My first visit to Terroirs almost didn’t happen. It was early 2009 and I was tired, feet aching after a long day pouring wine for tourists at London Bridge attraction Vinopolis.
Britain’s first natural wine bar had opened just a few months earlier, in late 2008, and it was already one of the hottest tickets in town.
A winemaking friend of a friend had arranged to crash in the spare room of my flat that night and I’d offered to accompany him safely to my home after I finished work. His meeting with Terroirs’s owners and the UK’s most prominent (and at that point, one of its only) natural-wine importer, Les Caves de Pyrène had run late – many hours late.
I found Terroirs down a quiet street connecting The Strand with Trafalgar Square. The hush on the street belied the roar of life inside. People perched at the L-shaped bar beside brightly labelled bottles and wine glasses of liquid, a kaleidoscope of colour far beyond the standard red, white and pink. Wooden tables groaned with small plates of French bistro fare: duck rillette, pork and pistachio terrine, hunks of cheese and crusty bread smothered in butter. The atmosphere was convivial, communal, buzzing.
The hours that followed were a blur, filled with glass after glass of natural wine, all of which were like electric charges to my taste buds. Late in the night a gentleman arrived at our table in Terroirs’s basement bar with a long-necked decanter and began to pour.
When I finally emerged from the bowels of the bar, I realised the place had been shut for hours. The decanter-wielding gent, I learned, was Eric Narioo, the founder of Les Caves de Pyrène and owner of Terroirs. I’d been an unsuspecting guest at one of his already notorious lock-ins.
That night at Terroirs would change the course of my wine life forever. Then again, Terroirs would change the course of wine. My story is just one of many.
In the beginning…
Les Caves de Pyrène had been importing small-batch bottles of natural wine from obscure regions since the 1990s, and Narioo, a former rugby player and French expat, had already begun exploring the growing natural wine bar scene in Paris, particularly inspired by places such as Le Verre Volé.
“At that particular point, natural wine was not ‘a thing’ in London,” says Les Caves’s Marketing Director, Doug Wregg.
We wanted to build a place to showcase these wines, and throw out any form of rule book
They recruited Ed Wilson, formerly of Galvin and The Wolseley, as head chef; former Parisian wine bar owner and winemaker Vincent Wallard along with Richard Martinez as general managers; and restaurant consultant Nigel Sutcliffe, who’d bought wines from Les Caves in his role as director of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Group.
“When Ed Wilson came on board as chef, it became obvious to us what to do, and that was build a place that showcased these wines and throw out any form of rule book,” says Sutcliffe.
Narioo found the site, a former wine bar called Davy’s, located in the heart of London’s West End. On a shoestring budget, the newly formed Terroirs team set out transforming the gloomy, ungainly space into one that was colourful and welcoming, aided by Wilson’s university degree in industrial design.
“We collected bric-a-brac from fairs in France; the banquettes were out of Marco [Pierre White’s former] Mirabelle [restaurant]; the silverware was old breakfast service from Le Manoir, and the art from friends,” says Sutcliffe. Their one splurge was the large zinc bar, the centrepiece of the space.
Wilson, with his background in French classical cooking, devised a seasonal menu of rustic French bistro-inspired fare. By necessity, plates were small and ever-rotating. “We had this tiny little pocket in the kitchen. We drove the concept of British tapas and preceded many places like Polpo.” The placemat menu, which became a signature of the restaurant, was created three hours before the first service when Wilson realised he didn’t have a menu.
If the food offerings occupied a space between neighbourhood comfort nosh and precise, fine dining, the wines orbited a planet all their own. At a time when many Brits were drinking dusty bottles of Bordeaux in stuffy, dark wine bars, Terroirs offered a menu of 450 wines from little-known pockets of the wine world. Wregg wrote prolific, pun-filled tastings notes and the menu extended to 60 pages. There was a horse symbol beside the wildest wines, a warning that the drinker should expect the unexpected. Horse or not, most wines were surprising.
The Sauvignon Blanc was orange in both colour and flavour; the whites were decanted and the reds were chilled; and there wasn’t a Bordeaux in sight. An ever-rotating by-the-glass list allowed guests to try multiple styles.
