Anyone who has been a wallflower at a party should feel deep sympathy when they see someone else occupying the same sorry niche. That's the way I felt when I walked up to the table staffed by a solitary member of the Sainsbury's wine team at the most recent Bunch tasting.
The tasting, which happens each January, is my favourite of the year and features wines from six of Britain's foremost independent wine merchants. The wines at a Bunch tasting may never be uniformly wonderful, but they tend to have individuality: the safety of brands and of high-tech, large-scale wine-making is absent. That's why these merchants are so valuable for those of us who want to look beyond the supermarket shelves.
This year's tasting had an unusual theme: the Bunchists were asked to bring bottles at certain price levels – £5, £7 and £10. The results were actually sort of interesting.
The clearest lesson was that these guys are not at their best when deigning to give change from a fiver. It's not surprising – this is the least profitable area of wine-selling, and the indies can't squeeze producers or subsidise low margins, as supermarkets can.
But one cheapy stood out, and that was Adnams' Almuvedre 2000, Alicante (£4.65). This is a true curiosity, both in its origins (the Costa Brava is better known for suntan lotion than wine) and in the grape variety, which is officially Monastrell but which ace wine-maker Telmo Rodriguez believes to be Mourvèdre. Expect rich cherries on the palate, and lots of character. A star buy. And while you're there, check out the dense, complex Paringa Shiraz 2000 from South Australia (£6.95), with none of the crowd-pleasing sweetness that seems to be de rigueur in 99 per cent of well known Oz Shiraz. Adnams can be reached on 01502 727 222, and that number should go into your PDA if it isn't there already.
The Paringa wine is a recent inven-tion in that the fruit of those vines was formerly sold to other wineries. That situation often produces good results. A comparable situation arises when wine-makers just try to please them-selves. Tanners (01743 234 500) has a supreme example of this – a group of varietal wines made by Gary Farr of the Bannockburn winery in Geelong, Tasmania. The one on show chez Bunch was called Viognier by Farr 2000 (£15.30). Much New World Viognier can be one-dimensionally peachy, but this one is complex, lean and interesting. Farr says the wines are "a reflection of what I like to drink". So pleasing the market isn't the only way forward. But the top-class Côtes du Ventoux Château Valcombe 1999 (Yapp Brothers, 01747 860 423) certainly shows that market-pleasing can pay off. This is a Côtes-du-Rhône in all but name, and I'd make it a house red if I were you. Apparently Robert Parker (the man behind the bestselling wine guide) feels the same way, so move fast. And indulge yourself with a bottle of Yapp's heavenly, sumptuous Bonnezeaux from Coteau du Houet 1999 (£35) if you're feeling flush. This will improve for decades.
The wallflower was there because the Bunch invited Sainsbury's and Waitrose to display some bottles at those same price-points, and their lone representative stood rather sheepishly as I got to them at the end of my trip round the room. She spoke as if she had something to apologise for. But she didn't. Clos Malverne Cabernet Pinotage 2000 (Sainsbury's, £6.99) is indubitably a crowd-pleasing wine – touch of sweetness, no rough edges, nice red-berry fruit. There's room for both types of wine, and thousands can drink this one with full enjoyment – even if there's nothing quirky or dazzling about it. The independent merchants may be necessary, but man does not live by Bunches alone.Reuse content