LIZ SAGUES: Getting to the Vintage Roots of organic wine
When you hear so many sorry stories about how hard British retailers are on their suppliers, it s a delight to encounter the reverse. The place was Narbonne in southern France, where more than 200 organic wine growers had gathered to show off their wares
When you hear so many sorry stories about how hard British retailers are on their suppliers, it's a delight to encounter the reverse. The place was Narbonne in southern France, where more than 200 organic wine growers had gathered to show off their wares at the 2007 Millesime Bio trade fair.
It made sense, I thought, to look first at those whose wine is sold here - and for many, that was by Vintage Roots.
OK, the company isn't on the high street, rivalling the likes of Tesco or Asda. But it has to compete for a lot of the same customers, which it does by offering a good number of wines under the magic £5 and many more below £6.
Just past its 20th birthday celebrations, VR has certainly moved on from the front room office in a terraced house and the battered 2CV for wine transport. But comparative prosperity hasn't happened at the expense of those from whom it buys 300-plus wines, dozens of organic beers, ciders, juices and other temptations (anyone for orange and geranium chocolate?).
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Time and again when I talked to growers at Millesime Bio they described VR's approach as "serieux", which means serious, of course, but extends wider to encompass decent, reliable, honest and a lot of other complimentary adjectives.
Benedicte Piat stopped pouring her fragrantly delicious Chateau Couronneau white bordeaux (not yet available here, but the reds - £5.90 to £9.75 - are equally good) for just long enough to insist she didn't want to sell to British supermarkets. Difficult and risky was her reason - but the relationship with VR was all smiles.
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Andre Stentz has been selling his splendid Alsace whites to VR for more than 15 years, so there's obvious loyalty on both sides. His pinot blanc (£8) is a perfumed pineapple-flavoured delight, and the gewurztraminers (£10 and £14.50) wonderfully elegant, with the stunningly pure fruit so often characteristic of fine organic wines.
Philippe Mercier shares his affections - and his Joliette wines - happily between VR and the Wine Society. His Roussillon reds, syrah or grenache based and from old low-yielding vines, are distinctive and classy wines (the two cuvees at VR are £8 and £9.50).
The strongest enthusiasm burst from Wenny Tari, sales director at Chateau de Brau in Languedoc, another with a 15-year-long relationship. "Adorable" was her instant description of VR co-director Lance Piggott. "I wish all my clients were like that."
As with so many of her fellow organic growers, it was for the family's future that she and husband Gabriel abandoned the chemicals. "I wanted my children to be able to pick a bunch of grapes and eat them." Demand for the resulting wines goes way beyond the estate boundaries now - a trophy for the Cuvee Gabriel merlot (£4.95 but there are lots more treats in the range, up to £7) in the 2000 International Wine Challenge certainly helped.
I found examples of good relationships with other importers: Carlo Volpi, owner of Italian negociant Cantine Volpi, is happy selling his Veneto pinot grigio (£6) to Marks & Spencer - "They're looking for quality"; Chateau Pech-Latt's excellent and ever-improving Corbieres (£6) has been in Waitrose for years; and Oisly et Thesee co-operative commercial director Philippe Angier described the British buyers of his members' great value Touraine sauvignons, which include Majestic (Domaine de Pontcher, £6) and Oddbins as well as VR (Maisons Brulées, £6.45), as "serieux" - yes, that word again.
But the mention of some of the biggest British supermarkets too often brought raised eyebrows or shoulder-shrugging resignation that all they want is "cheap, cheap prices". It's a shame, especially now that the efforts the growers of organic grapes, show not only in and around their vineyards but also in the flavour of their wines.
See the Vintage
Roots' range at www.vintageroots.co.uk or phone 0800 980 4992.