WineChap seeks out the best places to try and buy inside the M25
I cut my teeth in wine retail, starting (and finishing) with London’s top merchant Lea & Sandeman. I still feel a kinship for the independents – occasionally nostalgic for slow Saturdays in the shop with farmer’s market hams and cheeses, and several bottles of interesting wines open for preferred clients and passing friends.
It was all very civilised, although I certainly don’t miss Christmas. But times are hard and many, driven by attractive prices and regular offers, head to the supermarkets, some of which offer good selections, better in fact than the mid-end, high-street retailers who, most recently with the demise of Oddbins, seem in terminal decline.
But for those with a little time and a real passion for wine, independent local merchants are always worth going out of the way to visit. Invariably staffed by well-informed enthusiasts, they are repositories for rare artisan wineries and rare varietals, and usually have a bottle or two open. Below are ten of the best new, or more discrete, operations that should be on your radar.
Fulham’s Vagabond is a year old this month with a selection of 100 wines – all available on tap – so you never have to buy before you try. It’s “risk mitigation”, says owner Steven Finch. This allows Vagabond to focus on less familiar grapes and regions, as with so much variety and choice, customers often play safe with the familiar. A cheese and charcuterie selection is sourced direct from Italy, but early birds watch out as they open at the crack of noon. (Clearly anyone who is interested in wine before midday doesn’t drink enough the night before to be a good client.)
18-22 Vanston Place, London SW6 1AX
020 7381 1717
A cork’s lob from Tower Hill, this discrete merchant is rightly loved by the City’s wine cognoscenti. Its selection of French classics is augmented by a well-chosen handful from the rest of Europe and the New World, and there are some enticing older vintages too. Best of all, the wines can be drunk next door in the restaurant for an exceptionally reasonable £7.50 corkage.
43 Trinity Square, London EC3N 4DJ
020 7481 0415
The successful Greenwich-based merchant has recently opened an outpost north of the river. I wish they had been around when I lived in Tufnell Park. The new breed of the old school and open later than most – until 9pm – so those working late have a fighting chance of picking up something to douse the cares of the day.
124 Junction Road, London N19 5LB
020 3490 2147
This is a wonderfully old-school wine merchant, with a particularly commendable Burgundy selection. Having relocated from Pimlico to Chelsea Green, it offers welcome respite from the hordes on the Kings Road. (In Gloucestershire for the weekend? There’s a second shop is in Stow-on-the-Wold)
7 Elystan Street, London SW3 3NT
020 7584 7927
This quirky Brockley stalwart looks the part with a façade straight out of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. It proffers a strong selection from south-west France in particular, but ships also from Rioja and Porto, and carries a rare vintage collection of Lebanese legend Chateau Musar. Graham (Mr Lawrence) aims to over deliver – hoping his customers would think every wine was worth 20% more. Apart from the wine bar with its walled courtyard next door, other attractions are a choice of 300 real ales from around the world and, probably, the best-stocked humidor that nobody knows about.
391 Brockley Road, London SE4 2PH
020 8692 1550
Previously an antiques dealer, perennial cricket jumper-wearing Tuggy Meyer is, for his loyal clients, a quintessential English eccentric. Never short of an opinion, whether on en primeur or traffic wardens, his Notting Hill store, littered with collectables from its previous incarnation, houses a great collection of mid-priced, mature Bordeaux, his speciality.
108 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH
020 7229 1602
A great place to stumble upon in Battersea, with a good smattering from Bordeaux and Tuscany, and particular strength in limited-release, single-vineyard wines from the Americas and Antipodes. Proprietor Atul Patel has, sensibly, bulked up on powerful, aromatic wines perfect for enjoying at the acclaimed Mien Tay Vietnemese restaurant opposite.
227 Lavender Hill, London SW11 1JR
020 7223 7209
A traditional merchant operating for over a decade, manager Stefan Botfield never thought he’d see Hoxton become so cool. Sourcing the majority of their wines directly, especially from France, City Beverage Company prefers to think of itself as a strong generalist, with Spain, Italy, Austria and South Africa all getting fair shelf space. Every Friday is tasting night, which is free to attend, with 8-9 wines on show and 20-30 customers keen to get the weekend started.
303 Old Street, London EC1V 9lA
020 7729 2111
Owned by the Wheeler family (previously of Lay & Wheeler merchants), this sizeable showroom in Colchester has had an extensive makeover since becoming fully independent. There’s an impressive range of 1,200 lines, with a particular focus on France and New Zealand. Wines between £7 and £20 are preferred to the very entry-level, but some more exclusive bins are also offered and the store hosts a number of popular tasting events.
Gosbecks Park, Colchester, Essex CO2 9JT
With two other local branches (in Four Marks and Grayshott) this Hampshire merchant prides itself on preferring wines from boutique vineyards to brand names, sourcing directly where possible. Grower Champagnes are well represented, as are organic and even some local wines. A good selection of cask ales round out the portfolio and there are free monthly tastings for regulars to enjoy
20 West Street, Alresford, Hampshire SO24 9AT
Tom Harrow is founder of WineChap, offering wine list reviews, tastings events and a concierge service for all fine wine needs. He is also contributing editor to luxury magazines POMP and B Beyond; is Urban Junkies wine writer and a regular online columnist for FT’s How To Spend It and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life. Follow him @WineChapUK.