Wine / The munificent seven

Supermarkets have done a terrific job in expanding the world of wine, but at pounds 3.50 and under, you cut yourself off from most of the real pleasure of wine Illustration by Spike Gerrell
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When seven of the country's leading independent wine merchants decided to chew the fat over lunch a couple of years back, they soon found themselves with plenty to sink their teeth into. The encroachment of the supermarkets was worrying enough. Customer confidence had been hit for six by fraud and liquidation And without a really decent vintage since 1990, the en primeur market in fine wines was flagging badly. Then there was the cross-Channel traffic...

The group of seven resolved to have more lunches to tackle some of the more serious problems besetting them, as well as to highlight their traditional values of quality, range and personal service. The upshot was the establishment of an informal grouping, called the Bunch. "We wanted to emphasise that the world of wine is a cornucopia not limited by price points," says Simon Loftus of Adnams. "Supermarkets have done a terrific job in expanding the world of wine, but at pounds 3.50 and under, you cut yourself off from most of the real pleasure of wine."

The Bunch offered a money-back guarantee for any wine returned within a specific time limit for whatever reason. And, in the wake of a massive theft from the city wine merchant, Greens, and the bankruptcy of others, most notably the Hungerford Wine Company, they also introduced a Code of Practice which is there to reassure customers that their wines will be safe in the event of a liquidation in this country. A worthy campaign to extend protection to the en primeur market in Bordeaux, however, fell on deaf ears. And despite the insistence that "this is not a bribe for toadies", the Bunch award (worth pounds 5,000) for the journalist who did most to further the cause of independence was too obviously carrot-shaped to make it a great success.

After desultory attempts to lure wine writers to tastings-cum-picnics in the countryside, the Bunch finally decided to hold a fully-fledged tasting in London earlier this month, showing a manageable ten wines from each company. Although this represented only a drop in the oceans of wine on each merchant's list, ten wines pointedly over pounds 7.50, humbly poured by the grandees, did at least convey something of the flavour and ethos of each. Some of the group, such as Lay & Wheeler, Yapp and John Armit, hold regular press tastings in any event.

Adnams, pioneering as ever under the globetrotting Simon Loftus, orbited France, Italy, Germany and the New World with a typically eclectic selection of wines, red Burgundy alongside New Zealand pinot noir, robust Australian old vine grenache competing with exciting new wave barbera, a delicious Chardonnay Beaujolais with a sublime German riesling.

Behind the more self-evident green wellies traditionalism, the imaginative tasting selection from Tanners, New and Old Worlds well-represented, also testified to one of the most extensive, well-chosen lists in the country.

Between the ancient and modern facades of Tanners and Adnams, Lay & Wheeler showed that its mouthwatering wine list, with its concise summaries, tempting colour photographs, and rich descriptions, remains the window-shopping benchmark for quality wines. White Burgundy and the joys of real beaujolais were displayed, along with a handful of top wines from Uiterwyk and Buitenverwachting in South Africa, Diamond Creek in California and Henschke and Penley Estate in Australia.

Parading top suppliers was the chosen method of the Falstaffian Robin Yapp and son Jason, whose hold on the Rhone, and to an extent the Loire, has helped in establishing a place for quality growers, such as Chave, Jasmin, Clape, Graillot and Druet, in the hearts and cellars of serious wine drinkers in this country. Similarly, John Armit, the man with a golden nose for fine wines, presented a selection from his major suppliers, Leflaive and Roulot in Burgundy, Hess and Ravenswood in California, Terrabianca in Tuscany and Pesquera in Spain.

Armit apart, the Bunch is represented in London by Laytons and by Corney & Barrow. As if to demonstrate their allegiance to the Old World, all but two of the wines on show from Laytons, who regularly send out copious newsletters packed with cut-price Bordeaux and Burgundy, were growers' Burgundies. The star-studded list of Corney & Barrow, the ultra-pukka city merchant, compiled by the fogeyish but disarming Adam Brett-Smith, covers some of the world's most exclusive properties, a number of which, such as Parker Coonawarra Estate Terra Rossa First Growth, Chateau La Fleur Petrus and Dominus, were proudly, if pricily, displayed at the tasting.

Emphasizing Loftus's point that the world of wine beyond the high street is where much of the real excitement lies, the ploy of only putting up wines over pounds 7.50 turned out to be an unequivocal - and successful - statement of vive la difference. By then turning the tables on the press to make us all taste seven wines blind, the Bunch rammed home the message that there is intellectual as well as visceral pleasure in a really good wine. Even if they did have the last laugh by turning us into a bunch of bananas

The best of the Bunch

1994 Beaujolais Chardonnay pounds 7.95, Adnams, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6DP (01502-727220). Sumptuous, savoury white Burgundy from Jean-Paul Brun, with the complexity and ample, buttery richness of neighbouring Pouilly Fuisse

Champagne Beaumont des Crayeres pounds 15.83, John Armit, W11 1QF (0171-727 6846). Full-flavoured, biscuity champagne from Champagne's Mardeuil co- operative with a fine-textured mousse and plenty of style

1992 Gewurztraminer Bollenberg, Cattin pounds 9.52, Corney & Barrow, EC1V 3QJ (0171-251 4051). Richly concentrated, exotically spicy fruit enhanced by an intensely floral, rose petal bouquet and refreshing dry aftertaste

1992 Mount Edelstone Shiraz, Eden Valley, Henschke pounds 15.75, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester C02 9JT (01206-764446). The seductive fruitiness of this classic South Australian shiraz, with its notes of mint and pepper, is elegantly understated for Australia

1994 Bourgogne Rouge, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Daviot Perrin pounds 8.60, Laytons NW1 2AD (0171-388 4567). Good, honest, raspberryish house red Burgundy at an affordable price

1992 Pernand Vergelesses, 1er cru Ile de Vergelesses, Chandon de Briailles pounds 15.69, Tanners, Shrewsbury SY1 1XD (01743-232400). This smoky, spicy Cote d'Or white Burgundy offers textured richness, character and a range of unusual spicy flavours

1990 Gigondas, Domaine St Gayan, Roger and Jean-Pierre Meffre pounds 9.25, Yapp Bros, Mere, Wiltshire BA12 6DY (01747-860423). A sweetly perfumed, powerful mini-Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style southern Rhone blend which kicks and bites.