From the late 1999 until 2003 I wrote a monthly column called “E-Watch” for Harpers Wine and Spirits, the magazine for the UK wine trade. E-watch was dreamed up during the white heat of the Internet explosion in the 90’s, and covered the stories as each week brought a new Internet wine business. Over the years the column charted the boom and bust cycle of the Internet, as the dot-coms became dot-bombs, and investors lost their shirts. One figure from that time told me of a £15 million loss for their former company, built on wild dreams that by now, in 2005, we’d be doing 90% of our shopping on-line.
Graudually, my column covered more e-business failures than start-ups or stories of success. At the same time the supermarkets marched on, capturing more and more market share for UK wine sales, largely through endless rounds of “three for a tenner” and “BOGOF” deals. But that successful mass-marketing of wine came at a price, and that price was diversity.
But over the past year or so, something magical has happened. Popping up all across Britain, like snowdrops in January, has come a whole smorgasbord of independent wine merchants operating on line. More often than not these are very small companies of passionate wine-loving individuals, who have seen a gap in the market for hand-crafted, truly diverse wines. Working diectly with smaller wine estates who could not – or would not – meet the demands of the supermarket buyers, this new breed of merchants has capitalised on their low overheads and ability to deal in smaller volumes, to bring some genuinely superb and unusual wines to the UK, at very fair prices. Wines from areas like undersung French regions, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and boutique Australia are suddenly available at the click of a button, providing UK wine lovers with real choice and excitment.
One new company is Wine Discoveries, based in East Sussex. Jonny and Caroline Gibson say that the idea for Wine Discoveries was born out of a frustration – of not being able to find interesting wines in the £5 to £15 bracket that weren’t “overly marketed, re-blended for the UK palate – whatever that is – or just plain expensive”. So they decided to do something about it themselves. Jonny, who has a simple slogan for his business: “Great wine from small producers”, travels regularly to France to source his wines, many of which have been brought to the UK for the first time.
Wines are bought direct from the growers, and fall firmly into the “hand-crafted” category, from small scale producers. As Jonny himself says: “To use a gardening analogy, would you rather eat a flavoursome cherry tomato from a plant you have tended with loving care, or a tomato from a two hectare polytunnel in Holland?”, which seems a reasonable starting point.
I found Wine Discoveries selection to be absolutely top-notch. None of the wines was rated less than “very good indeed”, and they have even been able to unearth some very good wines from classic, well-travelled regions like Pouilly-Fumé and Rully in Burgundy, offering excelllent value for money.
Olivier Morin (France) Bourgogne Chitry 2002
A gold medal winner and one of Top 10 “young rising stars” in the prestigious La Revue du Vin de France, this pale, almost transparent wine is clearly unoaked and has a beautifully delineated nose with a suggestion of flowers and wild herbs, before white fruits and citrus emerge against a chalky minerality. In the palate this is crisp and succulent, with a raft of fresh fruit flavours and a great streak of lemony acidity. There is nothing thin or weedy about this though, with a bold texture, grippy edge of alcohol and quite complex pear skin and herbal nuances adding interest. A lovely Chablis-style that should age and take on some honeyed character. Very good indeed. £7.75
Cédrick Bardin (France) Pouilly-Fumé “Cuvée des Bernadats” 2002
Pouilly Fumé is the neighbouring region to Sancerre, just across the river Loire, making wines from the same grapes (Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir) that often display an extra dimension of minerality. This very pale, straw-coloured wine has a lovely warming cashew-nut softness on the nose, playing against crunchy greengage fruit and a definite smoky minerality. I’m not sure if this sees any barrique ageing, but there is a real smokiness that carries through to the palate, where it underpins a solid, ripe, pear and melon fruit that has very little herbaceous quality, but bags of power and concentration, with that firm, mineral core running through to a tangy, lingering finish. A very fine and serious Sauvignon. Very good indeed/excellent. £8.95
Jean-Claude Brelière (France) Rully Blanc ‘La Barre’ 2002
I’m a great fan of the white Burgundies of the Mâconnais and Chalonnais, where Rully is one of the star villages. This is also the best selling premium white in Wine Discoveries’ portfolio. It has a fresh, lemony green colour and an attractively nutty, doughy nose with lemon fruit and hints of honeysuckle and anise. On the palate there is a buttery weight of concentration in a medium-bodied format, where a toasty note underpins very clean, appetising apple and citrus fruit. This has excellent balance, with just hints of that exotic spice adding an extra layer of complexity to a long, pure finish. Very good indeed. £9.95
Domaine la Maurerie (France) Saint-Chinian “Esprit du Terroir” 2001
This typical southern blend of 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% old vine Carignan has a lovely dark cherry colour and a nose brimming with violety, aromatic, pot-pourri and kirsch-like scents. There’s a nice suggestion of wild herbs and a schisty note, but a good depth of fruit too. On the palate this really is lovely stuff: dark cherry-skin and liquorice bittersweet flavours play against a softer, plummier, chocolaty depth of fruit and a very firm core of cedary tannin and earthy, vegetal nuances. This is well-balanced and quite long too, in an impressive £6 package. Very good indeed. £5.95
Domaine de la Madone (France) Beaujolais ‘Le Perréon’ 2001
This wine is “élevée en Fûts de Chêne”, made in a very Burgundian style, with traditional fermentation of fruit from 40-year-old Gamy vines. Winemaker Olivier Bererd appears to be somewhat of a perfectionist, ageing his wine in oak barrels from five different forests, each toasted to a precise recipe. The results are certainly impressive in this pale mauve-coloured wine with its harmonious, soft, cream and raspberry nose. There’s a lovely exotic hint of rose water and Turkish delight. On the palate there’s a juicy pastille quality to the fruit, but a big, solid, very powerful extraction of fruit and wood tannin, with a charry background and suggestions of bitter plum and cherry skin. I found a touch of harshness in the finish that lost the wine a theoretical point or two, but a striking Beaujolais and very good indeed. £7.75
Domaine Durieu (France) Côtes du Rhône Villages 2000
Jonny and Caroline Gibson of Wine Discoveries first met Antoine Ferre, head winemaker at Domaine Durieu, at a wine show in Paris and were so impressed by his award-winning wines that they subsequently visited his Rhône estate and began importing several of his wines. This has a very dark crimson/black colour and a nose crammed with crushed berry fruit that is terrifically ripe and plush, with a velvet-dark richness, peppery spice, and an earthy, brooding darkness. The palate has a rich, bramble and spice appeal, with a good texture and chewy mouthfeel. There’s a raft of sweet, dark, prune and blackcurrant and a lovely background of sweet, smoky, almost grilled-meat quality. This is a brilliant red, with supple, but powerful tannins and a beautiful acid balance. With staying power, concentration and fine, fine fruit this is excellent at the price. £8.25