They say you often put off doing the great stuff right on your doorstep, and having been saving lists of ‘London experiences’ to my phone for so long I could probably publish my own, I can relate.
The city is the most amazing place to explore, meet new people and try new things, but with so many opportunities to do so it’s hard to know where to start. It was about time I did a few more experiences in London. And where better than with wine. Which, I confess, is not entirely new.
So here I am: 4.50pm on a bright Thursday evening, in an unnervingly cool part of Hackney - Dalston Junction, to be precise - about as far out of my natural habitat as it gets. A pigeon is pecking at a what I’m pretty sure is a charcoal-activated croissant.
I navigate my way to ‘mystery stop one’ of the East London ‘Wine Walk’. Having done my research, the wine in store will be good. Really good. I hope my palette is up to the job.
I’ve signed up to discover ‘hip bottled treasure’ at four ‘unexpected’ bars, sample delicious wine, be ‘lavished - lavished - with attention’ and be plied with ‘tasty snacks’ to avoid my falling over en route. You can see why I came. And I’ve been told it’s rather special. Pitched - bang on, as it turns out - as ideal for a date night, while I’ve been unsuccessful in securing a romantic prospect, I have at least managed to commandeer a partner-in-crime. She’s even agreed for me to refer to her as my ‘date’ for the write up. That’ll do.
The first bar is a stones throw from the station. Literally. Citymapper informs me a catapult would fling me here in under a minute. Good to know. How very East London.
I arrive early because I’m an excellent date. There’s a waft of earthy, Whole Foods-meets-country-farm-shop. The owner, Kirsty, apologises for her work attire and nips off to don the ‘evening wear’. Lavish and fancy.
My date arrives and together we inhale the deliciousness. Warm brownies and handmade biscuits. Raw chocolate and fresh eggs. Pickles, jams and chutneys. Crystal clear gins in enormous glass dispensers (‘porrons’, according to Google), craft beers and, most importantly, rows upon rows of wine.
Originally a pop up bag-in-box wine bar, this environmentally conscious taproom and deli bursting with eclectic curiosities now has permanent residence in Dalston. Kirsty’s dedication to reducing carbon footprint means she works only with wine makers and importers who ‘tread lightly on the earth’, and everything we drink tonight will be natural: no additives, no pesticides, no sulphur - apparently the culprit of a hangover. I’m listening.
We meet Mike, the chef, who’s in his element carefully arranging vegetables, bunches of herbs and jars of spices and oils on the counter. We perch ourselves opposite the spectacle.
I make my confession: I neither eat meat or cheese, and rarely venture beyond a Cotes de Provence. Kirsty hands me a glass of luscious looking white with a knowing smile and Mike looks down at a glistening pile of greens. All my concerns vanish. I take a sip. It’s glorious. Bring on the new things.
We learn about Kirsty’s commitment to help change the way we consume commodities without compromising on quality. It’s fascinating, and her passion is infectious. An orange wine is surprisingly light. My date is sold. She coos over a delicate chilled red while I’m transfixed by the St. John’s rosé. If a restaurant is prepared to serve only one, it’s got to be good. And it is. Wow. We debate whether I can carry one of the four-bottle boxes and agree it’s my excuse to return.
Two huge plates are placed in front of us. Fluffy burrata doused in honey with crushed Greek pistachios. Juicy chanterais melon, succulent sundried tomatoes and glossy green olives. Sharp, crisp cauliflower, carrots and beans - all pickled by hand. A sweet daikon salad and slabs of soft, nutty sourdough with a crack that practically echos. Combining fresh, locally-sourced regional ingredients, Mike’s mission is to make simple, seasonal fare utterly delicious. Mission accomplished.
Our reward for having devoured every last morsel, the last glass of white is a generous one. And it’s incredible. So incredible, in fact, that it’s pipped the rosé to the post. Now that’s impressive. A Muscadet, I’m told. Noted.
We savour the last drops. So totally charmed by our hosts, we’d both happily stay put. As Kirsty points us in the right direction she asks us to send her love to Manuel, the patron of our final stop and, we discover, a dear friend. There’s a lovely sense of community among the independents and we’ve been made to feel part of the family.
Minutes away, a shop and bar specialising in artisanal, primarily Austrian wines from a new generation of sustainable producers couldn’t be more of a contrast with its slick, titanium and glass frontage. Gunmetal grey walls. Industrial height ceilings with exposed light fittings. Concrete and untreated wood. It could easily pass as a gallery. The atmosphere is crisp and tinged with grape. There’s a soft pulse of bass. Swathes of sleek, designer-looking black-glass bottles: minimal intervention, organic biodynamic viticulture, ‘Honest, distinctive delicious.’ It’s gorgeous. And achingly cool.
