Beneath a railway arch in Battersea is perhaps the last place you’d expect to find grapes being turned into wine, but Peter Ranscombe discovers passion and perseverance at the Blackbook winery.
Imagine a winery; are you picturing a building with white-washed walls and a terracotta-tiled roof somewhere in France or Italy or Spain, surrounded by sun-kissed vineyards full of vines laden with juicy, plump grapes?
The Blackbook winery in London is a wee bit different; it’s the latest in a string of “urban” wineries that have popped up around the globe.
Located under a railway arch a short walk from Queenstown Road station in Battersea, it’s the city’s third winery after London Cru in Earl’s Court and Renegade in Bethnal Green.
What sets Blackbook apart is that it’s focussing exclusively on making wines from English grapes, rather than importing berries from the continent or further afield.
Its first bottle, a rosé or pink wine made from pinot noir grapes grown at the Clayhill vineyard in Essex, carried off a silver medal at the 2018 Drinks Business Global Rosé Masters competition and has already secured listings in wine-focussed restaurants and bars such as The Glasshouse in Kew, Trinity in Clapham and the Wine Rooms in Kensington and Brackenbury.
A red wine made with pinot noir grapes and a white created using chardonnay grapes – both from the same vineyard in Essex – are due to follow in September, along with a sparkling wine made from the lesser-known seyval blanc white grape from the Yew Tree vineyard in Oxfordshire and a splash of chardonnay.
A more traditional fizz – made from chardonnay and pinot noir – will follow as the business expands.
Sitting in the winery with owners Sergio and Lynsey Verrillo, surrounded by their wooden barrels and stainless-steel tanks, it’s easy to feel their passion for the project.
And they’ve needed a blend of that passion and perseverance to overcome the challenges that have stood in their path.
Renting premises in the capital isn’t cheap and the couple had originally intended to open a winery with its own restaurant.
But, with start-up costs of around £2m, the restaurant would have needed to become the driving force to pay the bills, with the winery playing second fiddle and so instead they opted for their site in Battersea, with rent at about one-fifth of the price it would have cost to open in Central London.
Happily, it’s also closer to their home in Brixton, making family life easier with their three-year-old daughter, Isobel, and son Hamish, who was born as they were opening the winery last year. 
The couple have funded the project using their own savings and money raised from friends and family, slowly adding equipment when their budget has allowed.
The 2017 production run turned out around 5,000 bottles, while the site has capacity to produce up to 40,000 bottles, once further equipment is added and storage space is freed-up by moving stock off the premises.
When output expands, exports are on the agenda, with Sergio’s native United States – where he was born to Hungarian and Italian parents – is an obvious target.
Following his passion
Lynsey will continue to work in the corporate world while Sergio follows his passion for winemaking and continues to work part-time in the London on- and off-trade.
They’re preparing to welcome their first guests on tours around the winery in August, with Sergio not only showing guests the equipment while talking them through the winemaking process, but also explaining more about English wine and how the grapes are grown.
It’s a subject very close to his heart; while studying for his degree in “viticulture” – growing grapes – and “enology” – making wine – from Plumpton College in Sussex, Sergio undertook his research project at Greyfriars vineyard in Surrey.
During his studies and after graduation, he spread his wings and worked during harvests at vineyards and wineries throughout the world, from Flowers in the US and Domaine de Montille in France to Mulderbosch in South Africa and Ata Rangi in New Zealand.
While he’d built up a pedigree working with some big-name producers, starting out on his own presented another challenge for Sergio – how to source grapes in England.
Although there are around 130 wineries in England and Wales, not all of them grow their own grapes.
Instead, there’s a fragmented industry of more than 500 vineyards, with many grape growers tied into long-term contracts to sell fruit to specific wineries.
Yet Sergio was able to find farmers who understood his desire to make high-quality wine; and their contribution is highlighted by naming their vineyards on the labels.
“The frost in May last year didn’t help either,” he adds. “It meant I got fewer grapes than intended – I’d wanted 10 tonnes but ended up with six-and-a-half.”
A ‘happy accident’
And some of those grapes arrived a little earlier than was ideal – which led to what Lynsey describes as a “happy accident”.
“The first grapes arrived three days before our stainless-steel tanks,” explains Sergio. “That meant we had to put the juice straight into the barrels after pressing the grapes.
“We never intended for our first wine to be a rosé, but we had juice left over after filling the larger-format barrels and so it made sense to make a pinot noir rosé.”
That “happy accident” pink wine is going down well at the city’s wine bars and restaurants – but why pick London when Sergio could have chosen to make wine anywhere in the world?
“We both love the city and we’re passionate about it,” explains Lynsey, who’s originally from Scotland. “I’ve lived here for 15 years and Sergio has been here for ten years now.”
That love of London is reflected in their labels, which were designed by Yarza Twins, a graphic design studio in the city launched by Spanish sisters Marta and Eva Yarza, both graduates of the Central Saint Martins arts school and who list Adobe, MTV and Smirnoff among their other clients.
The label for the rosé features art-deco detailing from the Carreras or “black cat” cigarette factory in Camden, while the designs for the chardonnay and pinot noir bottles include nods to the floor tiles at the Tate Britain gallery and the pillars at the Natural History Museum.
With their love of London and their love of wine, it sounds like Sergio and Lynsey might just have found the perfect blend for success.
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