Monday, 20 April 2009

State of independence - Surrey's wine merchants

They may not have been demonstrating in the streets during the G20 summit, but independent wine merchants in Surrey are on a mission to free wine drinkers from the dead hand of the supermarket and multiple chain. With their help, we wine drinkers can cast off the shackles of the BOGOF and 3for2 offer and dare to explore new wine horizons in search of true wine value.

I have just spent an enjoyable day talking to a small cross-section of Surrey’s independent wine merchants, finding out what makes them tick and what keeps them going, despite the onslaught of the deep discounting behemoths. What struck me most, talking to these people, is their passion for wine and their desire to share it with as many people as possible. And, while they show no lack of ambition, it’s probably also true that few of them are going to grow hugely rich by selling wine. In fact there’s a well-worn saying that the way to make a small fortune in the wine trade, is to start with a large one.

Supermarkets lure customers with 3 wines for £10; and research has shown that the number one deciding factor on which wine to buy is a price promotion, above grape variety or personal recommendation. So how can the independents hope to compete?

The answer seems to be that there is a loyal band of wine drinkers who are prepared to look beyond the BOGOF. These people value the effort a wine merchant has put into choosing their range and trust them to offer advice, service and “real value” wines, as well as a genuine interest in their customers.

Do you have to spend more at an independent wine merchant? If you’re looking for 3 for £10 wines then the answer is generally yes. But from around £5 a bottle, the choice for a curious and interested wine shopper is far more inspiring than the supermarket wall of wine. And, interestingly, though all the merchants I spoke to offer wines from around £5 and up, the average amount people spend on a bottle ranges from around £7, up to £12 or so.

This statistic seems to back up what I heard the merchants saying to me today: people come back to them again and again. So customers might start off looking for the bargain bottles, but as they build up trust with the merchant, they’re willing to trade up and spend a little more.

Should we be spending more on each bottle of wine? On average we are loath to pay more than £4 a bottle in this country. Of the average price of £4.18, £1.57 and 55p are duty and VAT respectively, leaving just over £2 for the wine itself – including the bottle it comes in, shipping costs and any marketing overheads. The actual amount that could realistically be spent on what’s actually in the bottle is, therefore, closer to £1 at best. As the £4 is an average amount, there are plenty of people spending even less. How anyone makes wine that sells for £3 or under is something of a mystery to me and is clearly not sustainable. Someone has to be losing out – not least the wine drinker, I would argue.

Independent merchants, on the whole, fully understand that they cannot, and would not wish to, try and compete at the bottom end of the market. Their customers are probably already interested in wine and value the input of someone who can help them discover new ones, often with bottles on tasting at the shop. Or they could even track down something they wouldn’t normally stock. We’ve come to expect services like free delivery and glass loan, but independents frequently also offer tastings of their wines and/or special events. Last but not least, the actual shopping experience is enjoyable, a world away from throwing a couple of bottles in along with your weekly supermarket shop.

What do we want? An inspiring and interesting selection of wines that represent true value for money and which help support our local economy! Well I don’t think anyone will be chanting that any time soon on the streets of London, but it’s a start.

Who is your local wine merchant?
Les Caves de Pyrène, Artington, Guildford – eclectic selection of “real wines”, including many organic and biodynamic producers.
Guildford Wine Company, Shalford – friendly and knowledgeable local merchant with a broad range to appeal to a wide local customer base.
Ranmore Wines – a new venture expanding its smallish, hand-picked range, with a good selection of fizz from a former Champagne-only specialist.
Taurus Wines, Bramley – a broad but carefully-chosen range from around the world and plenty of expertise in wines for weddings and parties.
The Vineyard, Dorking – broad range of wines and prices in a welcoming, smart shop and the biggest selection of Amarones I’ve ever seen.
The Vineking, Reigate and Weybridge – a huge range (especially in the larger, newly-opened Weybridge shop) of anything but dull wines, chosen by a Viking (I kid you not).

There are many more, including: A&A in Cranleigh, Arthur Rackham in Burpham, Imbibros in Godalming and Farnham, Haslemere Cellars, Vicki’s in Chobham...the list goes on. Find your nearest merchant by Googling “independent wine merchant Surrey”.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Like wine for chocolate

Easter is just around the corner and for many of us that means chocolate. Chocolate eggs of all shapes and sizes, chocolate bunnies, boxes of chocolate, chocolate anything in fact, and lots of it.

This got me thinking about wine and chocolate – not a natural combination you might think - and you’re probably right. Chocolate is quite a challenge for any alcoholic drink, with its dense, rich sweetness, its sheer “sticks around in your mouth for ages”-ness. Most of the time I’d probably go for a cup of tea, or coffee, if I’m eating some chocolate. But in the interests of research I have been looking around for wines that might just work with the dark stuff.

Which leads me to the first issue – chocolate is such a broad term. There’s a world of difference between your Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and your 70% cocoa solids plain chocolate; what might go with an airy, creamy milk chocolate mousse is probably not going to suit a dark chocolate roulade with raspberry coulis. Chocolate itself has different characters – and, to add to the complexity, we love to use it in all manner of puddings, sweets, biscuits and to combine it with cream, nuts, fruit – you name it.

So chocolate and wine combinations have more to them than meets the eye. Here are some suggestions, based on the type of chocolate you’re dealing with.

White chocolate
White chocolate is hardly chocolate in some ways, as it contains no cocoa as such, just cocoa butter, vanilla and masses of sugar of course. This makes it the lightest and sweetest type of chocolate which needs a light and sweet wine to match.

