This photograph of Syrah grapes in a fermentation tank is an unremarkable sight for much of the northern hemisphere at this time of year. But when that tank is within an errant goal kick of Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea football club, it is rather more unusual.
Until roughly two weeks ago, London Cru was a brand new wine-making facility: gleaming steel, sterile floors, echoey acoustics. Then the grapes arrived, and as the intoxicating aromas of fermentation grew, it metamorphosed into a fully fledged winery.
The venture has been received with cynicism by some, with accusations of gimmickry and mere novelty. Winemaker Gavin Monery, however, is emphatic, telling me their objective from the outset was to produce wine of uncompromising quality. So far, this is borne out: both by the evident quality of the fruit they are fermenting, and by the openness with which they discuss it.
A significant reason behind going to the trouble of installing a brand new winery in central London and then trucking grapes to it from mainland Europe is precisely to share the process with wine drinkers, to encourage them to experience and understand how wine is made. It is their self-declared intention not simply to allow scrutiny but positively to encourage it.
Central to this mission must be the quality of the wine. This is ensured both by working with renowned growers such as Jeff Coutelou in the Languedoc, and by the personal oversight of Monery (pictured here, standing next to the London Cru destemmer), who is in situ in the vineyard for every harvest before racing back to London in time to receive the refrigerated fruit 36 hours later.
Early signs are positive. The Syrah looked healthy, ripe and was fermenting enthusiastically. Monery told me they initially inoculated the must with Torulaspora (which is supposed to encourage mid-palate complexity) followed by Saccharomyces. Natural fermentation was considered too risky, since they didn’t want the fruit to be at the mercy of whatever strange local strains might be floating around south-west London. He also said that the all-purpose yeast nutrient diammonium phosphate was available for him to use – but only if and when it became strictly necessary.
Instead, punch-downs and pump-overs will be used to keep the ferment oxygenated and cool. Meanwhile, in a separate room, several barrels of mid-ferment Languedoc Chardonnay are being kept cool by air-conditioning. This fruit was picked deliberately early for acidity’s sake, with a harvest reading of TA 7.0 g/l and 3.35 pH. It was whole-bunch pressed, pumped into second-fill French oak barriques and has been given 40 ppm of SO2 to keep it clean.
Eventually, they will have received 21 tonnes of 2013 fruit, making around 15,000 bottles - just over one third of their maximum capacity. Future plans include buying grapes from wherever they can freight the fruit from in good time - Spain and northern Italy are both potentially in their sights.
The next phase, however, will be the all important release of their first wines, scheduled for the first half of 2014. All the evidence so far suggests that these wines will validate the credibility of the project - but only once they are tasted will London Cru be really put under scrutiny.
London Cru will be opening to the public for tours and tastings in early November 2013.