If you could set up a winery anywhere in the world, where would you do it? In sun-baked Tuscany? On a grassy hillside in Sonoma? Or how about a railway arch in Battersea, south London? Because that’s where you’ll find Blackbook – a winery that’s fast emerging as one of the most exciting in the English wine scene.
Neither of Blackbook’s founders are from London, or even England for that matter. Winemaker Sergio Verrillo, 40, grew up in Connecticut, the son of Italian and Hungarian immigrants. He moved to London in the 2000s to work as a sommelier at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and Chez Bruce, before retraining as a winemaker in 2010. His wife Lynsey was born in Aberdeenshire and raised in Edinburgh.
But when it came to establishing Blackbook, the pair knew it was London or bust: “We are both city people – we are passionate about this city,” says Verrillo. “We love its vibrancy, its energy and its culture, and we try to reflect that in our wines.”
London is home to four wineries: Blackbook, London Cru and Vagabond in the south-west, and Renegade in the east. What makes Blackbook different to some of its peers is the fact that the winery only uses English fruit. Most of that comes from Essex, and all of it from vineyards within a two-hour radius of London. Verrillo’s big loves are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – varietals he got to know well while serving apprenticeships at Flowers in Sonoma, Burgundy’s De Montille and Ata Rangi in New Zealand. His wines would be classed as “natural” by some – the wines are fermented with wild yeasts and bottled unfiltered with minimal sulphur – but they also have purity and polish.
“Their Chardonnays are world class,” says Gus Gluck, founder of Quality Wines in Farringdon and GB Wine Shippers. “They have a structural quality, a diamond-like texture, that reminds me of exciting Chablis. They’re the first still English wines I’ve tasted that you could really lay down.”
The 2019 Painter of Light, made with grapes from Clayhill in Essex, is luminous – citrusy, with a touch of salt. The 2018 Pygmalion Chardonnay has more oaky power – Bramley apple, brandy butter – that will probably produce a more profound wine in the long run.
One of my favourite rosés of last summer was Blackbook’s 2018 I’d Rather be a Rebel Pinot Noir; the 2019 (launching at the end of April) is leaner but it’s got wonderful vigorous crunch: raspberry, rose, pink grapefruit and a fine, structured tannin.
Blackbook’s striking labels (all by the Yarza Twins studio in Whitechapel) are a homage to the city – one quotes a tile pattern from Tate Britain, another a florette from the Royal Opera House. The label on the white blend The Mix Up was inspired by Warren Street Tube station. And the winery has grown into a hub for the local community. “All around us are small businesses – distilleries, wine merchants, craft brewers, food companies,” says Verrillo. “We’ve hosted supper clubs and drink festivals, we’re collaborating on a beer with the nearby Mondo brewery, and we’re doing a vermouth. Every harvest we welcome dozens of volunteers to work in the winery. That ability to reach out to people and do fun things is a big part of why we love being in London.”