Some wine merchants have done well out of the pandemic. Among them were big guns such as Waitrose and Majestic, which saw online sales rise by as much as 300% last year. Even smaller shops were unusually busy: on average, sales (many home-delivered) by specialist independent wine shops shot up by 65.6% in April 2020 alone, according to a survey by the trade magazine the Wine Merchant. But, for the sort of merchant whose living is largely based on importing wines to sell to restaurants, dealing with Covid-19 has been as difficult as it has been for the businesses they supply.
During the early waves of panic and uncertainty, many restaurant wine suppliers sought the quick-fix solution of rebranding as retailers. A flurry of online pop-up shops of varying degrees of professionalism emerged, all attempting to fill the space where the UK’s on-trade used to be. Most of these efforts lasted as long as a lockdown sourdough starter, sputtering to a halt with the first lifting of restrictions.
A couple, however, proved to be much more resilient, adding something new to UK wine retailing. The standout for me is the Sourcing Table, which emerged from importer Indigo Wines at the end of last year. It was founded by south London-based Ben Henshaw, who describes the pandemic as the “catalyst” for committing to an idea he’d been toying with for years: making it easier to drink the fashionable, sommelier-pleasing wines that usually “disappear into restaurants” at home.
These are wines with a very particular style. They generally come from outside traditionally famous areas and are made from local varieties, often from old vines, by small winemakers inspired by ideas and winemaking practices associated with the natural wine scene. In the glass, red wines will tend to be paler; whites may well be more textured. They are brilliant with food.
The wines are the star, but the website itself is a cut above too, with articles and producer biographies from acclaimed wine writer Jamie Goode. Plus the members’ club features wines selected by some of the world’s leading sommeliers – including the American Rajat Parr and Paris-based Paz Levinson, who looks after the wine for star French chef Anne-Sophie Pic – for £120 (six bottles) or £240 (12 bottles) a month. The venture has been a success, with Henshaw to opening a Sourcing Table shop and wine bar in south London later in the autumn.
It’s taken a similar trajectory to another pandemic-catalysed newcomer, Shrine to the Vine. Effectively the retail outlet of Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling’s ever-growing Noble Rot empire, Shrine to the Vine is website and a central shop, whose ambience is somewhere between a record store and a Jermyn Street tailor.
As with everything Noble Rot has done – it started in 2013 as a magazine, before adding two wine-led London restaurants, a critically acclaimed book and a wine-supply business – Shrine to the Vine is brilliantly presented. But at its heart it’s all about the same style of wine as the Sourcing Table, one that may have grown up around restaurants but which both these businesses believe can work just as well at home.
Six restaurant wines to drink at home
El Risco Calatayud, Spain 2019 (£13, thesourcingtable.com)
Making full use of owner Ben Henshaw’s extensive contacts in Spain (Indigo Wine started as a Spanish specialist), this is a gloriously supple and fragrant Spanish red from high-altitude old vines near Zaragoza: fabulously moreish.
Tetramythos Malagousia Natur Peloponnese, Greece 2019 (£18.50, thesourcingtable.com)
A rare local variety (malagousia) grown with very old vines and at high altitudes on the slopes of Mount Aroania in the northern Peloponnese. Absolutely bursting with stone fruit richness, honeysuckle and leafy herbs.
Heinrich Pannobile Burgenland, Austria 2017 (£29.50, thesourcingtable.com)
A hugely satisfying red pitched somewhere between the peppery spicy savouriness of northern Rhône syrah and the blackcurrant fruit and upright structure of classic claret. The intensity of flavour belies its meagre 12.5% alcohol.
Domaine la Pépière Cot la Pepie Vin de France 2020 (£15, shrinetothevine.co.uk)
Malbec from vines grown in the cool of the western Loire, where the variety is known as cot. It’s all about crunchy-fruited sappiness and drinkability, a burst of raspberry and blackberry with a hint of violet perfume.
Morgadio da Calcada Branco MC Douro, Portugal 2019 (£16, shrinetothevine.co.uk)
From the brilliant Portuguese winemaker, longtime sommelier favourite Dirk Niepoort – a scintillating example of the quirky quality of whites from this famous red wine (and port) region. Exotically fruited but so bright and lively.
Camillo Donati Lambrusco Emilia Romagna, Italy 2019 (£19, shrinetothevine.co.uk)
Top-quality dry sparkling lambrusco such as Camillo Donati’s – as opposed to the sickly, bottom-shelf, supermarket stuff – has been a feature of trendier wine bars for some time, offering a dramatically vivid, intensely tangy, black-cherried, antipasti-friendly red fizz.