Are you enjoying Lockdown? I am guilty of moments where I feel more relaxed and, dare I say it, quite happy to be stuck at home. It’s stressful worrying about loved ones, but then there just isn’t the stress of rushing for trains and that endless driving around, near and far, which seems to fill my life. Easter felt like a genuine holiday because usually we are busy a good three weekends out of four, often more in the warmer months. We have a moderately sized house full of food, music, books, and of course wine.
We have a small garden, but if I may say so, a beautiful garden. Blessed by summer weather in April we’ve been enjoying rare opportunities to sit outside with a coffee or a glass of wine, just watching things change and unfurl every day. That said, hardly a moment goes by without remembering how privileged and lucky we are in comparison to many, indeed to most, people who have far less of everything.
I mentioned the wine, didn’t I. We probably have a couple of years or more supply of wine, and that’s at current consumption. We could easily drink less. But whilst we’ve found we are spending less on what usually eats up our income generally, I have been spending more on wine. The reason is simple. I’m under no illusion that what I spend can save a small importer or independent wine shop from the difficulties they face at this time, but it does show that I care, and if we all do our bit the end result might just be to help preserve the great, perhaps unrivalled, diversity of wine we can buy in the UK.
My strategy has been simple, although it hasn’t forced me to buy wines I don’t want. First I’ve tried to buy a little wine from small specialist importers. So far these have been Basket Press Wines, Uncharted Wines, Nekter Wines, Modal Wines and Newcomer Wines. I’ve also bought a case of wine, beer and olives from Solent Cellar. In supporting these operations we are also supporting small artisan winemakers who are often reliant on these UK merchants for a good chunk of their income. Remember, most cellar doors are closed right now so that is a major income stream temporarily cut off.
Many indie wine merchants have been rushed off their feet delivering wine locally and packing up mail order cases. However, as most of these indies rely on bars and restaurants for their bread and butter, orders consisting a mixed case of cheap wines or a six-pack of Rosé for local delivery don’t quite match what they are losing there.
Don’t forget too that restaurants and bars are closed and wine merchants of all descriptions will be awaiting payment for orders long past delivered. We will all be hoping that those establishments are able to reopen and pay their debts, but perhaps not all of them will. A restaurant going bust without having paid for a lot of stock can cripple a wine merchant whose margins are somewhat thinner than my exercise-poor body right now.
A lot of the bigger wine merchants are also opening up their lists to private customers. There are big advantages. Plenty of so-called unicorn wines are usually earmarked exclusively for restaurants or wine bars. This is a rare opportunity to grab a few bottles which you might never be allowed so much as a sniff at in normal circumstances. But there’s one good reason to buy retail if you can. If you buy from a wine shop the retailer can re-order from the importer, and this way everyone in the chain benefits. This has thus far been my attitude towards the wines of Les Caves de Pyrene, to buy them retail.
Some bigger merchants have leapt to sell to private customers. This is okay just so long as their longstanding retailers don’t miss out as a result, and so long as they don’t undercut those retailers by charging wholesale prices to private clients. The temptation to do this might be strong in some cases, in order to push cash flow, but it can only be damaging to everyone in the long run…even to the customer. You benefit now but when everything hopefully gets back to normal and those importers stop selling direct, we want to see the retailers open and thriving, not going to the wall.
This all makes it sound like buying wine is like giving to charity, which it so obviously isn’t. However, this pandemic has taught me a lesson, one that I was beginning to learn anyway, but which all this has brought into focus. It’s all part of supporting local or small businesses. Whether that’s the local indie record store, book shop, baker, grocer, farm shop or corner shop, you may pay a little more but you’ll miss them when they’re gone. In fact you’ll miss them when the next wave or pandemic hits.
It’s amazing just who is delivering locally. At a time when the supermarkets haven’t really got themselves into gear, and when even a month in, managing to get a supermarket delivery slot is as complex as planning a long overseas holiday, we are getting fruit and vegetables delivered from a local source, and a local wholesale baker is keeping us in lovely bread. Coffeemongers, a Lymington-based business, sends us supplies of coffee beans at a click of the mouse and several local caterers are delivering everything from national award winning vegan pizzas, Greek food and Chinese dumplings that go a little way to satisfy my cravings for Nepalese Momos. Yes, we are truly very lucky.
For the first part of this article I thought I’d show you what I’ve been buying. Then I shall tell you what I’m most looking forward to when we are allowed, and when I can summon the courage (which is unlikely to be as soon as the first of those), to go out socially. I suppose I’ve spent quite a bit, but then the last time we went out for dinner was on 16 March (I’ll come back to that), and if I add up what we both would have spent eating in restaurants, travel to and from London and the attendant victualling resulting from tasting wine all day, I think the two are comparable.
BASKET PRESS WINES
Basket Press specialises primarily in the wines of Czech Moldavia, but sneaks into neighbouring and nearby countries for a few of their producers. Four of these wines are from one of my discoveries of 2020. Just before the Lockdown I accompanied Basket Press to a tasting at Brighton’s Plateau, and two of Annamária Réka-Koncz’s wines were on show. Stunning stuff, so I bought one of each wine they import. Probably all gone now, judging by the social media reaction, but I’m sure there will be more to come from Eastern Hungary’s new star.
