“To do the same thing over and over again is not only boredom; it is to be controlled by, rather than to control, what you do.” Pretty sure Heraclitus didn’t have the weekly lockdown shop on his mind when he wrote those words but, still. To combat the screaming boredom of the usual food and drink routines, some have turned to restaurant takeaways. But now you’ve exhausted the Ocado/Aldi/Majestic (delete as applicable) catalogue, what are you doing about the wine?
The most effortless way to bring new flavours into your wine rack is to order a mixed case from a different place, or join a wine club that will send you bottles you might not have picked for yourself. Presuming you might already be familiar with the big ones, such as Laithwaite’s and The Wine Society, I’m taking a look here at a few that are less well known and/or new.
The first is Grape & Grind. The opposite of a big, fancy outfit spending lots of cash on consumer engagement, Grape & Grind is run by a bloke called Darren Willis, who owns a shop of the same name in Bristol. For some years, he has been putting together picks to send to customers who have signed up to receive monthly, bimonthly or quarterly cases of wine. His boxes come at three price levels – £125, £155 and £200 per box of 12 bottles.
Of the January set, I most like the look of the £155 box: it is a level at which independent merchants can excel, yet it’s still relatively affordable. I haven’t tried every single bottle in it, but I’ve tasted enough to see that I like what Willis is doing – very much. Striking a good quality balance between comfort and not-too-much-novelty, the selection includes a solid Argentinian malbec, a good albariño, a lovely Douro red (think incredible-value claret with a wilder, warmer vibe), a St Laurent from Austria and an off-dry Loire chenin blanc (Cher et Tendre Vouvray 2019) that tastes of quince with a dab of honey and streak of green apple and would be great with the sour-sweet heat of a crunchy Vietnamese chicken salad.
Second up, an often-overlooked gem is Lay & Wheeler’s Fine Wine Discovery Club. Lay & Wheeler has been around since 1854: having recently been annexed to Majestic and then Naked, it is now owned by an international private company. But this club often flies below the radar.
You pay £60 a month to receive, every two months, a box of six wines. The current box is excellent and contains three reds: Ch Thénac 2014 (a stylish bergerac from a well-cut vintage); Elio Grasso Gavarini Langhe Nebbiolo 2018 (an aromatic treat, all raspberries and black tea); La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Rioja Gran Reserva 2014 (a much-loved classic) and three whites: Trinity Hill Chardonnay 2016 (superb chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand); a good chablis and a Spanish white made by the former head sommelier of the famous El Bulli restaurant.
Now for some fresh names. Last year brought many launches and initiatives, including some from those who usually operated behind the scenes, selling largely into restaurants and bars. One of these is adVINture, which doesn’t run a club but is a good place to browse for cases of six wines sold in small quantities and tailored to your tastes.
Another is The Sourcing Table, which was set up by the importer and Spanish specialist Indigo Wine as a platform to sell not just its own bottles but also those from hand-picked partners, direct to the public. The strap here is “a new generation of fine wines” and the vibe is very new-gen drinker – veering towards the naturalish and interested in hip wines and winemakers and in seeking out new territories such as Tenerife (which has a cult following).
The Sourcing Table’s membership costs £120 for a quarterly delivery of six bottles, and there’s no tie-in, so you could try it once and stop if it wasn’t right for you. It is very small (50 places, with plans to expand to 100, which reflects the fact that its wines are made in small quantities) and cases are curated by wine world figures. I’ve tried the February selection (picked by sommelier Paz Levinson), which includes Inseparable, a beautiful, textural, thoughtful Argentinian malbec; the gorgeous Dominio del Aguila Picaro del Aguila Tinto, a modern ribera del Duero; a Hungarian kékfrankos that I didn’t love enough for the price; an unfortified palomino (the sherry grape), a dry white that tastes deeply savoury and of camomile; a good jurançon sec and a lovely bourgueil (cabernet franc) from Catherine & Pierre Breton in the Loire.
Finally, LittleWine is a platform launched last year by Daniela Pillhofer and Christina Rasmussen. I say “platform” because LittleWine’s first function is experiential: to bring the world of the winemakers and their vineyards to you through drone footage, video interviews, photography and writing (content subscriptions cost £25 a year). There’s also a bottle shop and a wine club.
Again, the focus here is on small production wines that are “at least organic” and there’s a trendy edge to these, too, although I will qualify that by saying that three of the four wines I tried for this article were just standout beautiful – I would expect them to appeal to anyone whose tastes lie on the “refreshing” side of the wine spectrum.
The idea here is experiencing rather than boozing; you can pick from three levels of membership, two/four/six bottles a month at £50/£90/£180 a month (the last one’s for wine nuts who want to try rare cuvées). I tried the mid-priced January package, which included a terrific, sappy (it has an almost green, early-March feel) but also fluent German pinot noir (Weingut Roterfaden Pinot Noir 2018); a sleek, white, pristine Austrian field blend of riesling, chardonnay, grüner veltliner and sauvignon blanc (Satellit 2018); and an old friend, a bracing and mouthwatering sparkling vouvray (La Dilettante, also from Catherine & Pierre Breton in the Loire), all three of which were an absolute delight.
The fourth bottle was faulty (not corked) and I tasted too close to deadline to ask for a second, so I can’t tell you whether others will be any good. But you can take a punt or you could order the three gorgeous ones individually from LittleWine’s bottle shop. Next-day delivery is free over £50.
Wines of the week
Artisans Vignerons de Naoussa Xinomavro 2017
Greece (13%, thesourcingtable.com, £16)
Xinomavro is a wonderful red grape whose texture, tannins and weight are like a mingle of nebbiolo and pinot noir. It smells of strawberries and tobacco, it’s refreshing and it’s great with lamb, roasted with lots of herbs – or just a kebab.
Co-op Irresistible Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2020
Chile (13%, Co-op, £7.50)
Classic Leyda Valley sauvignon blanc, this is a wine that smells of white currants and icing sugar and has a crunchy green feel, as if you’re crunching your way through a bowl of mange tout or sugar snaps, with a bit of passion fruit on the side.
Louis Latour Grand Ardèche Chardonnay 2018
France (13.5%, Majestic, £11.99/13.99 mix six/single bottle price)
Louis Latour is a well-known Burgundy négociant but one of its best-value wines is this creamy chardonnay, which comes from outside that famous region – the Ardèche. It’s a cracking alternative to white burgundy, gently oaked with a hint of cashew nuts and lemon curd.