How 2023 became the year of the wine bar

Wine and dine: the new Forza Wine is the National Theatre’s hot ticket (Caitlin Isola)
Wine and dine: the new Forza Wine is the National Theatre’s hot ticket (Caitlin Isola)

There were many unexpectedly positive health consequences to the pandemic: socially distanced workouts in the park; a boom in commuting by bike.

A move to Londoners drinking less wine but choosing better-quality bottles is, however, one of the more rarely documented trends but one that, like a vine after careful nurturing, is now bearing fruit with a bumper crop of wine-bar launches in the capital.

“Covid made people drink differently,” says Dan Long, the owner of Dan’s wine bar in Dalston and, as of this month, Ken’s in Exmouth Market. “All the extra spare time meant that people at home were open to trying new things. That did wine a massive favour. Now every time I go on Instagram, I see a new wine bar opening in London.”

Ken’s, along with Finch in Brixton, Forza Wine at the National Theatre and Little Cellars in Camberwell, is one of a quartet of wine bars launching in London this month, joining a further 10 that have already opened in 2023, from east London’s P. Franco re-launching as 107 to Henny’s down south in Balham and an outpost of Humble Grape up north in Crouch End.

Ken’s (Press handout)
Ken’s (Press handout)

But the lockdown of three years ago is only part of the story behind this blossoming; price rises are another. This week brought the news that Stonegate Group, the owner of Slug & Lettuce, will raise the price of a pint by 20p at peak times, while the average cost of a pint of beer in London has risen to £5.90, according to price comparison website Finder. For just over six quid, one might have a glass of Andreas Bender Pinot Noir from Germany at Dan’s or Basque Country Agerre Txakoli at Ken’s. Like what you’re drinking? Nearly all of these newcomers have a bottle shop where punters can buy something to take home.

“Mates of mine who would previously have gone to the pub for a couple of pints and then the off-licence to buy the cheapest bottle of wine possible are now putting more consideration into what they’re drinking,” Long says. “The producers and the stories behind them are at the front of customers’ minds, rather than the price, and that is what independent wine bars do really well.”

Mention “wine bar” to anyone over the age of 35 and the images conjured up are likely to involve a herd of ruddy-cheeked old duffers holding forth on their favourite vintages in a spit-and-sawdust encrusted Square Mile cellar. It is a stereotype that still holds a resonance for Forza Wine’s co-founder Bash Redford, who remembers the local wine bar where he grew up in Cheshire as “somewhere fusty you would go to drink a juicy claret and show off how rich you were.”

Instead, the new Forza Wine at the National Theatre, like the original in Peckham, has the sort of list of low-intervention wine likely to leave the stereotypical City oenophile spluttering into their Bordeaux premier cru. Not that you’ll ever hear Redford use the words ‘natural wine’.

“I think it’s quite a divisive term,” he says. “We look for accessible-tasting bottles and talk about delicious wine. For us, natural wine is just wine.”

Forza Wine co-founders Bash Redford (right) and Michael Lavery (Caitlin Isola)
Forza Wine co-founders Bash Redford (right) and Michael Lavery (Caitlin Isola)

But the fact that many of the wines that Forza and the new crop of London wine bars sell are made without pesticides and additives is a key point of difference to the wine bars of old and marks an important generational shift in how wine is increasingly being drunk in London.

“The natural wine movement has played a big part in attracting a new, younger audience to wine,” says Julie Sheppard, commissioning editor of wine magazine Decanter. “Not only do these bottles taste and look completely different to the classic styles, but they are sold in cool bars, alongside interesting, well-sourced snacks. Natural wines aren’t for everyone. But that very continental idea of ‘wine lifestyle’ — taking time to enjoy a great bottle and great food with great company, without drinking to get drunk — is eternally appealing.”

It’s not just the contents of the bottle, though, that have attracted a new audience to wine. “Natural winemakers and growers are operating outside the traditional appellation system in a way that feels rebellious and has democratised wine,” Redford says. Which might serve equally well as a description for the new wave of wine bars currently colonising London’s hippest residential districts. This is a trend more East End than West End, Brixton not Belsize Park.

