Peter Ranscombe finds out how The Wine Society, a long-running club owned by its members, is supporting small producers hit by the pandemic lockdowns.
FEW businesses have been left untouched by the coronavirus pandemic – and winemakers are no exception.
On top of the disruption caused to the harvest in the southern hemisphere, the closure of the hospitality industry in many countries has cut off producers from a huge swath of their customers.
The Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV), a winemakers’ trade body, estimates that sales values have halved, with volumes down 35%.
Bottles that were meant to be bought by bars and restaurants have been left languishing in warehouses.
The Wine Society has responded to the crisis by launching “Backing our Best Growers”, a campaign to promote wines made by 26 of its small and medium-sized suppliers.
The society – or, to use its Sunday name, “The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited” – was set up after the 1874 Annual International Exhibition in London.
It’s a co-operative, so it’s owned by its members, who pay a one-off fee of £40 to join – and then promptly receive a £20 discount off their first order.
Being a mutual means it can keep its profit margin slim, giving members access to wines at lower prices.
It also means the society can pay its suppliers fair prices and – equally as important at the moment, when cashflow is key – it can also pay its bills early.
That gives small winemakers more financial security, especially as those in the northern hemisphere finish turning their grapes into wine over the coming weeks as harvest is completed.
Producers included in the promotion include talented names like Mac Forbes in Australia, Kanonkop in South Africa, and Ridgeview in England.
The society has shared many of its producers’ covid stories in an online magazine.
My pick of the wines that I’ve tried from the promotion is the 2018 Viña Zorzal Cuatro del Cuatro Graciano (£16) from Navarra in Spain.
Graciano is one of the lesser-known grapes that’s often used as a smaller blending component in neighbouring Rioja, but here the fruit from 40-year-old vines is allowed to shine in its own right.
It’s got an intense and exciting nose that’s full of ripe raspberry and red plum, with light woodsmoke and roast meat.
Its gorgeous palate is sweet and rounded, with raspberry jam, vanilla and a kick of fresh acidity.
There’s enough structure to stand up to red meat, but it’s light enough to enjoy as a glass on its own.
As well as wines that are ready to drink now, the campaign also offers the opportunity to invest in bottles that have some potential for ageing, like the 2018 Bleasdale Adelaide Hills Chardonnay (£10.95), from an area that excels in chardonnay.
There are tonnes of attractive buttered toast aromas from its time in French oak barrels, combined with mouth-watering acidity and savoury lemon rind and grapefruit flavours on the finish.
Although the society recommends drinking it between now and 2023, I suspect it’s going to have legs well past that date and it would be fascinating to see how it will develop – it’s great value compared to Burgundy and I have an inkling it might deliver similar evolution in the bottle.
Blast from the past
While the society is a strong supporter of new world winemakers like Bleasdale, history and heritage are also clearly very important to its members, and it’s impressive to see the promotion including one of the world’s oldest styles of wine.
Limoux in the South of France claims to be the birthplace of sparkling wine, with records going back to 1531.
Today, its sparkling wines fall under three categories: the excellent mainstream Crémant de Limoux; the famous Blanquette de Limoux; and the traditional Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale.
The ancestral method uses only mauzac grapes and is naturally lower in alcohol and higher in sweetness.
The Antech Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale (£10.95) tips the scales at just 6.5% alcohol by volume, with intense peach and red apple on the nose, and brown sugar flavours adding to the medium-sweet palate.
The society recommends it with apple pie or spicy canapes, and I’d add a vote for the Antech as an aperitif in its own right.
Let’s face it – there are nights when a glass of Champagne, cava or other highly-acidic sparkling wines is just too demanding, and something lighter and sweeter hits the spot.
With the promotion running until 7 October, members have plenty of time to explore the full range – and the rest of us can invest that £20 to join the club and help “back the best”.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.