At a time when everyone had a blog and something to say about natural wine, things got ugly. Terroirs, however, managed to escape the proverbial mud-slinging. The bar’s praises were sung by all but the grumpiest of critics. “There was nothing else like it,” says Sutcliffe. “It had the laissez-faire attitude of Paris bars, but a strong discipline of London.”
Two years later, in 2011, I knocked on Les Caves’s door and offered them my services as a social media consultant. To my great fortune, they accepted. Terroirs became a central spot for meetings, lunches and dinners; a place that provided me both comfort and discovery.
The domino effect
I was not alone. As Terroirs’s star rose, so did its status as an industry haunt. “We had a roll call of chefs visit over those first couple of years,’ says Wilson. “Everyone from Heston Blumenthal to Michel and Albert Roux; from Pierre Koffmann to Gordon Ramsay – all the classic chefs. It was a place for all the industry to share food and wine and be boisterous and noisy.”
New Zealand winemaker James Millton, a keen proponent of biodynamics, remembers the first cloudy wine he was poured at Terroirs: “It was shocking yet it hit a pulse. It was unforgettable, so I went back. Each time I would return to London, I would always desire to take lodgings nearby Terroirs, if only to shorten the route to my next experience of enlightenment.”
“I remember Doug [Wregg] showing me a series of Chenin Blancs at Terroirs in 2011,” says James Erskine of Jauma Wines in South Australia, a natural wine pioneer Down Under. ‘The bracket also included a pet nat [pétillant naturel, a naturally sparkling wine], something I’d never heard of before. I immediately produced a pet nat the following year, Australia’s first wine labelled so.”
Craig Hawkins, whose Testalonga and El Bandito wines led the natural wine revolution in South Africa, credits Terroirs as the place where he made discoveries that would change the course of his own winemaking. Another to wax lyrical is John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears wines in Georgia. “The range of wines, their colours, textures, aromas and flavours threw my mind into a rainbow!” he recalls.
In the years that followed, Wurdeman’s wines were joined by an increasing number of others from Georgia on the Terroirs menu and later on wine menus across the world. Terroirs hosted multiple Georgian supras (traditional feasts).
As the Terroirs community grew, so too did the wine list, swelling at one point to more than 700 listings.
It wasn’t just winemakers who were influenced by Terroirs. The bar served as an incubator for talented wine aficionados who went on to open their own wine bars, retail outlets and importing companies.
Margaux Aubry, who managed the Terroirs bar between 2014-2016, was one such person. She went on to open the well-loved London wine bar Naughty Piglets with her former partner, Joe Sharratt. “Terroirs has been the mothership for natural wine in London,” says Aubry. ‘It gave me my first wine goosebumps.’
Even the wall art took on a life of its own. Alongside the black-and-white portraits of natural winemakers, Terroirs highlighted the work of artists like Louise Sheeran, who held multiple front-of-house positions at the bar between 2010-2012. One of her most well-known pieces is called Terroirists, and her wine-related art can be today found on wine labels, magazine covers and on the walls of venues across the globe.
The end of the road
Today, natural wine bars are making their mark across the UK and the world, and most serious wine institutions list at least a few vins naturels. In spite of natural wine’s proliferation, Terroirs remained a beacon, but its commercial location meant it was hit hard by the pandemic.
“Covid knocked the heart out of the West End,” says Wregg. “Terroirs itself was heavily reliant on trade from local businesses, pre-theatre-goers and, of course, tourism.” With rising rents in London, among a number of other factors, the expense was more than could be managed.
Terroirs was never trying hard to set a trend for an archetypal natural wine bar
“What made Terroirs special was that it was not gimmicky, nor self-consciously trying hard to set a trend for an archetypal natural wine bar,” says Wregg. “A wine bar that felt like your local, yet was situated in the heart of a big city.”
When the decision to permanently close was made public via social media in early June, the response was overwhelming. Comments flooded in for days, sprinkled liberally with words like “pioneer”, “legendary” and “inspiration”, with sentiments such as: “You changed my career” and “I owe you everything”.
I owe Terroirs everything too, or at least a hell of a lot of my life in wine. Terroirs lit the spark that ignited my career as a wine writer and educator. Twelve years after that first epic visit and I still help run the social media for Les Caves de Pyrène. Natural wine is a hard habit to kick.
Terroirs is gone, but its imprint on the wine world lives on: an unpretentious, unadulterated space that was both niche and universal; raucous and intimate; steady and surprising.