Published: Sunday June 25, 2006 in The Observer
When the email arrived, I wasn't sure what to make of an invitation from the Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants. Had a group of vertically challenged importers banded together to stand on each other's shoulders like some vinous circus act? Or were they just referring to the diminutive size of their businesses when set alongside mail-order giants like Laithwaites and The Wine Society?
I was intrigued enough to go along to their first ever tasting. The ASDW was set up last year to protest against some of the anomalies in the 2003 Licensing Act and their effect on small businesses. The organisation has since grown from seven founders to 20 members and has expanded its remit to become a trade association with its own website (http://www.asdw.org.uk/) and an appealingly amateurish newsletter, Grapestalk Most of the members are enthusiasts.
By this, I don't mean the sort of people who bore you witless at parties about the Château Musar they had with dinner last night. These men and women are the real deal: genuine lovers of wine who can't help sharing their passion with other people. The majority of the companies are small affairs - a Tesco store probably sells more wine in an hour than most of these guys manage in a year - but that's what makes them appealing.
As consolidation takes hold, the UK wine market is increasingly dominated by large retailers and producers who tend to serve one another's interests. One- and two-person bands importing wines from small domaines are a welcome antidote to the power of the big boys. Most of the ASDW members know their suppliers personally and, in many cases, are the exclusive importers of their wines. In general they specialise in a single country or area, be it Spain, Italy, Australia, Champagne or regional France.
The ASDW members are a diverse bunch. The majority are part-timers dreaming of wine as a full-time occupation, but a few of them, such as The Big Red Wine Company, Amordivino and the Boutique Wine Company, have already taken the plunge into deeper financial and logistical waters. Others have day jobs as varied as publishing, law, materials and logistics management, IT, land registry and banking.
I wasn't crazy about all the wines at the ASDW tasting, but the average quality was high. More to the point, most of the wines were new discoveries, rather than the me-too brands that occupy so much retail shelf space. All of the merchants have websites and are happy for you to mix and match your own cases from their lists. Delivery charges vary from company to company, so check online.
There were a dozen wines I could have recommended, but eventually I got down to four. From Provence, the Domaine des Anges Cotes du Ventoux 2005 Blanc "L'Archange" is a rich, mealy, honeyed white made entirely from the comparatively rare Roussanne grape, while from further south, the 2003 Neffiez, Cuvée Balthazar, Coteaux du Languedoc is a dense, hauntingly perfumed Syrah with notes of liquorice and black olives.
Country specialists provided my other two picks. Italian-focused Amordivino was showing a complex, robust, pasta-bashing 2001 Taurasi, Urciuolo made entirely from Aglianico, while the Boutique Wine Company had the poised, minty, vanilla-perfumed 2003 Eppalock Ridge Shiraz from a brilliant 2,000-case producer in Heathcote, Victoria. Like the members of the ASDW, small really can be beautiful ... sometimes ...