At the bar, Jimmy, our host, signals his vast knowledge with the raise of an eyebrow. A man of few words, he lets the wine do the talking. We’re sampling a selection from a couple who cultivate 60 acres of land; a huge amount for just two people. All in the signature black glass, the first - a vintage (3 years since bottling) sparkling white produced in the same manner as champagne - is phenomenal. 2012. No wonder. A non-sparkling variety of the same grape - Grüner Veltliner - is just as delicious. The Reisling is subtle. My date savours a soft red and I melt into an unexpectedly delicate Austrian rosé.
We’re invited to pick a full glass of the wines we’ve tried to enjoy out the back, where a cute urban garden gets the last of the sunshine. It’s a harder choice than expected after that silky Grüner Veltliner but the rosé is just too good. So good I forget to clock my date’s particular choice. It’s white.
We settle in the corner and agree that, if this were a date, whoever had chosen the venue would be due serious brownie points. I can think of few better places to pitch up of an evening. But we’re not on a date. And our glasses are empty. It’s time to go. Via the chic-est toilet I’ve ever used.
Our next location is a tad further away, perfectly timed to walk the edge off the alcohol. Plus, we have loads to talk about. It’s been captivating. No pretence, no extortionately expensive statements. Just good wine, good food and good company. None of those things need a fancy price tag to be special. They just are. And the same goes for the walk. Damn it’s nice round here.
Originally a small stall on one of London’s most beloved markets, stop three - an idyllic little shop-meets-bar - couldn’t be more perfectly situated than on one of Hoxton’s best kept secrets: a chocolate box of a road boasting clusters of quirky cafes, kitsch homewares and American bakeries.
Now part of a boutique award-winning collective, it’s lost none of its rustic charm. Understated, pocket-sized, perfectly formed. There’s a warm, sawdusty scent. Floor to ceiling bottles bearing simple, hand-written price tags are bathed in a soft, golden glow. The wooden floorboards are worn and creak a little, and two enormous oak barrels to the left of a tiny counter dwarfed by crates of pre-mixed Tokyo bellinis and miniature fizz.
Georgia, our host, pours us a taste of one of her current favourites and I immediately recognise the floral of a Muscadet. My date is impressed. I’m amazed. A delicious white of Mediterranean origin is so translucent it’s like looking through a grape and tastes divine. Which makes sense - despite the range now containing over three hundred wines, every single one of them remains handpicked (including natural, organic and biodynamic bottles, international craft beers and boutique spirits), lovingly sourced and carefully selected from producers who adore what they do.
At the mention of my love of Cotes de Provence, Georgia fills a glass with the most exquisite pink liquid from one of the barrels. The hue is indescribable and it tastes like f*cking heaven. Sorry, it does. The two of us make it our glass for the night and park ourselves at the window. As if on cue, time stands still.
I decide to take a bottle of the paler-than-pale Grenache home with me, and as this lot pioneered the environmentally-friendly refill system I can top it up at any of their shops. I’m thrilled to discover there’s one closer to home, but this tiny little bar that could easily be a cantina in Florence has won my heart. It’s only as I’m paying that the appearance of a bald, jumper-wearing cat called Keith on the counter reminds me I’m very, very much in East London.
We make our way to the starting point of Dalston Junction, fancifully musing on what it must be like to live in one of the enviably chic townhouses within catapulting distance of a rosé top-up.
Manuel greets us like old friends as the door of his gorgeous little shop/bar inspired by the traditional ultramarinos and abacerías of his Spanish childhood. We’re the only ones here in this tiny, candlelit slice of Andalucian heaven.
A mammoth leg of jamon rests on the counter. This place is one for the meat lovers. The aroma wraps us in a big smoky hug. We’re offered one of three beautiful house pours and in a wonderful moment of full-circle serendipity my date picks Kirsty’s beloved natural orange and I stick my nose deep into a big glass of the Loire Valley creaminess she introduced us to earlier.
My date tucks into impeccably arranged artisan charcuterie and instagrammable wedges of velvety smooth manchego and I - the non meat lover - feast on a plate of heirloom and plum tomatoes so flavourful for a moment I question if I might actually be in Galicia. We soak up the moment in silence. The non meat lover is happy. Noone fell over. Job done.
The fairylights of a nearby pub entice us in for a nightcap. Inside we contemplate the wine list with newly enlightened eyes and taste buds, then revert to type and pick our go-tos. There’s no point trying to compete with the stuff we’ve sampled. Or the hospitality we’ve experienced. Tonight has been as much about the wine as it has been about the people. As ‘London experiences’ go, this one is, indeed, rather special.
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