A funny thing happened in lockdown. Bars shut but they seeded a growing crop of bottle shops that, since freedom has been declared have either turned back into, or become, bars in their own right. And now that we can, there is pure pleasure in twisting bottles around in the light, mulling labels and wine lists first hand instead of squinting at them online. There is also a comforting intimacy to wine bars that sits at odds with the clatter of a pub: an air of sophistication, even if you have no idea what the sommelier is talking about.
That said, with a new crop offering both more outlandish and more accessible wine lists, there’s even less need to feel like you have to be able to tell your Grenache from your Syrah or muse about undertones of chocolate if all you want is to knock back a glass of the good stuff.
For those wanting to find the best of the old school or something fresh, here is a small tasting of London’s finest wine selling saloons.
Frank’s, St James's
Right in the heart of St James’s rarefied gallery land, the subterranean Frank’s has a short list of wines by the glass. But, lack of quantity is outweighed by the quality of the choices. Two of each colour plus a sweetly yeasty vin jaune and a couple of fortified wines display the tastes of an adventurous sommelier. The menu - proper French bar fare from oysters to rabbit pate - soaks up the juice well. The music is unconventional - more Wheatus than jazz - but soothingly smooth leather banquettes surround the square bar and are perfect for whispering secrets. If you’re in the mood, the calvados sorbet makes an excellent disgestif. Or, you could nip upstairs for the full brasserie experience at the bar’s parent restaurant, Maison Francois.
Noble Rot, Soho
A cursory survey of acquaintances to discover London’s favourite wine bar revealed that Noble Rot cropped up most often. It’s original Bloomsbury home has recently been added to since it took over the Soho stalwart and favoured haunt for plotting politicians, The Gay Hussar, to rave reviews. The compendious wine list - almost exclusively European - offers tasters from £3 and glasses from £5 so happily you can sup your way through several without breaking the bank. Both its sites are old school in the best sense: unfancy but beautifully considered dishes, brasserie chairs and banquettes. Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, the pair behind Noble Rot and the wine importer Keeling Andrew & Co, increased their mini empire again this summer with the opening of a wine shop opposite the Bloomsbury outpost called Shrine to the Vine.
Humble Grape, Fleet Street
You might find a curious wine buyer reaching over your table for a favoured vintage but such is the conviviality of Humble Grape’s wood-lined bottle shop-come-bars. A mini-chain of five, each one offers around 400 wines by the bottle and around eight to 10 by the glass with tasting sessions occasionally scratched onto the blackboard outside. The notes on the menu are creative but the staff are knowledgeable enough to point you towards some of its more interesting wines - a Slovenian Starjerska or earthy Languedoc reds. On Mondays, bottles are sold for drinking in at their retail price, a good way to perk up the early week. For a bottle shop, the menu is also decent - the grilled octopus is a particularly good snack.
This subterranean chasm of a bar just next to Embankment station can provoke Marmite reactions but most of the detractors complain because there simply isn’t a lot of space. It lays claim to being London’s oldest wine bar and has since spilled out onto the alleyway outside with heated tables that are packed even on blustery days. The beauty of Gordon’s lies in its location, affordability and rickety charm more, perhaps, than the top notch quality of its wines. The inside walls are stacked with pictures of grandees and old newspaper clippings. It’s the kind of place parents and parents of parents will remember frequenting in their youth. No nonsense pork pies and pates are designed to soak up the wine rather than win culinary prizes but the cheese selection is excellent.
Vagabond, Victoria, Fulham and Battersea
Wine bar purists might dismiss Vagabond as a gimmick - a kind of overgrown vending machine for wines. But for the curious oenologist, it’s a fun concept that allows you to dip in and out of different vintages purely by topping up a card with credit and taking a glass around to squeeze wines from self-pour taps around the bar. In the past 11 years, Vagabond has spread from its roots in Fulham to seven other London outposts and now includes an urban winery at the Battersea Power Station complex where it takes grapes from vineyards a two hour radius from London. If you are into sourcing new favourites, Vagabond’s tasting notes are unfussy and direct you by taste rather than region.
WC, Clapham Common
In the old public loos beneath Clapham Common tube and at Guildford Place in Bloomsbury, you’ll find the insides swept out and the stalls replaced with cushty seating and low lights. We sat up in an old, now leather lined, urinal. Wines come by the glass, carafe or bottle with four words describing each, which helps if you don’t want to get lost in the notes. The list itself is shortish and largely old world with a few southern hemisphere vintages thrown in. The subterranean location is probably not somewhere to while away a hot summer afternoon (unless you are in dire need of cool and shade) but it’s beautifully cosy on a winter’s night with the candles lit.
Top Cuvee, Highbury
A bottle shop of the new school, Top Cuvee in Highbury has few airs and graces. Squashed into its premises on Blackstock Road you’ll find simple plywood chairs and tables, orange and exposed brick walls, colourful menus and a babble of young north Londoners. The wine list zones in on natural wines from small producers with some off-the-wall choices: red and white blends, unusual orange wines made for the Top Cuvee team and a handful of craft beers for good measure. You can even buy wine in a bag to take home. The bottle shops (they have another in Bethnal Green, which is open for drinking at weekends) were born of the shutdown of bars in the pandemic and you can now subscribe to have three or six bottles sent to your door each month.
Sager + Wilde, Hackney Road
There’s something of the Victorian docker still swirling around Sager + Wilde’s east London outposts - particularly at Hackney Road. But the bentwood stools, industrial crates and exposed brick are more inviting than they might look, particularly on a low lit winter evening. The wine list is vast but the staff are more than knowledgeable enough to do some gentle hand holding and were particularly good at finding pairings to slosh down with the simple lineup of cheese and charcuterie. If you go to Sager + Wilde’s Paradise Row outpost, you’ll find a more extensive menu of pasta and meat from the grill.
P Franco, Clapton
It looks like an old cash and carry on the outside but on the inside P Franco is a compendium of wines, plastered with posters for tastings that look more akin to club night promotions. It’s tiny, fun and one of a crew of three east London wine bars - its sibling sites are Bright and Noble Fine Liquor - all with a sparky tone and off the wall vintages from small vineyards. It’s the kind of place you’ll find wines that you never thought you’d try and turn out to love - an effervescent Muscat or biodynamic Chardonnay. There’s a new chef in stock too putting out a daily changing menu of small plates. But, be warned, no reservations so be ready to join the queue.