Street Fuel

Drinks: Wines
Location: England, Europe

There’s claret on the street, great wines in bars, and not a white tablecloth in sight. Kate Pass reports on how wine has found its inner hipster

One Saturday, a man dressed in a parka stands under some derelict railway arches in South London. He’s selling his wares out of a van to a little knot of twenty-somethings who listen attentively as he assures them that what he’s selling is a little bit special.

So, what’s he pushing? Gas lighters with nudey photos on them? Sunglasses? Well, Greek red and pink Moscato actually.

The man in question is Vinoteca sommelier Gus Gluck, and he’s here as part of the Wine Car Boot, an event that sees independent wine merchants pitching up in car parks and pouring samples into event-branded Govino stemless plastic wine glasses, while a mixed crowd browses and buys.

This isn’t a cheap thrill either. The average price is about £10 per bottle and there’s a tenner charge on the door. The last two years’ craze for street food markets, it seems, is now encompassing wine. A world away from ticketed tastings in wood-panelled rooms, it all feels genuinely exciting.

‘The landscape is definitely changing, and the audience the trade is talking to has altered dramatically,’ agrees consultant Zeren Wilson, whose previous jobs include a stint at Armit Wines and another as sommelier at Zucca.

Wilson was one of the speakers at November’s London Wine Sessions, as was Wine Car Boot organiser Ruth Spivey. An event created by food writer Sophie Dening and River Café‘s Emily O’Hare, the day included six ticketed sessions, one of which saw participants taste a flight of house reds and try to match them up to the London restaurant they belonged to.

Other seminars included a food pairing masterclass working with dishes from one of the capital’s most exciting young chefs, and Around The World in Seven Tastes, hosted by Jancis Robinson MW OBE. There was also an aperitivi bar, complete with DJ. There’s no denying it: in the eyes of younger consumers, wine has suddenly become rather cool.

Too cool for school
‘It was the next logical step. First people got really into their seasonal food, then came artisan coffee, then craft beer. Now it’s wine. Young people are becoming so much more discerning,’ says Michael Sager-Wilde, co-owner of new destination Sager + Wilde, a wine bar on a less-than glamorous stretch of Hackney Road, which first started (as so many restaurants now do) with a pop-up.

Sager-Wilde and his wife Charlotte are offering an outstanding selection of wines by the glass, from a £7 Txakoli to 1998 Château d’Yquem for £14.50 a throw.

‘First people got into their seasonal food, then came artisan coffee, then craft beer, now it’s wine’ Michael Sager-Wilde

‘We compromised on location. There’s very little footfall here, but a nice community of businesses nearby who direct people to us. It’s never going to be as busy as a site in Soho though. We offer a limited selection of food that can be prepared by the bar staff, all in order to put the wines first,’ says Sager-Wilde. ‘There are three things we won’t compromise on: the glassware [Riedel], obviously the wines themselves, and the staff. Even if the wines are world class, without a good team, half of your customers would still be ordering the Rioja.’

Further up the same road there’s Forza Winter, a temporary restaurant in a disused pickle factory, offering an excellent selection of exclusively Italian wines, some bag-in-box and others natural. Meanwhile, over near London’s Broadway Market, Spivey’s starting the evening shift at her own pop-up Street Vin, a centrepiece of the Hawker House street food night market. Where there would previously have been another cocktail bar (there is also a regular cocktail bar, a hot cocktail bar and a whisky bar on-site) there is now a 35-cover corner dedicated to the vine.

It’s serious stuff, too, including large-format bottles and wines such as über-sexy Kiwi Man O’ War. But there’s not a white tablecloth in sight – it’s being drunk in a candlelit warehouse paired with a paper plate full of smoked beef rib.

‘There’s no excuse to have substandard wine these days, regardless of the environment. People shouldn’t have to put up with it!’ Spivey declares.

There’s no denying that consumers have always been interested in drinking good wine with good food, but for too long there has been a compromise outside of the home and restaurant environments. This movement, however, is bringing great wines into bars and even out onto the street.

Restaurants such as The 10 Cases, 10 Greek Street, 40 Maltby Street and 28°-50° (any numerical naming is completely coincidental) have been pushing great wines in informal dining environments for a while now, but it seems the Great British public is ready for the next step.

Whatever you do, though, don’t make the mistake of saying that wine is the new cocktail – that’s just tacky.

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