Urban winemaking serves as a stark contrast to the traditional winemaking process. Instead of the fresh country air, manicured vines and rolling hills, you’ll find buses, tower blocks and bright city lights – an unfamiliar backdrop underpinning a movement picking up pace in several of the world’s major cities.
The origins of urban winemaking lie in 1980s California but it only became globally prominent after the turn of the millennium, and particularly in recent years. New York’s Brooklyn winery, in the heart of Williamsburg, opened in 2010, preceded by the nearby Red Hook Winery. Denver and Portland are also popular spots – and in 2017, District Winery opened in Washington DC, followed by La Fleurs Winery in San Diego and then plēb in Asheville, North Carolina. In 2016, Urban Winery Sydney opened, and since then other urban wineries have popped up all over Australia. London got its first in 2013 with London Cru, located in an old Victorian warehouse in the capital’s southwest. A handful more have since opened, including Blackbook, based under a railway arch in Battersea; and Renegade, a short walk from Bethnal Green in east London.
Behind Renegade is Warwick Smith, a former asset manager who wanted to restart London’s often forgotten winemaking tradition – Vine Street in Westminster, for example, testifies to what were once likely vineyards. But apart from the names, nothing is left. He asked himself: if you can make wine in Brooklyn, Portland and San Francisco, then why not London? In 2016, with his own funds and a loan from a university friend, Smith leased a railway arch in Bethnal Green and started making wine. He chose the name ‘Renegade’ as a reflection of his vision to bring a fresh approach to winemaking.
Like most urban wineries, Renegade does not grow its own grapes – Smith buys from around the world (some 50% are English varieties) – but the entire winemaking process takes place in Bethnal Green and this, he argues, means that all his wines are English – or, most accurately, Londoners. ‘Of course you have to have a phenomenal base ingredient. But actually how you make that wine is much more important,’ he says.
‘If you can make wine in Brooklyn, Portland and San Francisco, then why not London?’
Still, there wasn’t anything ‘renegade’ or ‘London’ about it at first. Smith would buy Bordeaux grapes from Bordeaux and copy the Bordeaux winemaking process. The outcome? A good bottle of Bordeaux. ‘It clicked very quickly that we had gone down the wrong path,’ he says. Today, it’s a different story. As of 2018, the copycat approach is out in favour of a bolder, inventive style. On a recent afternoon, Smith and his winemaker, Andrea Bontempo, are preparing bottles for a tasting in St James’s. The room is stacked three-barrels-high, each labelled with its grape: Bacchus, Nero d’Avola, Ortega, to name a few. There’s even a Georgian-style orange Qvevri wine ageing in a giant clay amphora. ‘Our philosophy is to experiment with the best of the old world, the new world, and the open-minded consumers we have in London,’ says Smith.
The key to Renegade’s success, and ultimate ability to produce original wines, is, ironically, down to the lack of winemaking in the UK in the first place. A winery in Burgundy is bound to tight, age-old restrictions. In London there are few to none. Want to mix an English grape with New Zealand yeast and a Californian oak barrel? Go right ahead. ‘We thought, “Hang on a minute – we can do what we want?” The whole business swung 180 degrees,’ says Smith. This is similar to the rise of craft beer, which responded to modern palettes by creating non-conformist beers that would rival tipples from places like Germany. Renegade produces 35,000 bottles a year – not a lot. And almost 90% is sold to restaurants, shops and so forth. The other 10% is at the winery, there for punters to enjoy five nights a week when the space doubles up as a bar and every glass is a fiver. Smith’s decision to open the space to visitors speaks volumes of his ethos: it’s about getting people excited and creating a new movement. There’s no mention of terroir, phenolics or ‘mouth-feel’ – just a cheerful barman, a cosy nook and some interesting wine.