Uncharted Wines sells the most eclectic range of these small specialist importers, and of course they are perhaps best known for developing keg wines. In fact Rupert Taylor can probably claim he started the whole wine in keg revolution in the UK when, working for another importer, he began to persuade genuinely top producers to bottle some of their wine in keg for selling on tap in London’s wine bars. It changed the image of wine on tap completely. Uncharted sells plenty of fine wine in bottle, and I will single out Hermit Ram (NZ), Sybille Kuntz (Mosel) and Domaine Chapel (Bojo) as star buys. One of the Westwell wines served me well for the English and Welsh Wine Friday online event, back on Good Friday.
Nekter specialises in three countries: The USA (primarily California), South Africa and Australia. I purchased something from each of those, but I can’t deny that I am particularly enamoured by Jon’s Cali selection. We leap in big with Matthiasson, but Keep Wines is also a favourite, as is Benevolent Neglect. The wine in the middle, to the left of the Matthiasson Rosé, is their Counoise (Keep Wines also make a fabulous Counoise but here I went for their Ciliegiolo). The Swartland Chenin is a fairly cheap version I fancied trying, and “The Beast” (black/brown label) is a stunning skin contact Verdelho from the Hunter Valley. I’ve tasted Geyer many times but never bought any, and I fancied their McLaren Vale Cab Franc.
Nic Rizzi imports another eclectic selection of natural wines from a wide variety of countries. Unfortunately he was sold out of Victoria Torres Pecis’ wines, but this was no hardship. I grabbed a couple of wines from Jan Matthias Klein (Krov, Mosel), Fredi Torres/Lectores Vini Priorat and another Spaniard, Garnacha from Navarra. Rebela Rosa is an on the edge Slovakian from Slobodne, whilst the other crown-capped bottle with minimalist label is from Joiseph, Burgenland’s new star. It’s Luka’s Mischkultur, a Gemischter Satz field blend.
It was something of a relief to find that Newcomer are delivering nationally. It’s a difficult place to get to, at Dalston Junction, for me, but I persist in doing so because they sell so many of my favourite producers. It’s a great shop to browse in because there’s a ton of new stuff every visit. But you will see here that I’ve not stuck rigidly to their Austrian specialisation, with a pair from Rita and Rudolf Trossen, and a Pinot from Weingut Roterfaden from Germany ranged against a pair from Jutta Ambrositsch in Vienna and the obligatory Renner, “Superglitzing” its way into the box.
The biggest omission for me here is Dynamic Vines, but I did buy some wines from them before the Lockdown. If I’m honest there are plenty more small importers I’d like to make a purchase from. Fear not, because it’s far from over, is it!
THE SOLENT CELLAR
These folks in Lymington (Hampshire) have become one of my major sources for interesting bottles. They supply me with wine from several importers, the major one, but not exclusively, being Les Caves de Pyrene. They are always happy to add a few things into their next CdP order for me, although that doesn’t stop me from trying to get up to Pew Corner once a year, for old times sake.
I began shopping here almost by accident. We visit Lymington regularly for family reasons. This attractive Georgian town on the edge of the New Forest is best known for its yachting types. It’s the kind of place you can’t abide if stuck there as a teenager, but as you grow older its charms become apparent, not least because the New Forest has become a major foodie destination this past decade or so. The town itself has a very good Saturday Market.
I’d pass Solent Cellar, just past St Thomas’ Church, and turn my gaze away because it was hard enough being marginally loyal to other wine shops without a new one intervening. And what kind of wine would a Lymington wine shop sell anyway? I was so wrong on that assumption. I’m not sure why I first went in but what I found was something resembling a very good London independent down in a sleepy town on Hampshire’s south coast. Of course nowadays a wine retailer selling really interesting stuff in some obscure location is nothing new, but back then it was.
If you are tempted by a trip to the New Forest do try to hit Lymington in the morning on market day, and do try to peek into this wonderful shop. You want fane wane, they have it, you want natural wine, they have it. You may even be lucky and fine Equipo Navazos in magnum or something equally out there. Just let Simon know the kind of thing you are interested in. But they turn stuff around quickly, so a fair bit of the range changes almost monthly. They import quite a bit themselves, and the good stuff (Ganevat etc) can often be snaffled by London restaurants, so frequent visits are fruitful.
Stop, that’s enough of a plug, but they do have exceptionally good taste and a degree of bravery in what they buy for such an apparently conservative town. Here’s what I bought this time. The rest of the case was filled with beer and tins of Perelló olives (if you know, you know).
I mentioned earlier the last time I went out to dinner in a restaurant, on March 16th. It was at Wild Flor, Hove’s much awarded new restaurant which before the Lockdown had celebrated surviving and thriving for one year. It was actually the night that our Prime Minister announced that restaurants must close. We were actually putting our shoes on to leave when we heard the announcement and we didn’t intend to cancel, especially as we were dining with a friend who rarely sets foot in this part of the country. We had a faultless meal, as always, in a room where a number of tables had been removed to allow proper social distancing. We were a little nervous back then, but one month ago now seems like an age.
You know what the first thing I want to do will be once we are allowed our freedom? Thought so. I shall look forward to supporting them, and indeed to stuffing my face with some delicious food. I know it won’t be any time soon, but I hope it won’t be too long. When we turned up on that last Monday of normal life we were made to feel like we were truly supporting this young team who have worked so hard to create a superb place to dine, on many levels. Well, to Rob and the team, the pleasure is all ours. Hope to see you soon.
So, to finish, but mainly for my friends to see what I have been doing these past few weeks, some isolation inspiration, mostly eating and listening. Along with the drinking it’s all stimulation of the senses, to keep us from falling into the kind of post-pandemic stupor which will make us all forget our promises to live life at least a little differently when we wake up from this bad dream…I already know what I want to do…
Music (but spot the bookmark)