Wines you can drink with a clear conscience
It gives you an idea of what the food and drink industry is up against. A woman in a restaurant, according to a much-relished account on Twitter, has been overheard telling her companion, "the trouble with the meat in supermarkets is that it doesn't come from real animals".
I suppose it's not all that surprising. Suspicion of the supermarkets takes many mysterious forms. And I have heard plenty of similar notions about supermarket wines. They're not what they purport to be, they're full of additives, they're not even made from grapes...
It is all – well, nearly all – nonsense. Quality control in supermarkets is scarily exacting, and they have methods of checking the authenticity of wines that smaller-scale retailers cannot possibly afford.
And anyway, it's only good wine that tastes good. Producers who overdo the additives – sulphur for bacteria control, extra sugar for alcohol, acids to correct balance – cannot conceal the flaws. Bad wine is glaringly awful. There is so much good stuff about, in a shrinking market flooded with burgeoning quality, that dodgy bottles just don't have a chance.
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It might be mean to point it out, but the counterfeit bottles of Jacob's Creek wines that lately came to light in Britain were all on the shelves of convenience-type stores. No specialist wine merchants or supermarkets with central purchasing were involved. Crooked dealers were offering the fakes, shipped all the way from China, at a reported £2 per bottle, a lot less even than the tax value of the real wines, to unwitting or unscrupulous shopkeepers.
If you buy your wine from respectable retailers, as we all should, you can count on the contents of the bottle matching the description on the label. And for shoppers who really care about the details of the contents, you can choose retailers who specify the entire make-up of the wines.
One is the Co-operative, which gives a full ingredient list on all of its growing range of own-label wines. You will consequently find some unfamiliar terms: sulphur dioxide; tartaric acid; diammonium phosphate; bentonite. They might sound sinister, but don't give them a thought, because there's no harm in them, and barely a wine from anywhere is made without them. It's brave of the Co-op to be so upfront, but in fact they have nothing to hide.
Of much more interest at the Co-op is the range of Fairtrade wines. For wine lovers who like to concern themselves with the origins of what they're drinking, Fairtrade is a very positive experience. The wines represent just a fraction of a vast scheme across the developing world that guarantees fair wages and decent working conditions to thousands of people working in agriculture. Thus Fairtrade bananas, chocolate, coffee and what-have-you.
The Co-op, amazingly, sells 60% of all the Fairtrade wines sold in Britain and in the last six years has returned more than £1.7 million to workers on Fairtrade winemaking projects in Argentina, Chile and South Africa.
The wines are sensibly priced and of dependable, if not always exciting, quality. One of the very best is Organic Gran Reserva Malbec 2011 at £7.99 from Argentina. It is a superbly intense, savoury and sleek black-fruit red of great character, and genuinely competitive value at the price.
Organic in the case of this Co-op classic, and nearly all other organic wines, means they are from grapes grown in organically cultivated vineyards. There are no inorganic chemicals or fertiliser used on the vines. But in the winery, there is every likelihood that sulphur and other additives have been used to make a healthy finished product that will stay in good condition in the bottle.
That said, I do admire organically made wines. The real point of them is that the methods used to produce their grapes are sincerely held to be better for the land, and for the wider environment.
Problems of pesticide or other inorganic residues are avoided, biodiversity is improved, and the hazards to human and animal health of spraying with synthetic chemicals are obviated.
There is a splendid wine merchant, now established 30 years, which sells nothing but organic wine, and I commend it to all wine lovers. Even though these recessionary times are hard for organic food and drink producers, business at Vintage Roots, as the business is quaintly called, is going nicely. You can view the whole range and place orders for home delivery online at www.vintageroots. co.uk. Or, for a copy of the printed catalogue, write to Vintage Roots, Bridge Farm, Reading Road, Arborfield RG2 9HT or call 0118 976 1999.
The following is a small selection of my own favourites from the current list:
Château Brau Pure Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (£8.75) is what I always hope organic wine will taste like – pure in flavour (as well as in name, in this case). It's an intensely blackcurranty, complex and dense vin de pays de l'Aude of Mediterranean France, truly expressive of the Cabernet grape.
Albet i Noya Tempranillo Classic 2010 (£9.25) from Spain's Penedes region is a juicy, strawberry-ripe red, dense in colour and fruit yet light in weight. Delicious and distinctive.
Live-a-Little Wildly Wicked White 2011 (£7.25) is a likeable blend from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes from South Africa. Both organic and Fairtrade, it's refreshing and seductively grapy.
Château de la Bonnelière Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (£9.85) is a crisp, grassy Loire Valley dry white with an agreeable trace of toffee richness.
Giol Prosecco Vino Spumante (£10.50) is the best example of this trendy Italian fizz I have found in a long while. It's eagerly sparkling, apple crisp and brightly fresh. Good value for this quality.