“You almost have to ignore the fact that it’s a Fairtrade wine,” says Paul Smith of the engagingly named Off-Piste Wines, speaking in anticipation of Fairtrade fortnight which starts this Monday. Because, no matter how worthy the cause, the Fairtrade logo alone is not enough; the wines have to stack up against other similarly priced bottles on merit. If not, suggesting that consumers buy Fairtrade for little more than the fact they they’re going to be benefiting a community in a faraway place of which they know little is tantamount to charity, and isn’t that just a little bit patronising?

I have visited the Los Robles Fairtrade project in Chile, and Thandi in South Africa, and there’s no question that the benefits of Fairtrade are perceptible for the disadvantaged communities concerned. It’s not just the accumulated funds received on each purchase that go towards a variety of projects, from housing improvements and training needs to the provision of medical and day care, adult literacy, clean water and footwear; the knowledge that their wine might be snapped up off a Tesco or Co-op shelf by a British shopper gives the communities involved an enormous boost of pride and achievement.

Roughly five pence for every bottle of Fairtrade wine sold went towards community-development projects last year, and, according to the Fairtrade Foundation, wine sales were up by a half over the previous year with total sales of Fairtrade projects reaching £493m. Market research carried out by Wine Intelligence revealed that compared to their banana, chocolate, tea and coffee counterparts, purchase levels of Fairtrade wine are still relatively low. Yet 72 per cent of consumers who were aware of Fairtrade wine said they would be prepared to spend an extra 50p for a wine bearing the logo; 45 per cent said they would pay £1 or more extra.

The ethically minded Co-operative Group has taken a lead with Fairtrade wines, offering 20 per cent off all its Fairtrade wines for the fortnight. One of its best to my mind is the power-packed, brambly 2007 Argentine Organic Reserve Malbec, £6.49, from Argentina’s giant La Riojana Co-op. Asda, too, has a good few Fairtrade wines on its list, most notably the refreshing capsicum-scented and juicy 2008 Stellar Organics Sauvignon Blanc, £4.49, down from £5.18, from the Cape’s Orange River Stellar Winery, and the gluggy, blackcurranty 2007 Hope’s Garden Cabernet Sauvignon, £4.46, reduced from £5.85, also from South Africa. At £2 off its list price, The Cape’s Thandi Chardonnay, £5.99, Tesco, with its attractively oaky undertones of vanilla, is another example of quality and value before charity.

That’s not to disparage wines whose aim is to raise money for worthwhile causes when the value is there, although the suggestion by Comic Relief that the Damien Hirst “red dot” label design might make their Red Nose Day Red and White wines collectors’ items seems optimistic. Selected by MWs Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson for Wine Relief, the 2008 Red Nose White Chenin Blanc is attractively fresh with honeyed pear flavours, the 2008 Red Pinotage Shiraz succulently strawberryish and juicy. Each wine, from the SAAM Mountain Vineyards, a group of 40 South African growers, is £4.99 from now until Red Nose Day on 13 March, at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons, Somerfield, Waitrose, M&S and Booths among others.