A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Recommended reds follow next week.
Now that it’s impossible to eat out in restaurants, wine drinkers have to do all their drinking at home, as many wine retailers have discovered to their benefit.
There are tales of empty wine shelves in supermarkets but, with a handful of exceptions, supermarkets have been dramatically slimming the number of their suppliers. So if we are to retain the ability to buy interesting wines made with individual care on smallholdings, it really is important that we support independent wine merchants who, in turn, are much more likely to sell small-production, artisanal wines than the big retail chains. And in the US, where so many smaller wine companies are threatened by the current additional 25% tariffs on imported European wines, this is even more vital.
Throughout the world all manner of wine producers, and wine merchants who used to focus their attention and sales efforts on the hospitality industry, have in the last few weeks remodelled their businesses to concentrate on selling to private individuals. B2B has had to become B2C. See our list of more than 800 wine retailers who’ll deliver to self-isolators around the world.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that those who are lucky enough to be able to afford to, and probably some who aren’t, have been treating themselves to long-saved bottles. Others may argue to themselves that, since they are no longer paying restaurateurs’ margins on what they drink, they can justify spending a bit more per bottle at home than they used to.
Here are some wines currently available from independent retailers keen to deliver to the locked down that have impressed me recently. I give UK stockists below but most of these wines should be available in other countries.
Italy has been making stunning white wines for some time now, especially though certainly not exclusively from the north of the country. It’s rare to find disappointingly industrial wines in Alto Adige, where particularly well run co-ops dominate production. Soave can be anything from the most cynical commercial blend to ageworthy marvels from the likes of Gini, Inama, Pieropan and Tamellini. But there are all sorts of good buys from Friuli and the Veneto carrying less famous names such as the Bonomo brothers’ lively Monte del Frà 2018 Bianco di Custoza into which so much fruit (though not sweetness) has been squeezed that it tastes like a cross between a good Soave and a Gewurztraminer. The picture above is of their winery and vineyards.
Another Italian white that jumped off the tasting table recently is I Clivi’s 2016 varietal Verduzzo from Friuli in the far north-east of the country. This producer is not only certified organic, and believes in drawing every ounce of flavour from the fermentation lees, but is also blessed with vines that are between 60 and 80 years old, so yield grapes with real personality. This Verduzzo is so concentrated – despite being relatively low in alcohol – that you could almost drink it by itself without food as what the Italians call a vino da meditazione, although I think it would also stand up to many savoury foods. It should continue to develop in bottle for the next four or five years; order a case and pay less per bottle.
But if it’s searing acidity you crave, then I wholeheartedly recommend a top example of one of the most popular wines in the world, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Dog Point, a vineyard-inspired wine producer established by a couple of key members of the early Cloudy Bay team, makes such good and distinctive Marlborough Sauvignon that even I love it. Their regular Sauvignon Blanc is delicious as soon as it is released but, unlike most of its peers, continues to develop for two or three years in bottle. Dog Point’s special, lightly oaked Section 94 bottling is released later. The current vintage of Section 94 is 2017 and has such a strong struck-match aroma that it might appeal as an alternative to a Coche-Dury Meursault, but in my view needs to be kept a bit longer. Dog Point’s Chardonnay is also superior.
Chablis is the classic French answer to New Zealand Chardonnay (or is it the other way round). The lovely crisp 2016s, 2017s and 2018s are around now and the regular village Chablis is drinking beautifully already, although there is no hurry. The fame of Raveneau and Dauvissat boosts their prices but other superior producers whose Chablis are not quite as expensive include Samuel Billaud, Billaud-Simon, William Fèvre and Verget, and the one name that combines value with utterly reliable quality in my experience is Jean-Marc Brocard. The Wine Society in the UK, co-operatively owned by its members, sources its own-label Society’s Chablis from Brocard and I can thoroughly recommend the current, 2018, bottling. The Society has been so overwhelmed by demand, and the need for social distancing, that they stopped taking orders for a while and at the time of writing are selling only unmixed cases. The full 75-cl bottles have been out of stock for some time and the useful half-bottles at £102 for 12 may well have all been sold by the time you read this. Several other independent retailers are listing the current, 2018, bottling of J M Brocard’s village Chablis, however. Again, no hurry to drink.
Much quirkier are the new-wave whites from Spain, generally reliant on rediscovered indigenous grape varieties in less famous corners of the country. I loved Maquina & Tabla, El Oso y La Alemana 2018, a Verdejo from the north-west Spain that gets much of its tense, spicy character from being made like a red wine in contact with the grape skins. Both label and price have considerable appeal. A bit more expensive, but probably longer lived and arguably even nervier, is Dominio do Bibei, Lapola 2017 Ribeira Sacra from a valley with such steep sides that grape-growing there is known as ‘heroic viticulture’. The wine is a blend of Galician grapes, including Albariño, but dominated by my beloved Godello. Both of these would be great with vegetable-based dishes.
If you want to take advantage of the current low prices for rich shellfish such as lobster now that restaurants are closed, I would strongly recommend wines made from the Rhône varietal trio of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. Quite a few white Rhône blends are being made in the Languedoc but, from the heartland of the northern Rhône, J L Chave Sélection’s Circa white St-Joseph 2018 has an additional savoury undertow and is quite sumptuous already. If you’re as big a fan of white Hermitage as I am, but are looking for something to drink earlier and cheaper, this would be the most brilliant alternative.
One South African old-vine white blend has joined the Sadie Family’s offerings to have earned ‘classic’ status. I have yet to encounter a vintage of Mullineux’s Old Vine White from the Swartland that was anything less than complex, ageworthy, rewarding, and deserving of its price and reputation.
And finally two superior rosés with just 12% alcohol, one from Provence and one from … England. I have tasted many a Provençal rosé in the last few weeks and the one with by far the most character, and a nice saline finish, is Dom Pique Roque 2019 at a relatively friendly price. My other pink recommendation costs only £1.55 a bottle more and is a still English wine, Hattingley Valley’s nicely packaged Still Rosé 2019 made from Pinot Noir Précoce grown mainly on the site of an old apple orchard in Kent, supplemented by fruit from two other growers whose fruit is vinified by Hattingley’s winemaker Emma Rice. She points out that this early-ripening Pinot is so naturally fruity that this bone-dry wine almost tastes as though there’s some residual sugar. Drink local.
Monte del Frà 2018 Custoza 12.5% £12.50 Berry Bros & Rudd
Maquina & Tabla, El Oso y La Alemana 2018 Vino de España 13.8% £13.95 Lea & Sandeman
Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc 2019 Marlborough 13.5% £179 for 12 (£15 a bottle) The Wine Society
Jean-Marc Brocard 2018 Chablis 12.5% £18-20 All about Wine, Corking Wine, Hic!, Eton Vintners, The Secret Cellar
J L Chave Sélection 2018 St-Joseph Blanc 14.5% £23.75 Yapp Bros
Dominio do Bibei, Lapola 2017 Ribeira Sacra 13.5% £24.59 Vin Cognito
Mullineux, Old Vines White 2018 Swartland 13.5% £24.75 Noel Young, £24.95 Berry Bros & Rudd, £25.99 Hay Wines of Hereford, £26.67 Drinks & Co, £27.50 Philglas & Swiggot
I Clivi Verduzzo 2016 Friuli Colli Orientali 13% £25.95 Stannary St Wine Co, £26.50 Philglas & Swiggot
Dom Pique Roque 2019 Côtes de Provence 12% £12.45 Haynes Hanson & Clark
Hattingley Valley Still Rosé 2019 England 12% £14 Hattingley Valley