Meet the Guys Making Wine Under a London Railway Line

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Meet the Guys Making Wine Under a London Railway Line

“There are nearly 500 vineyards in the UK and we’re really close to Europe, so why not make the wine in London?” says Warwick Smith, founder of one of the capital’s first “urban wineries.”

I'm sipping a crisp Sauvignon Blanc that was made less than a metre away from where I'm standing. I can see where the grapes were hand-pressed, as well as the French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks that were used for fermentation.

But I'm not in the Loire Valley or Bordeaux or even Napa County. I'm under a railway arch in London's Bethnal Green.

"Traditionally, it made sense that if you had a vineyard, you would make wine beside it. You wouldn't have far to transport your grapes and there didn't used to be a quick way to move them a long distance," explains Josh Hammond, the winemaker behind this glass of East End Sauv Blanc. "Now, we can transport things a reasonable distance quickly, and get the fruit here, still fresh. So, we can make just as good quality wines in London as if we were still in the vineyard."

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Winemaking partner Warwick Smith chips in: "And throw out the rule book in the process."

Hammond and Warwick have been running Renegade London Wine, an "urban winery," for just over a year. As well as making wine on site, the arch also doubles as a tap room.

Warwick Smith (left) and Josh Hammond of urban winery, Renegade London Wine. All photos by the author.

"We had our launch party for the tap room last week. I still feel hungover," admits Smith, cracking open a bottle of the winery's Bacchus, which is made from English grapes grown in Herefordshire.

As trains rumble overhead, I ask Smith and Hammond: why make wine in London?

Smith comes back at me with another question.

"Why haven't we been making wines in London?" he says. "Historically, there used to be wine made in London. You have Vine Street near Piccadilly and a lot of Lambeth Palace was all planted to vine. In Clerkenwell, there's a place called Vine Hill. There are nearly 500 vineyards in the UK and we're really close to Europe."

Smith continues: "It also means we're unconstrained by the traditional winemaking rules. And we want to make wines that are different. For example, white wines in Bordeaux (where our Sauvignon grapes are from) are made from a blend. But I don't like a blend and we don't have to worry about calling it 'Bordeaux' wine, so we can just use straight Sauvignon grapes. In England, most people whole-press the Bacchus grapes and shove them in stainless steel to make the wine super clean. We did a natural ferment in the barrel and mixed it all together to give it a different taste."

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Barrels of fermenting grapes.

"There's no point us competing with the big wineries in the countryside who do it in the classic way. Let's do something a bit more weird."

The pair have also gone rogue with their choice of winemaking equipment. That's to say, they don't have very much of it.

Hammond laughs: "When I came on board, I told Warwick how much it would cost for all the equipment and he just said, 'Is there any other way we can do it?' Everything has been really hands-on to get Renegade up and running without throwing hundreds of thousands of pounds at it. It forces you to think outside the box about how we can do things with our hands that are like a machine."

From de-stemming the grapes to pressing the fruit to sealing the bottles with wax, the guys have done it all themselves (with a little help from their friends).

"Big wineries will have equipment to take the berries off the stalks. Josh came up with this idea that if we put chicken wire over a huge tank and rub the grapes across the chicken wire, it works perfectly," says Smith. "We had a party, got people drunk, and went through tons of fruit."

Stainless steel tanks.

Gesturing to the benches and tables around the room, Hammond says: "Being in London and opening up the space as somewhere where the public can drink the wine puts us in a great position to showcase the winemaking side. People can drink the wines we've made the previous year and also taste the ferment in progress. Or we can say, 'Hey, come over here and help us out and plunge this Pinot.'"

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I say I'm skeptical about whether punters enjoying a glass of wine would actually leave their drinks to provide free labour, but Smith tells me about an inebriated man who visited Renegade last weekend. He was insistent that the pair let him help bottle the wines.

"He actually emailed me this morning to say he'd still be up for helping out. I didn't think he'd remember," Smith laughs.

But not everyone has been quite so on board with the idea of an urban winery. Namely, the old-school European vineyard owners. Hammond tells me that it took some persuading to get the grape growers to part with their harvest.

Bottles of Renegade's Sauvignon Blanc and Bacchus wine.

"We drove through Europe in this little car to find places to buy grapes and just dropped in on people and had a chat with the vineyard owners," he says. "First they laugh. Then they say you're crazy. Then you keep talking and show that you're not just having a laugh and do want to make good quality wines. Then they jump on board."

Even when a deal has been struck and the grapes are shipped, things aren't straightforward.

Vines planted outside the Renegade railway arch.

"The wines change all the time," explains Hammond. "We've got a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which we're hoping to release in the next few months and we're tasting them every week. At the moment, one of the four barrels of Chardonnay is so different to the rest. Sometimes we get worried that things have gone wrong but the a week later it'll taste great."

At the moment, all the grapes fermented at Renegade are bought in from other vineyards. I jokingly ask if they have plans to re-establish London's grape-growing tradition, as well as the city being a place to produce wine.

Hammond says, deadpan: "Yep, we've got three vines outside. They're Pinot and Chardonnay vines."

Smith adds: "And I've been finding out about spaces in London where we could plant."

Watch this space, Soho Shiraz or Mayfair Merlot could soon be coming to a glass near you.