A fun option would be a Moscato d’Asti, from Piedmont in Italy. It’s lightly sparkling, light in alcohol (only 5-6%) and definitely sweet – could there be a more unfashionable combination in a wine? Treat it as a guilty pleasure – it might be uncool, but its sweet, grapey, pear-tinged bubbles are a delight with white chocolate puddings (as well as fruit salads, incidentally). Oddbins have Michele Chiarlo’s Moscato d’Asti “Nivole” at £9.99 for a half bottle. A less refined version of this is available as wines labelled “Asti” rather than “Moscato d’Asti”: the most widely distributed version is Asti Martini NV, £5.96 from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

Milk chocolate and light chocolate puddings
If you’re planning on helping the children finish their supply of milk chocolate eggs, then you could do worse than try a glass of tawny port to go with it.

All port starts out life as a deep-coloured red wine, whose fermentation is stopped by the addition of grape spirit, leaving a fortified, naturally sweet wine as a result. Ruby port, the regular stuff, is aged for a short time in barrel, then bottled while it is still deepest ruby and full of brambly fruit. This style of port also has its uses with chocolate – I’d be tempted to try it with unadulterated plain chocolate, as well as with dark chocolate puddings that involve berry fruits.

The tawny version of port has a lighter, yes tawny, colour, brought about by long term ageing in barrel. As the wine loses its deep colour, it takes on a more mellow, nutty character, making it a remarkably versatile drink, one that can stand up to milk chocolate and lighter chocolate puddings.

That nutty character would also make a nice match with chocolate sweets involving nuts…chocolate brownies, perhaps?

Look for an aged tawny, at least 10 years old: the older the wine, the more mellow and complex it will be. A good introduction to the style is Warre’s Otima 10 year old Tawny Port, £11.99 for 50cl at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Thresher/Wine Rack and Waitrose.

An interesting twist on the tawny port style is Mavrodaphne of Patras (in Greece), available for £4.99 at Waitrose. This is made in the same way as port, but from the splendidly-named Mavrodaphne grape, native to Greece. It has also been aged in casks, giving it that hallmark caramelly flavour with a hint of spice. I recently enjoyed this wine with a seemingly difficult to match pud involving milk chocolate mousse in a cup of dark chocolate with raspberries on top – the Mavrodaphne took all this in its stride.

Dark chocolate and rich, dark chocolate puddings
These can be some of the most difficult things to pair with wine, because of their full-on flavours and richness. You might come across some surprising matches, however.

I unexpectedly enjoyed Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise with posh dark chocolates. Not sure if I can explain why. The wine is a lightly fortified sweet white wine made from the same grape as the Moscato mentioned above and I can only deduce that somewhere between the sweet fruit of the wine and the rich bitterness of the chocolates, some harmony was reached. Tesco and Waitrose both stock Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise made by the winegrowers’ co-operative for around £5.50 for a 50cl bottle.

A more mainstream solution is to echo the chocolatey richness and slight bitterness of the food with a wine with similar traits. Ruby port could work here, as could wines from Maury or Banyuls in the Southwest of France. Another form of sweet, fortified red wine made in a similar way to port – who knew there were so many of these things around? – the young versions of these wines combine a bitter chocolate character with a trace of black fruit. If this sounds like the pudding you’re eating, then give a Maury or Banyuls a go. Waitrose have Domaine Pouderoux Maury 2002/3 for £9.99 for 50cl.

In all these matches I’m obeying the food and wine matching premise that the wine should be sweeter than the food that you’re eating. I’m generally not a fan of rules when it comes to choosing wines, but I find wines that are less sweet than what I’m eating end up tasting overly dry and lacking fruit.

However, it’s horses for courses and people who baulk at the idea of any sweet wine might prefer to have a dry red with chocolate. Again, it makes sense to look for wines which have plenty of ripe, dark fruit with a hint of chocolate flavour – full-on Zinfandels from California are often touted as a good chocolate companion. I would also recommend trying an Amarone from Italy: these wines are made from partly dried grapes, which gives a full-bodied wine with masses of dark, ripe black cherry fruit and an edge of bitter chocolate. Not a cheap option (£20 and up), but Phil Jones of The Vineyard in Dorking is a fan of the style and should be able to point you in the right direction.

The richest, sweetest chocolate puddings are quite possibly beyond the reach of most wines…except one. Liqueur muscats from Australia are a unique wine style and a gift from Australia to the rest of the wine world. Muscat grapes (I’m intrigued how often this grape variety is cropping up here) are harvested late, when they have begun to shrivel and raisin on the vine. The grapes are part-fermented, then fortified to produce, port-style, a sweet, fortified wine. Aged in casks in tin-roofed huts under the hot Australian sun, these syrupy wines turn dark in colour, with a spectrum of flavours including figs, marmalade, treacle, nuts…I could go on. Not wimpy wines, they can stand up to just about any pudding you care to throw at them.

Majestic stock De Bortoli Show Liqueur Muscat for £11.99 a bottle. A step up in quality, though, is Stanton and Killeen Classic Rutherglen Muscat, £13.15 for a half bottle at Waitrose.

And finally…if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try an Australian sparkling shiraz. These wines are never serious, but can be serious fun – and their full-on sweet, black fruit with notes of dark chocolate give a clue that they might just work with puddings. You can pick up Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Shiraz at Sainsbury’s for £8.98 and Banrock Station Sparkling Shiraz is £8.79 at Waitrose.

If all that sounds a little overwhelming, remember it’s hard to beat the great British cuppa with anything sweet.