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Wines with a conscience

Neil Sowerby goes all worthy - but not dull - with Britain�s best wine club and beautiful Boutinot...

Written by . Published on March 10th 2010.

Wines with a conscience

FAIRTRADE Fortnight for 2010 might be coming to end, but what would Confidential recommend with this particular breed of booze.

We have two major champions of this type of wine in the North West: our own dear Co-operative Society and the enterprising supermarket chain Booths. The Co-op’s special offers (up to 20 per cent off) actually run until Tuesday 9 March and may be worth a punt over the next couple of days.

The Fairtrade Foundation aims to improve the lives of disavantaged producers in the developing world by helping them to sell their goods at a fair price.

More than seven million people across 58 developing countries benefit from the international Fairtrade system. To find out more visit www.fairtrade.org.uk.

Wine, like coffee, has always been a high profile Fairtrade product, a percentage from each bottle sale being funnelled into special projects helping the growers’ communities.

All very worthy, but if the wine isn’t worth buying in its own right...

Tasting a tranche of current Co-op wines I noticed great strides since a public tasting a couple of years ago when half the wines on view were truly dull.

Reds from South Africa and Argentina have made the greatest strides, though the award-winning Co-op Fairtrade Cape Sparkling Rose (down from £7.99 to £5.99) is a strawberry scented bargain refresher.

The Co-op Fairtrade Argentine Organic Malbec Reserve 2009 (now £6.49) just shades the Co-op Fairtrade Cape Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (now £5.49) with the depth of its blackcurranty fruit. Perhaps both are pipped by the Co-op Fairtrade Argentine Shiraz 2009 with its lick of sweet vanilla from partial barrel-ageing (down a quid to £4.49).

It comes from the La Riojana co-operative in the remote Famatina Valley. The Co-operative launched the first Argentine Fairtrade wine range from there, aiding the local community.

Booths sent me two new £6.99 South African offerings, a white and a red, called Six Hats, part of their 11-strong Fairtrade stable (visit www.booths.co.uk).

The Cabernet Sauvignon is a soft, blackberryish red, belying its 14.5 ABV, but just a little obvious. I preferred the Sauvignon Blanc, which has freshness and minerality.

I’m always reluctant to recommend wine clubs. There always seem to be some duff bottles making up the numbers. One that won’t disappoint is the Wine Society, which actively promotes mixed cases.

It is actually the oldest wine club in the world, formed in London in 1874 by a trio of an architect, a surgeon and a customs official, who’d been asked to dispose of a large amount of wine that had been sent to England for the Great Exhibition and been dumped in the Royal Albert Hall's cellars.

Nowadays it is based in Stevenage, with a strong online presence, but remains true to its founders’ principles. It is a ‘co-operative company’, that exists to buy wine for its 90,000 members and ploughs any profits back into the operation.

That means consistently good price/quality ratios. The only off-putting thing is the one-off £40 ‘signing on fee’ (www.thewinesociety.com).

Traditionally Burgundy and claret have been its strengths but it stocks a range of 1,500 wines from across the globe, priced from £4 to £400 a bottle.

I stopped off at Stevenage recently to have lunch with chief wine buyer Sebastian Payne MW and taste a representative 20 bottles in the under £10 bracket, including some from the Society's own range. Here are a few that particularly shone...

The Society’s Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (£5.95) is sourced from the estimable Vina Leyda. An astonishing gooseberry attack on the nose is followed by some lovely refreshing fruit.

From the Limari Valley, Chile’s new chardonnay frontier, the De Martino Legado Chardonnay 2009 gushes similarly fresh fruit flavours, for just £7.50.A very different white beast comes from a French area I’ve never associated with wine – Lorraine, tail-end of the Moselle river, which produces much of Germany’s great sweet wine.

In contrast, Norbert and Marie-Genevieve Molozay produce their characterful bone-dry Les Gryphees, Chateau de Vaux 2008 from a blend of Alsace-like grape varieties including pinot gris and auxerrois. At £9.50, it represents the kind of off-the-beaten track treasure scattered through the WS list.

Among the reds, the Barbera d’Alba Poderi Ciolla 2007 from a family estate in Piedmont, is the quintessential, damsony, Italian steak wine. Gloriously fresh, pure fruit for £8.50.

A very different red is a Wine Society debutant, Sandalford Cabernet-Merlot 2008, a seductively fragrant and plummy Western Australian charmer (£9.95).

In complete contrast, a toothsome bargain basement Beaujolais. For just £4.95 Gamay Vin de Pays des Gaules Jacques Depaganeux 2006 is what they used to call a declassified wine, ie from grapes that didn’t make the cut for the appellation controlee but offered outstanding value. As this does. Vive Le Wine Society!

Gatley-based wine importers Boutinot celebrated 30 years in the business with a huge trade tasting in the Bridgewater Hall recently, featuring key suppliers old and new.

A lot of these wines will feature on the lists of top restaurants and the shelves of the north west’s finest independent shops – the likes of Didsbury’s Reserve, Hanging Ditch and Wine Buffs were out in force.

In 2009 the trade gave them two of their top accolades – Wine Merchant of the Year and French Wine Merchant of the Year in the Sommelier Awards – and it was easy to see why.

It’s Boutinot’s range that impresses. Not just the top end wines from Burgundy stalwarts such as the Vallet Family who came across for the event or the Fernando de Castilla sherries that grace Grado, but totally reliable house wines reflecting typicity or terroir.

Two quiet, affordable stars of the portfolio turned up at a recent lunch at Steve Pilling’s new gastropub, the Red Lion at High Lane (www.redlion.co.uk).

Le Fou Pinot Noir, from the Pays d’Aude, was one of only three pinot noirs to be listed in the Top100 Vin de Pays competition last year. At the Red lion this intensely fruit-driven pinot is just £4.95 per glass (and £19.95 a bottle).

Up a level is Ant Moore Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from New Zealand, described in the Red Lion list as the Theo Walcott of Marlborough (region). Does that mean it goes down quickly with no real finish?

Joking aside, it’s a straw-coloured melange of gooseberry and tropical fruit on nose and plate with herbaceous borders crafted by a Oz wine whizz Ant and well worth its £23.50 a bottle tag.

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Wine drinker meMarch 8th 2010.

There is nothing wrong with Lidl. Lidl for me sells the best and cheapest wines in the world, with great noses. Who needs Lambrini when you can go to Lidl and get the proper stuff.

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