Every two years I get involved in a national fundraising campaign in the UK for Comic Relief. Wine Relief is a vinous subset of the nation’s biennial emptying out of the pockets in aid of thoroughly worthwhile projects in Africa and the UK. This year, one of the major wine-related ways we hope to raise money is to revert to our tried-and-tested mechanics of having leading retailers select some of the wines from their range as their Wine Relief bottles, with 10 per cent of their sales in the run-up to the Red Nose Day dénouement on Friday, March18, going straight to Comic Relief.
In the past these wines have tended to favour the first half of the phrase “cheap and cheerful”. This year, I am delighted to say, there has been a distinct step up in quality. Many retailers, especially Majestic and Laithwaites, have included some really very superior wines in their Wine Relief selections. Marks and Spencer wins the prize for the sheer number of wines included in the scheme: its entire and very varied 27-strong South African range.
Certain general trends are discernible among the 80-odd Wine Relief wines. The British drink, just, more white wine than red (although pink has become incredibly popular and five of the Wine Relief wines are rosés). Among white wine grapes, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris reigns supreme. Altogether six of them were chosen, as compared with just two varietal Chardonnays. And, fortunately, they are all really interesting examples with a local story to tell – quite unlike the ocean of bland, off-dry white that constitutes the majority of Pinot Grigio sold in the UK. (It is a mystery how the affections of the nation’s white wine drinkers were transferred over the turn of the millennium from Chardonnay to its theoretically more aromatic cousin, “grey” Pinot.)
Another extremely obvious trend is just how popular screwcaps now are in mass market wine retailing in the UK. By far the majority of these wines come in screwcapped bottles – a boon for tasters in a hurry and for those who like to restopper opened bottles, even if not for the Portuguese cork industry that has seen a substantial drop in demand for natural corks, even though the latter are, at last, less prone to taint than they were a few years ago.
The second most popular white wine was Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s biggest wine region – which is hardly surprising given that Marlborough has seen the most extraordinary glut of its defining grape variety recently.
Red wines chosen tended to vary much more than whites, but three retailers selected deliciously toothsome beaujolais from the exceptional 2009 vintage – in fact these wines, a Morgon, a Fleurie and a Beaujolais-Villages, may well turn out to be some of the longest-lasting of these Wine Relief 2011 selections, the majority of which are designed for early drinking.
Majestic’s eclectic selection bravely includes two Rieslings at opposite ends of the fruitiness scale. Gunderloch Estate, Fritz’s Riesling 2009 Rheinhessen is super-fruity yet quite bracing enough to be refreshing – a great wine with spicy food, I would imagine, and also for sipping after a meal. Knappstein Hand Picked Riesling 2010 Clare Valley, like most Australian Rieslings nowadays, seems to have been entered into a competition to see who can make the driest wine in the world. Both are £8.99 a bottle.
Waitrose’s Wine Relief range is a little more timid than I might have expected from this creative wine retailer. Forte Alto Pinot Grigio from the Dolomites has admirable purity for £6.99 a bottle, while Juan Ramón Lozano, Vuvuzela Tempranillo/Cabernet 2010 La Mancha is the most intriguingly named wine.
Marks and Spencer’s range unashamedly embraces 100 per cent South African wines, ranging from its basic, German-bottled Cape Quarter blends at £5.40 to the admirable Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2008 Elgin at £16.99.
Booths’ selection is limited but intriguing, and includes the bargain Brown Brothers Dry Muscat 2008 South Eastern Australia for just £5.60. By rights this should have keeled over by now, but it just shows the white-winemaking skills prevalent in Australia today. Gone are the fat, oaky monsters, to be replaced by tight, focused, refreshing wines full of personality, such as this one.
Bravely carrying the torch for high-street wine retailing, Wine Rack is offering arguably the single most delicious wine in the entire Wine Relief 2011 range: Guado al Tasso, Il Bruciato 2007 Bolgheri at £18.99, a wine from Antinori’s Maremma estate that really does taste like a baby Sassicaia. Wine Rack also has 20 per cent off all its core French range until mid-May.
But, of course, much of the growth of the UK wine market is in online and mail-order retailing, as evinced by the increasingly powerful Laithwaites. It has chosen six reds, with my fellow wine writer Oz Clarke supplying tasting notes thereon. I was impressed by Giesta 2009 Dão, which is so much fruitier than many wines from this region in northern Portugal and seems good value at £7.49, but my favourite was the Grande Réserve de Gassac Rouge 2009 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault at £7.99, from the family responsible for Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc. What was strange, however, was that although these six wines came from four countries in two hemispheres, they had a very similar style of not especially subtle fruit.
Another Languedoc wine was my favourite from the Wine Relief selection from Laithwaites’ sister company Virgin Wines. Les Arbousiers Rosé 2009 Coteaux de Languedoc is a particularly pretty pale pink and is not marked by an excess of residual sugar. At £7.49, this is almost more like a keenly priced Provençal pink.
I urge those of you living in the UK who know they have large parties to cater for later in the year to buy ahead from these Wine Relief selections, knowing that 10 per cent of what you spend will go to some extremely worthy recipients.
Jancis’s wine relief: 2011 picks
● Brown Brothers Dry Muscat 2008 South Eastern Australia, £5.60 Booths
● Les Arbousiers Rosé 2009 Coteaux du Languedoc, £7.49 Virgin Wines
● Nosio, Forte Alto Pinot Grigio 2010 IGT Vigneti delle Dolomiti, £7.99 Waitrose
● Grande Réserve de Gassac Rouge 2009 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, £7.99 Laithwaites
● Villa Lanata, Lo Zoccolaio, Suculé 2007 Barbera d’Alba, £9.99 Majestic
● Guado al Tasso, Il Bruciato 2007 Bolgheri, £18.99 Wine Rack
● Newton Johnson Pinot Noir 2008 Elgin, £16.99 M&S
● Boutinot, La Madone, Reine de L’Arenite 2009 Fleurie from Booths, £9.18
Top-quality beaujolais that could still be drinking well in 2016. It’s made by Boutinot, and 92p goes to Comic Relief for each bottle sold before March 18.
For tasting notes and suggested drinking dates on all 80 wines, visit the Purple pages of www.jancisrobinson.com