Little Cellar co-founders Ben McVeigh (left),  Helen Hall and Luke West-Whylie (Press handout)
Little Cellar co-founders Ben McVeigh (left), Helen Hall and Luke West-Whylie (Press handout)

Ben McVeigh trained as a sommelier and worked as an account manager with importer and distributor Bancroft Wines before opening Peckham Cellars with his old school pal Helen Hall and her partner Luke West-Whylie in 2019.

“I loved working on that side of the wine world but I found many of the places where I went for tastings quite stuffy and arrogant,” he says. “There was also a whole new world of natural wine opening up, which meant going to cool places in Hackney, which I found a bit intimidating. I wanted to bring both those worlds together with an eclectic list where the wine wasn’t pre-defined by the venue. You can drink classic Bordeaux or have something super-exciting from Tenerife at both our bars.”

That versatility, McVeigh says, is what makes a wine bar different to a pub or cocktail spot, and explains the current renaissance. “If you go out for two pints and it turns into four, you’re probably going to be wiped out the next day. But if you drink half a bottle of wine you can still get on with whatever you need to do. Plus, you can eat as much or as little as you like. You’re halfway between going to the pub and going out for dinner but you still feel like you’ve had a proper night out. A wine bar is casual, but with quality ingredients.”

At Little Cellars, that might mean Piedmont pepper on toast or confit chicken leg with coco beans and girolles. At Forza Wine, grilled flatbread with braised lamb or a pork collar steak with pickled peppers. At Ken’s, boquerones with pan con tomate or Cornish cod with vin jaune. Meanwhile, at the new Finch in Brixton, there will be a grilled cheese sandwich from street-food stars Golden Boy or a lobster and crawfish roll.

One could, of course, achieve something relatively similar at home for half the price by buying a decent bottle of own-label wine and some cold meats and cheese from the deli counter. Beyond offering somewhere to meet, what does a wine bar provide that a supermarket or off-licence doesn’t? “Part of the appeal of wine bars is that there is a varied by-the-glass selection which allows a wide tasting,” McVeigh says. “A lot of the stuff that we sell is random bottles that most people have probably never heard of. We can take customers off-piste but we have classic wines too. Our job is to make sure customers are drinking something they enjoy.”

Humble Grape (Press handout)
Humble Grape (Press handout)

Training plays a key role in this. Staff at Humble Grape’s six London bars are offered training with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust up to WSET Diploma level and spend half an hour before service talking about wines they are excited about. Once a week they receive two hours of training on a specific producer while once a month they are trained directly by a winemaker so they can talk about the wines from personal experience.

“We’ve got heavily into human interaction,” founder James Dawson says. “Humble Grape’s mission is to make wine accessible and allow people to discover wine on their own terms in a non-judgmental and relaxed environment.”

Where the cool neighbourhoods lead, might central London follow? Andrew Gray’s third avian-inspired wine bar, The Peregrine, will open in Leadenhall Market at the end of the year and Gray wants to do things very differently to the established City chains. “You know what to expect if you go to a City wine bar — very expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy and other traditional fine-wine regions — which is not really what we intend to do. We want people to come and try new things in a very interactive way.”

Plume (Press handout)
Plume (Press handout)

Gray’s Covent Garden bar Plume has found a market for Sicilian zibibbo and honey wines while Brixton’s Finch will have a strong leaning towards English wine. The Peregrine, Gray says, will combine the pioneering spirit of both. “There will be wines that are a bit more classical due to the nature of the City, but I believe it is the role of the wine bar to put experimental wines out there to pique curiosity, even if the demographic is more traditional.” Is he not worried that the wine-bar market is in danger of becoming, ahem, saturated? “As long as bars are exploring the whole world of wine, I don’t think there’s any risk whatsoever. Beer always tastes like beer, but wine can taste like anything.”

Or as Ken’s Dan Long puts it: “I’m happy for there to be more and more openings. It just grows the market and allows people to try new wines. It’s pretty easy to get stuck in your little routine of what you like to drink.” Truly, the more the merrier.