Grapevine: tour the world with Virgin wines

Birthdays are fun, especially when the happy celebrant is giving away the presents rather than receiving them. That’s the case with online seller Virgin Wines, which is currently holding a year-long tenth birthday party.

So far, 10 lucky customers have each won a bottle of Roederer Cristal champagne, another – fortunately, quite a stocky-looking fellow – has received his weight in wine, the winner of a birthday draw will be off on a balloon ride, and other prizes from bottles to books have been handed out.

There’s plenty more celebratory activity planned before the end of December, including a national tasting day involving more than a thousand customers, plus further prize offers and a range of party cases.

My own birthday box from Virgin was a selection of six wines which have found particular favour with customers, scoring four-plus out of a maximum five on the ratings table. It was a very acceptable suggestion from the press officer when I had to offer my apologies for the most recent press tasting date. Three pairs of friends were happy to experience the Virgins, and on a lovely summer evening we toured the world with them, from Australasia to Chile, stopping off in Europe on the way and encountering most of the classic grape varieties.

They were individual wines, all of very decent quality. For me, the star was Clos Du Gaimont vouvray sec 2008 (�11). It has that lovely apples-and-honey edge which marries so well with the acidity of good Loire chenin blanc, and we all agreed it made a perfect summer aperitif. But it had a strong rival in the Anaru Marlborough sauvignon blanc 2008 (�10), crisp, with elderflower as well as gooseberry character and none of the sweaty character which can be hard to love in Kiwi sauvignon.

Of the reds, Perez Cruz cabernet sauvignon reserva 2007 (�10) was the highlight, showing how Chile can challenge old world classics at very sensible prices: lovely cassis richness, sweet oak, real style and value.

Some statistics: since its launch, Virgin Wines has sold more than 35 million bottles. They come from small, independent winemakers worldwide – not a big-brand wine in sight. In the last year, customers have ordered 7.8m bottles, enough to fill 2.5 Olympic swimming pools.

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And looking to the future, managing director Jay Wright predicts continued growth: “More and more people will enjoy the fact that wine can be so much more than just an anonymous fancy label. For the same price as they could spend on a bottle in a supermarket, consumers online will be able to connect directly with the passionate people who make these delicious wines through video, community forums, and discussion groups.”

Since 2005, Virgin Wines has been a subsidiary of Direct Wines, the world’s largest mail-order wine merchant – think Laithwaites, the Sunday Times Wine Club and a whole lot more direct-sell names – though it’s run as a separate company.

But despite the high visibility wine web sales have these days, the youngest couple round our table – fitting perfectly into Virgin’s main age profile of early 30s to mid-50s – confessed that they didn’t know Virgin did wine. Maybe the birthday trumpet must be blown even louder.

Liz Sagues