Gavin Monery - Vagabond Urban Winery
Vagabond Urban Winery - Battersea
I started off as a cellar hand in 2000 and worked my way up through stints as a lab technician and assistant winemaker. I’ve always tried to work with talented people who I can learn from and have been lucky enough to spend time with Cullen and Moss Wood in Western Australia, J.L Chave in Hermitage as well as working 4 harvests in Burgundy, including making some nano-negoce wines under my own label. In 2013 I managed the design and construction of London Cru’s winery and recently finished building Vagabond Wines new facility in Battersea. I am currently working with growers/producers in France, Spain, Italy, the UK and South Africa.
What are the advantages of urban wine making in the UK?
The biggest advantage is people. In rural areas producers need to attract people to them, or they need to partner with wholesalers in order to sell their wines and build their brand. In London we have 8 million people on our doorstep, so at Vagabond we sell most of our wines directly to consumers through our own wine bars. We don’t rely on anyone to else to build relationships with our consumers; they get to know us directly and can simply walk into the winery and chat. We also run tastings that range from basic explorations of different varieties and regions through to more advanced fault clinics and winemaking instruction. Wine tastings can often be a little formal and dull however, so we put the onus first and foremost on having a good time. With a bit of drinking practice and some vocabulary anyone can become a wine expert, or at least figure out what they like best!
What drawbacks and restrictions do you come across?
It’s the boring problems like logistics and waste management that are more challenging in the city, but overall the regulatory environment for wine in the UK is fairly reasonable, especially compared to mainland Europe.
Which grape varieties do you use and what regions do you source them from? How do you get them to your winery?
At Vagabond Battersea we work mostly with Chardonnay, Bacchus and Pinot Noir from the South East of England, although we also make a Chardonay and Pinot Noir in Limoux, France and a Chenin Blanc and Cinsault on the Western Cape in South Africa. Essentially I start harvesting in August in France and finish in October in the UK, spending March in South Africa. We buy fresh grapes and I make the wines myself, so I’m on the ground in each country throughout the harvest and fermentation period. It makes for a long harvest for me, but ensures we have full control over the process. The grapes are all transported in 25kg crates after being hand picked and are generally chilled prior to pressing/processing.
Do you feel that you have more freedom to experiment than a classic grower/producer? If so, why is that?
I like to experiment each year but tbh so has everyone I’ve ever worked for. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve always been taught that experimentation is integral to the gradual improvement and evolution of a winery. Perhaps in the more traditional old world regions people are locked into using specific varieties, but even there people are constantly evolving and trialling different vineyard processes, ripeness levels, pressing cycles, yeast regimes, stem inclusion, extraction rates etc. The list is endless and I think sometimes it’s easy to do too much, so when you succeed you don’t know what went right. I’m a very low tech winemaker and generally try to keep it simple. Good fruit, gentle handling, ambient yeast and older oak describes 80% of my wines now. Most problems can be solved with hand picking and sorting prior to processing or oxygen management and temperature control afterwards. At larger wineries risk management tends to dictate technique while at smaller wineries the winemaker tastes every batch every day, so it’s easier to push the limits.
Which of your wines are you most excited about?
We’ve been having success with single vineyard barrel fermented Pinot Noir Rosé and Chardonnay and I think given the site we’re working with we may be able to position them as some of the best in the country. I also really enjoy making natural pet-nat styles and will keep experimenting with these, and I’d love to see English Bacchus take a bite out of Kiwi Sauv blanc sales! I really want to create a traditional method sparkling wine but it will take 5 years and some investment to pull it off, so it’s just in the ideas stage at the moment.
What is the general perception of an urban winery as it’s ‘unconventional’?
It is unconventional but there are some, like Broc Cellars in the US that are famous for simply being good, and a lot of consumers outside their area may not even know they’re based in a city. That’s what I’d like for the Vagabond Wines range – to be known for simply being some of the best wines available, irrespective of our location in London or even in the UK.
Where do you think the urban wine making scene is going in the UK over the next few years?
I think you’ll see more starting up, certainly. Not just in London either, but other cities and towns around the UK’s wine regions. Currently unless you’ve got a lot of of capital, land or the holy grail of family owned vineyards it’s impossible to build a Domaine or Estate style wine business. As a result, winemakers that want to create their own brands are having to build partnerships with land owners and growers, buying grapes and making their wines in leased premises or low tech sheds, which can be located anywhere. If anything, it is democratising wine production by allowing winemakers without vast fortunes the opportunity to buy grapes and show the world what they can do. Once they’ve proved themselves they may be able to secure funding for an Estate vineyard, in the same way young Chef’s run pop ups to get noticed by investors. In my mind the ideal UK winery would be located in or near a city and use a mix of Estate and contract fruit. Buying grapes from a number of sources across different regions helps hedge the risk of adverse weather, which is very important in marginal climates like the UK.
So you want to start an Urban Winery...what do you need to be looking for?
Ha ha! This consultation is only worth what you paid for it... In all seriousness though I’d say the first thing is to learn how to make wine properly. Study and work with the best people you can, be curious, ask questions and keep an open mind. Don’t believe anyone who says there’s only one way to do something and don’t trust consultants who also happen to sell things; shop around. Be aware that London has some of the best restaurants, sommeliers and wine lists in the world; the people who live here are spoilt for choice and accustomed to excellence. Simply making a wine in the city isn’t enough for it to sell. To be successful your wines will have to be at least as good as other peoples, while to be respected they’ll often have to be better than the ‘real’ producers in the countryside. Initially people may think it’s a gimmick but to be honest being in the city just makes sense. Why try to get 8 million people to come to you when you can simply go to them..?