They wouldn’t have got past the elevator pitch in Dragons’ Den. “So you want to sell premium Austrian wines from a transport container in the East End of London?” summarises a puzzled Duncan Bannatyne; “I’m ooot.” But after just four months, Newcomer Wines is nearly breaking even already. What makes this all the more impressive is that co-owner Peter Honegger is just 22 years old and manages the store while studying for a university degree. Age and business experience clearly needn’t be barriers to getting involved in the London wine scene – creativity and a willingness to embrace your local market are much more important.
It’s unusual to meet wine entrepreneurs in their early twenties in the UK, but Honegger had a head start. He attended a vocational high school in Vienna that focussed on tourism, where he took a youth sommelier course as a teenager. On completing his studies, he moved to London with his girlfriend Daniela Pillhofer to go to university (Peter at Cass, Daniela at LSE) with no intention of starting a wine business. Seeing how poorly represented Austrian wine was in the UK, he saw an opportunity, but thought to himself “maybe this niche needs a new approach… If you think about Austrian wine in London – you think of nothing. There is no image attached. So we can define the image.”
Newcomer Wines inhabits one of the forty or so stripped and refitted shipping containers that make up Boxpark Shoreditch, a ‘pop-up mall’ in one the trendier parts of London. Living nearby, they thought it would make an interesting and convenient place to start out that offered low overheads. “We decided for sure to work on this concept in June 2013” says Honegger. The only challenge was securing an alcohol licence in a part of London that already has more than its fair share of pubs, bars and convenience stores. They opened shortly after, in January 2014; “opening a company takes only half an hour online… and shipping the wine is pretty easy.”
Shoreditch has long been known for its nightlife and is now a hub for London’s creative, tech and online start-up community. Most of the other Boxpark units however are rented by small independent fashion brands. In the same way that larger fashion stores group together individual designers’ collections, the wines at Newcomer are displayed by producer rather than region or grape variety.
Honegger and Pillhofer started with a shortlist of 30 wineries, but after a series of blind tastings with a panel consisting of both experts and casual drinkers, they reduced this down to 10. As you walk around the fairly cramped space, what immediately strikes you is the creativity and originality of the labels. It was part of the selection criteria to appeal to local drinkers. “The quality has to be there, it’s a prerequisite” Honegger says of the wine, “but we needed something else to make people curious, to want to learn more.” Two labels were made specifically for the company, inspired by local graffiti. As for the rest, “it’s just how the winemakers present themselves… after all, people buy on the label.”
Each producer section has a tablet that plays a short video of around a minute that presents the winery, but prioritises the winemaker’s story over the wines themselves. “I think people can relate more to a wine if they know where it comes from” says Honegger. “But essentially the winemakers are just pretty normal people. We want to change the way people think about wine. Some people still think it’s a bit snobby and posh, but its really about coming together with friends… it’s a social thing.”
In addition to each tablet, there is a huge central touchscreen set in a wine barrel with suggestions on how to match the wines with the right food, the right occasion or even the right company. The rest of the store has a DIY approach – “everything you see was made by us; we cut the shelves, we printed the wallpaper.” Rather than a wine shop, Honegger presents Newcomer Wines as a platform to help small Austrian winemakers reach winelovers here in the UK, and vice-versa. The unit is ‘showroom’ to introduce local drinkers to the winemakers, their stories, and of course their wines.
Because the site is small, the range is restricted to around 40 wines, but it still manages to cover eight different regions and a relatively wide selection of grape varieties and styles. Among the whites (which on tasting were more consistent than the reds) there is plenty of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but also curiosities like Rotgipfler, Neuberger and Traminer; reds are mostly Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Pinot Noir; he also stocks a smattering of rosé, sweet and sparkling wines. Each producer has two or three ‘everyday’ wines between £9 and £19 and one or two ‘flagship’ wines above £20; only a handful top the £50 mark. Character and individuality sometimes take precedence over technical precision or traditional classicism in some of the selection, but this suits the style of the store.
London’s position as one of the most exciting and varied cities in the world to enjoy wines is strengthening all the time. “The concept wouldn’t work in Vienna,” says Honegger, “but in London people are really open-minded.” He proves that it doesn’t take a huge investment in time or money to get started; creativity and a desire to help new people get into good wine are more important. That wine has traditionally been such a conservative business means there is plenty of room for new and original approaches – even for leftfield concepts like Newcomer.
