Try Before You Buy: London Retailers That Help You Explore The Wine Scene
Getting into wine can be daunting. With countless styles, varieties, and producers, navigating even the most basic wine list, or picking the right bottle from an unending sea of wines on a supermarket shelf can seem an impossible task. Of course there are a wealth of different ways to start learning about wine but it simply doesn't get any better than rolling up your sleeves, bracing yourself for action and trying as many wines as you can.
Wine tastings are usually the most informative and fun way to get started. They usually follow a theme (California old vine wines, Killer Cabs, Strictly Sangiovese and so on) and give you exposure to experts and other wine lovers - it’s a brilliant way to learn. Wine tasting offers one of the few opportunities to try before you buy so you don't have to commit to anything before knowing that you enjoy the style or the specific bottle.
London, in my opinion, now the culinary and wine capital of Europe, offers a vast range of informal and friendly tastings at no or low cost. The London-based retailers listed below do a good job at helping you get started on your journey into wine.
However, before you let yourself loose, here are some simple tips to help you along the way; 1) always approach wine with an open mind (you never know what you will find), 2) bring a notepad or use your phone to take note of your preferences, and 3) have fun; few people are truly experts and it’s ultimately about what tickles your fancy.
Retailers with free tastings:
With shops nationwide, Majestic is one of the more accessible retailers with a wide selection of wine at all price points.
Majestic always have a few bottles retailing around £10-20 of red, white and rosé open for you to taste. The styles on offer range quite a bit so it’s always worthwhile to pop in and see what they have open - to the point where I was pleasantly surprised one Saturday to find a bottle of La Rioja Alta 904 2007 (RRP £40) sitting in a decanter waiting to be tasted.
Majestic also run well-priced tutored tastings focussing on different themes. Visit their website to see what’s coming up near you: https://www.majestic.co.uk/events
The Winery is a small boutique wine shop in Maida Vale W9 that specialises in German Rieslings and Spätburgunders (also known as Pinot Noir) but also stock French, Italian, Spanish and Californian wines. They host free and informal monthly tastings that usually fill the shop to the point that people spill out into the street – during summer this can be quite fun!
It’s a great opportunity to sample six or seven different wines always guided by their friendly and knowledgeable staff and sometimes the producers themselves. The tastings run from 17.00-21.00 and you can drop in at any time – no need to register beforehand.
Check out their website for upcoming tastings: www.thewineryuk.com/tastings
Retailers with enomatic machines:
The Sampler has two branches in London, one in Wimbledon and one in Islington. Their goal is to offer 80 wines in each shop ranging from inexpensive party wines to the world’s finest bottles through enomatic machines.
Enomatic machines dispense small tasting quantities and preserve the bottle using state of the art inert gas. This means that you can pay £4-5 for a small glass of a wine that would otherwise set you back £100+ a bottle. This is one of the best ways around to try premium and rare wines at very low cost.
To see what is sampling now in Wimbledon and Islington, visit http://www.thesampler.co.uk/130/Sampling-Now/
Bottle Apostle has five branches scattered around London in Victoria Park, Crouch End, Clapham, East Village and Primrose Hill. The concept here is the same as The Sampler, however Bottle Apostle stocks smaller and organic/biodynamic producers from across the world. All five locations have wine dispensing machines carrying a broad range of wines at very low price points, some as low as under £1 for a tasting.
Every Friday between 4-8pm they run free tastings highlighting unique wines and new additions to their range.
Retailers with guided tastings less than £30:
The Winemakers Club
The Winemakers Club can be found in the atmospheric vaults under the Holborn Viaduct in the City of London. They specialize in stocking small producers that embrace organic and biodynamic practices in their vineyards and cellars.
The Winemakers Club experienced staff run guided tastings usually focusing on specific regions or producers. With examples of previous tastings including “Natural Wine vs. Craft Beer” and “I’m not drinking any f***ing Merlot! A Merlot Tasting” – they really are as much fun as they sound.
The staff manages to take you through the story of the wines while making you forget that you are sitting around a table with a bunch of strangers swirling delicious wine in your glass.
Tastings, which are usually around £25, are held in an intimate private dining room and includes a shared plate of delicious charcuterie and cheese.
Check out their website for upcoming tastings: thewinemakersclub.co.uk/events
Cellar door wines
Cellar Door Wines is based in St Albans (ok, this isn’t technically London but it’s close enough) and specializes in wines from small, boutique vineyards.
Their selection of guided tastings is truly impressive, including masterclasses from top producers, all fairly priced between £10-15, including light snacks.
Check out their website for upcoming tastings: cellardoorwines.co.uk
These are only some examples of merchants; it is always worth asking your local wine retailer if they run tastings, you never know. Other retailers that are worth checking out are Highbury Vintners, Lay and Wheeler and Vagabond Wines.
Hopefully you found these fun, accessible and affordable ways to explore the world of wine useful. Perhaps the next time you reach for that wine list in your local restaurant, or select a wine from Waitrose, you’ll know exactly what you want to try. There is a world of wine waiting to be discovered so get out there and have fun.