Once could be called a fluke, twice a coincidence, but now with half a dozen respectable natural wine bars in operation around London town, it's safe to call it a movement. It all started two years ago with Terroirs - the Charing Cross-based brainchild of Les Cave de Pyrene's managing director Eric Narioo, who this week opened his second natural wine bar – Brawn, in Columbia Road, E2.
I remember being impressed with Terroirs when I visited shortly after it opened. There was something different about it, from the pared down interiors and laid back bistro food, to the exciting and varied wine list offering everything from the funky to the downright strange, it was clear Terroirs was onto something. It successfully tapped into a previously unexploited niche and quickly had Londoners lapping up its unadulterated wines.
Two years on, and I've heard talk of a serious dip in the quality of service. Complacency seems to have set in, and with its reputation secured, the bar doesn't feel it needs to try anymore. Wine folk are fickle, and we're quick to switch allegiance if standards drop, so the savvy Terroirs crowd of yore has migrated to Xavier Rousset's hugely successful 28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen in Fetter Lane, and more recently the newly-opened Bar Battu in the City.
28-50 isn't a natural wine bar per se, but does offer an extensive number of wines by the glass, along with an impressive collectors' list, which Xavier personally sources from private cellars. After much hype from the wine trade, I made the pilgrimage to Bar Battu last week, and was pleasantly surprised. I'm slightly distrusting of natural wines. I don't really understand them (there's no official definition of what constitutes a natural wine), and I'm often thrown by their unpredictability, cloudy appearance and savage aromas.
Despite my reservations, I think it's a fantastically brave move to open a natural wine bar in the City. If the wine trade are suspicious of naked wines, then the average punter must be positively fearful of them. But fear is borne of ignorance – all we need is to be taught. London is light years behind France in embracing the natural wine movement, and a decade behind New York, but with bars like Terroirs and Battu, we finally seem to be catching on.
I shared a bottle of white and red on my visit and enjoyed the symbols on the menu that help novices navigate the list of unfamiliar names – while a cloud predictably denotes cloudiness, a white bull appears next to semi-wild wines, and a red bull beside really wild ones. Our white Burgundy was light, fresh and uplifting, but the Languedoc red was fiercely feral. It smelt and tasted like a pig pen, and somewhat traumatised one of my fellow imbibers. But that's the deal with natural wines - you never quite know what you're getting until you open it.
I've yet to visit Brawn (it opened yesterday), but set in an old wood-turning mill in the gritty climes of Shoreditch, it promises an evolving list of 150 natural and biodynamic bins covering a range of styles and regions, including 12 wines by the glass and 500ml caraffe. Only time will tell if it has the muscle to compete with London's better established drinking dens.
Aside from the natural wine bar revolution currently gripping London, a sprinkling of sister wine bars have also popped up in the last month, beginning with the Fulham Wine Rooms in early November, which is hoping to mirror the success of the Kensington Wine Rooms. On my visit last week the vast, cavernous space was empty - making my friend and I feel like a pair of church mice in a wine cathedral. That said, it was nearly midnight on a Monday. The Enomatic selection was impressive - including favourites from Kensington such as Ken Forrester's the FMC, and new arrivals: a stunning Sassicaia 1998.
Last week, Farringdon favourite Vinoteca opened a sister bar in Seymour Place, Marylebone, completing a hat-trick of exciting openings in the past month. Having only worked in wine for the past three years, I've been lucky enough to join the industry at an incredibly fertile time, and the pace of change is showing no signs of slowing down. The mushrooming of forward thinking, relaxed, informed wine bars in the city is helping to put wine firmly on the cool map, and opening Londoners' eyes to the phenomenal selection of wines the city has to offer. I'm excited to see where the trend will move next.