2-10 Bethnal Green Road
London E1 6GY
+44 7447 512 061
Monday – Saturday 11am – 7pm
Thursday 11am – 8pm
Sunday 12pm – 6pm
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10 wines worth trying
Christoph Edelbauer Grüner Veltliner 2012 (Kamptal, Austria, 12.5%; £11.90)
Green apple, citrus, fresh celery and cucumber. Medium-bodied with plenty of fruit and apply acidity on the palate. Classic stuff. 88 points, good value.
Groszer Wein ‘Germichter Satz’ 2013 (Südburgendland, Austria, 12.5%; £14.90 for 1l bottle)
Field blend of Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Muskateller, Pinot Blanc and Grüner Veltliner. Fresh and floral with white peach and satsuma on the nose. Soft and balanced with good freshness and lovely acidity. Very intense, surging finish and good length. 89 points, good value.
Erwin Poller ‘Vom Loess’ 2013 (Weinviertel, Austria, 12.5%; £14.90)
60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Muskateller. Softly perfumed nose, roses and lychees, but not in your face like Gewurz – more subtle than that. Soft and plump but nicely balanced acidity. Not hugely complex, but nicely judged – fruit and perfume in equal measure, nothing overdone. 88 points, fair value.
Ewald Zweytick ‘WB’ Weissburgunder 2012 (Südsteiermark, Austria, 13.0%; £14.90)
A ripe and rich style of Pinot Blanc, lots of apricot fruit dispersing from the glass, with a touch of fresh cream. Lovely texture, with good minerality and lively acidity keeping things tucked in. A very good example of Austrian Pinot Blanc, intense in flavour with good length. 90 points, good value.
Erwin Poller ‘Ms Mayer’ Grüner Veltliner 2012 (Weinviertel, Austria, 13.0%; £19.90)
Celery, white pepper and a touch of apricot on the nose. Medium to full-bodied with red apple fruit, a soft texture and a firm, dry mineral finish. Long, savoury, lots of intense extract and a lovely texture. Serious stuff behind a curious label, firm and balanced. 91 points, fair value.
Davis Weszeli ‘Purus’ Grüner Veltliner 2011 (Kamptal, Austria, 13.0%; £26.90)
Pure and clean nose, smells like pine needles. Lovely full body, intense and ripe. Bags of flavour, a very ripe style, just dry. Long and fruity. Waves of flavour. 92 points, fair value.
Clemens Strobl ‘Fumberg’ Riesling 2012 (Wagram, Austria, 13.0%; £29.90)
Incredibly floral, rose petals. Satsuma, honeysuckle and white pepper notes too. Full-bodied, very rich and just off dry. Alcohol is balanced. Like Gewurztraminer in style, but delicious, clean, rich and balanced. No botrytis apparently, just late picked. Acid perhaps just a little on the low side, but very characterful. Worth a premium for the bonkers bottle – wax capsule, the biggest punt I’ve ever seen and an etched ‘Acid smiley face goes on holiday’ motif. I’ll be calling the winemaker ‘Clemens Strobelighting’ from now onwards. 90 points, just about fair value.
Ewald Zweytick ‘Don’t Cry’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Südsteiermark, Austria, 14.5%; £49.90)
One third new oak, 2 thirds used. Single vineyard. 1,000 bottles only. Winemaker is a massive Guns ‘n’ Roses fan, and names his wines after them. This is something else – immediately a compellingly interesting nose. Full-bodied and intense on the palate with a vibrant burst of flavour. Some aged characteristics; really interesting. Very mineral, very long and lots of texture to keep the mouth interested. Lemon, lime, lychee – clearly late picked. Unique and delicious, tasting this made my day. 93 points, just about fair value.
Claus Preisinger Zweigelt 2012 (Burgunland, Austria, 13.0%; £12.90)
Blueberry, raspberry, black cherry. Medium bodied, balanced alcohol, high acidity, but it’s met along the way by powerful, juicy dark fruits. Quite long, not terribly complex, but intense and zingy without being overly acidic. A delicious, sensitively oaked and powerfully flavoured dynamic wine. Very good. 90 points, good value.
Christoph Edelbauer Pinot Noir 2011 (Langenlois, Niederosterreich, Austria, 13.0%; £29.90)
Fresh and vivid raspberry and wild strawberry. Some high toned black cherry, a hint of volatility. Some oak spicing – cinnamon. Light- to medium-bodied. High acidity, low in tannin, just a slight squeeze on finish. A sweet side to the fruit and a touch of cherry coke from the oak. Fairly long, slightly bitter finish. Pure, drinkable, if just a little touch of syrupiness to the fruit. 89 points, not great value.