Within eights days of each other earlier this month, the country's two big wine competitions, the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine Challenge, went head to head, handing out gongs at their glittering black-tie award dos in London. It wasn't just the trophy wines and high-street retailers hogging the limelight, but the many smaller independent country wine merchants had their day in the sun too. Far from the big smoke and brand-orientated high street, they offer a very different picture of the world of wine. Yet without the resources to advertise, how do they manage to catch the eye of potential customers?
In some instances they group together to show off their wares. So it is with The Bunch, a grouping of four country wine merchants – Adnams, Lay & Wheeler, Tanners and Yapp Bros – plus London's Berry Bros and Corney & Barrow. These are all pretty well-established merchants, but they still need their route to market and on the evidence of the tasting of half a dozen or so wines each, they deserve it. The best stall was set out by Colchester's Lay & Wheeler (www.lay wheeler.com) whose fine white burgundies included Eric Forest's stylish, well-crafted 2005 Pouilly Fuissé, Terres du Nord, £17.80, while Shrewsbury-based Tanners (www.tanners-wines.co.uk) also showed a fine crop, including an excellent value, mulberryish, chocolatey 2005 Bogle Vineyards, Graton, Petite Sirah, £8.95. From Wiltshire, one of Rhône specialist Yapp's (www.yapp.co.uk) best moments was a classic, peppery syrah in the 2005 Saint Joseph, Georges Vernay, and Southwold's Adnams (www.adnams.co.uk) came up with a delicately lime-zesty, off-dry 2006 The Doctor's Riesling, £8.99, modelled on Ernie Loosen's fine Mosel rieslings.
It's exciting that new country wine merchants are sprouting up, undeterred by the possibility of ending up sandwiched between a Tesco and a Sainsbury's. Through their websites, these newcomers can set out their stalls of boutique producers, new wines, case selections and limited editions. They can bring news of wine tastings, keeps customers interested and deliver to the door. More newcomers worth checking out include Flagship Wines in St Albans (www.flagshipwines. co.uk), The Secret Cellar in Tunbridge Wells (www.thesecret cellar.co.uk), Wine Cave in North Yorkshire (www.winecave.co.uk), The real Wine Company in Gerrards Cross (www.thereal wineco.co.uk) and Quaff in Brighton and Hove (www.quaffit.com). As the Secret Cellar puts it, "Our wines are fairly priced, as we cut out the middle man. Each wine has been tasted and quality checked by our buying team – only the very best get on our list."
Winedirect (www.winedirect. co.uk), another such newcomer, is a joint venture between Andrew Birtley and Peter Rehburg, owner of Hailsham Cellars. At a recent tasting, they showed a number of excellent wines, among the whites a lemon and lime sherbety 2006 Pegasus Waipara Riesling, £11.95 and an ultra-stylish, gooseberry-rich, flinty 2 005 Blanc Fumé de Pouilly, Les Cornets, from Michel Redde, £17.95. From New Zealand, the smoky 2 006 Te Mata Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc showed well, and from Western Australia, the zingy, delicately butterscotchy 2005 Leeuwin Estate Prelude Chardonnay, £13.95. Reds included von Siebenthal's good- value blackcurranty 2006 Carmenère from Chile, £9.50, an opulent, blackberryish 2006 Kalleske Clarry's Barossa Valley, £10.95 and the fragrant, cracked peppery, Côte Rôtie lookalike, Craggy Range 2005 Syrah Block 14, £18.95, from New Zealand. You won't see too many of these wines on supermarket shelves, but with countrywide access to the growing band of independents, that's no bad thing.