Since leaving Plumpton College in 2014 with a degree in oenology, Sergio Verrillo and his wife Lynsey have taken a different path to most winemakers in England and Wales. At their winery Blackbook they make very little sparkling wine and, instead, focus on making still Burgundian wines, along with some ‘weird beardy’ blends. And they do this all in the heart of London. Fresh into urban winemaking himself, wine scribe and fellow Plumpton graduate Chris Wilson put Blackbook’s wines through their paces.
“We’ve had a really good harvest, it’s going to go down as a super vintage and the reason being is that we had some excellent weather at the right times; it was one of the earliest bud bursts on record so we had a lovely, warm spring,” Sergio Verrillo on the 2020 harvest.
Disclaimer: I have recently set up own urban winery in Cambridge so am clearly a believer in the concept, but it’s very early days for me and I’ve not released any wine yet.
There’s nothing new about urban wineries, they’ve been popping up in cities all over the world for many years now, but what remains exciting about the phenomenon is that the wines being produced in these municipal concessions is often right on the cutting edge.
What’s clear is that the movers and shakers behind these ventures operate on the outer edges, often tapping right in to the left-leaning (philosophically if not politically) heart of the wine-drinking zeitgeist.
Unfined, unfiltered, orange, natural, experimental, locally-sourced: some or all of these badges are proudly pinned on the lapels of the urban winemaker and the strength of many of the urban wineries I’ve visited in the UK and elsewhere comes from a nimbleness to react to new trends and ideas and adopt an ‘anything-goes’ philosophy.
A lack of specialist equipment and space forces the hand at times too and often results in truly unique wines which no conventional winemaker would dream of making.
One of a handful of London-based urban wineries is Blackbook – which has been featured in The Buyer before– and was recently added to Hallgarten’s portfolio. Based in a railway arch in Battersea it was established in 2017 by Sergio and Lynsey Verrillo and focuses on still wines made from English grapes, although they do make a small amount of fizz too.
The Blackbook ethos is to make quality single-vineyard, grower-led wines from vineyards within a two-hour radius of the winery.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are Sergio and Lynsey’s passions and from day one they have made acclaimed wines from these varieties. During a recent web-based video masterclass they rolled out the new Painter of Light Chardonnay from the 2019 vintage as well as the 2018 Nightjar Pinot and three other wines from their growing stable.
Before tasting the wines Sergio spoke about the 2020 vintage, which has just been completed, and talked about how the winery has coped during lockdown. “It’s been an interesting year; the lack of physical tastings has made us more accustomed to group tastings online. It’s been great to see the community come together and log on and take an interest in what we do.”
In terms of the vintage itself, Sergio is very happy despite bringing in fewer grapes than he’d like due to low vineyard yields. “We’ve had a really good harvest, it’s going to go down as a super vintage and the reason being is that we had some excellent weather at the right times; it was one of the earliest bud bursts on record so we had a lovely, warm spring,” he says.
For the most part the vineyards Blackbook works with avoided the late spring frosts which hit many growers from Hampshire to Norfolk, and the warm summer helped to bring about good sugar levels in the grapes. Harvest itself came with a few headaches about when to pick as rain was persistent throughout September and October.
“Yields were low, smaller berries, smaller bunches which was good for concentration from our perspective but this meant that our yields were down 15-20%, so if we’re only making 20,000 bottles that’s a significant chunk of our production. It’s unfortunate but I’d rather have lower yields and better quality fruit that having a lot more fruit and having poor quality,” he says.
“All in all it was a great harvest and it made winemaking quite easy in the winery.”
And so to the wines, Sergio and Lynsey led us through five wines from their collection, and you can tell that all have been made with care and a low-intervention approach. There’s a purity of fruit which runs through them and it’s clear that attention has been paid to how and how long each wine is aged before bottling. It’s a tidy line-up indeed.
Seyval Blanc GMF 2017
The star of the show for me, a textured, earthy sparkling wine made from Seyval Blanc. It’s fermented in barrel and tank and shows real depth; it’s floral with lemon sherbet, white peach and a spicy lift at the finish. Blackbook itself has sold out of this, but there’s 100 bottles left through Hallgarten.
Painter of Light Chardonnay 2019
On first taste this seemed to lack fruit in the mid-palate; after an initial punch of oak it drifted a little before finishing with an acid kick. However, when returning to the wine the following evening it had transformed, opening up in to a completely different wine with pineapple, nectarine and vanilla spice. The oak was still the high note, but tamed by the fruit to deliver a round, rich wine.
The Mix Up 2018
Odd as it sounds, you can’t get much more English than a blend of Bacchus and Ortega. Both grapes are of German origin but have thrived in the UK with the former arguably England’s signature still white grape. It’s a 50/50 blend here from fruit grown in Kent and it’s bold and inviting, there’s spice and grit, herbs and flowers. It’s not easy to pigeonhole a wine like this, but it’s intriguingly morish.
I’d Rather Be a Rebel Rosé 2018
A Pinot Noir pink from Essex’s Crouch Valley, this has confected strawberries on the nose and a hint of lanolin. There’s more lemon sherbet acidity and sour cherry fruit on the palate. Striking in colour it finishes with a tight citrus smash.
Nightjar Pinot Noir 2018
In the winery this flagship red is “60-70% destemmed” and sees 10% new oak as it matures. There’s a bunch of flavours here all vying for attention; cassis, red liquorice, wood smoke and smoky bacon. They get along nicely in this smooth, fruit-forward but spice-pricked Pinot.