and J.F Mugnier Clos de la Marechale Nuits St Georges 2009 (£17).
For those of a daring nature, there is also the option of a “Mystery Wine”, priced at £9 a glass, which guests are given a bottle of on the house if they manage to identify it. With the luxury of two Enomatic machines, Château d’Yquem 1997 is currently on pour for £38 a 7cl glass, while a 125ml glass of Château Figeac 2008 will set you back £30 and an equal measure of L.B Dagueneau Silex 2010 costs £32.
With ambitious expansion plans, a third CVS is due to open in New York next month, though Oudill is keen to stay in London rather than assist with the launch.
“The London bar is my baby, so I want to help get it off the ground before I move on,” she says. There’s also the wine shop to think about. Due to open next door to CVS, it will offer many of the wines on the list to go. “I want to open a tasting room above the shop and run thematic tastings every Tuesday,” enthuses Oudill.
Like The Remedy’s Clawson, she has noticed a shift in the way consumers think about wine. “We’re all about helping people discover and engage with wine. People care about what they consume now, both food and drink. There’s a desire to go back to the source,” she says.
Sager + Wilde in Hoxton
A similar ethos applies at Sager + Wilde in Hoxton. Starting life as a pop-up run by wine fanatic husband and wife duo Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde, the 45-seater, no-reservations bar is achingly hip in an unpretentious way, with open brickwork walls, 1920s station lights and a cast-iron bar.
Serving everything from big-gun producers such as California’s Ridge and Argentina’s Achaval Ferrer to hard-to-source bottles from boutique eat.drink: wine bars estates via Galician Godello and Rheingau Riesling for a set £20 mark-up, the more you pay, the better value you get on your chosen bottle.
“We thought there was a gap in the market for a place like this and that it was worth taking the risk,” begins the softly spoken Charlotte Sager-Wilde. Keen to appeal to both wine geeks and novices, the pair source wines from around 20 different suppliers, with a large proportion hailing from West London-based independent merchant Roberson, which Charlotte describes as being “instrumental” in helping to get the original pop-up, housed in a coffee shop in Old Street, off the ground in late 2012.
In order to make money from wines with a small mark up, a “high-quality, low-maintenance” food offering was essential. Serving only cheese toasties when it opened last August, the bar’s menu has since expanded to incorporate the likes of nduja on toast, boquerones, bresaola and air-cured tuna, along with cheese and charcuterie platters.
“We’re able to run on a low margin as we don’t have to pay a Michelin-starred chef’s salary, the rent in Hoxton is relatively low compared with the rest of London and we don’t have a huge kitchen to maintain – our no-frills approach was intentional,” says Michael Sager-Wilde, who managed Milk & Honey in Soho for a year before embarking on Sager + Wilde. The wine list at S+W changes on a daily basis, with new menus printed out each morning.
Like The Remedy’s “Cellar” list, Sager + Wilde’s “Market” list is Michael’s pride and joy. He spends many an hour fine-tuning the line-up, with old Burgundy from the likes of Dujac and J.F Mugnier getting a huge amount of airplay. Currently on sale is 1983 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe from the Southern Rhône at £124 a bottle.
“The provenance of the wines is vital – we get chancers turning up on our doorstep Del Boy-style with back vintages, but there’s no way we’d buy them as we need to know that they’ve been properly cellared, so we rely on the likes of Berry Bros & Rudd and Corney & Barrow,” reveals Charlotte. Save for aromatic whites and sparkling wines, every bottle sold at the bar is decanted, whether the customers like it or not.
Usually they do. “We don’t use the traditional show and tell model of parading the bottle in front of our guests and trying the wine in front of them – a decanter does the trick,” says Michael. While the pair were clear on the look they wanted for the bar, they had to battle it out over how industrial the final appearance was, with Michael keen for the full-on industrial treatment and Charlotte preferring a more subtle approach.
The result is a happy union of the two, with disused Victorian park benches sharing a space with the squirrel bulbs that have become ubiquitous at edgy urban bars.
Since opening, Sager + Wilde has become a honeypot for a colourful array of wine lovers. “We get all sorts in, from locals who sit at the bar by themselves and want to chat, to couples on dates, hardcore wine geeks and wine trade regulars,” says Charlotte.
The pair hope S+W becomes a reference point for how to succeed in running a London wine bar and are considering opening a second site in Brixton, though their focus at the moment is on a sister bar in East London that champions New World wines, which will share Sager + Wilde’s ‘fine wine by the glass’ concept.
“The early noughties was all about craft cocktails, then the craft beer boom hit and now it’s all about wine,” says Charlotte, who believes the natural wine movement has been pivotal in getting new drinkers into the wine category.
“We’re trying to fill the middle ground between obscure wines from the Jura and those made on an industrial scale and sold on offer at the supermarket. The wine world is too polarised at the moment, so we’re seeking to occupy the hole in the middle.
It’s an exciting time to be running a wine bar in London as there’s a lot of momentum behind the new-wave bars and we all want each other to succeed. We’re doing different things in different parts of town, so there’s room for us all.”