Wine: Bargains online

18 January 2019

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IN THE run-up to Christmas, one is inundated with all sorts of things, ranging from charitable requests to, for me, free pairs of socks made from bamboo; and offers from mail-order wine companies, such as vouchers for £40 from Laithwaites, £60 from Naked Wines, and a third off from Avery’s.

It is so easy to order the wine from home, and have it delivered to your door; and yet this is a service for which you have to pay. It adds about 60p a bottle to the cost of your wine. The purpose of these offers is to hook the buyer on to regular deliveries of mixed cases.

The mail-order wine market is largely dominated by the Laithwaites empire. In the early 1970s, Tony Laithwaite used to drive to Bordeaux in his van and bring it back full of wine to sell to his friends around Reading. This operation was called Bordeaux Direct. In a short time, he joined the wine writer Hugh Johnson, and they created the Sunday Times Wine Club. Now, Laithwaites is the biggest mail-order wine company in the world: it has operations in several countries, and wineries in Bordeaux and South Australia.

One company that it has absorbed is Avery’s, which was first launched in Bristol in 1793, and now has at its prow Mimi Avery, from the fifth generation of the family in the business. Her grandfather, Ronald, built up a remarkable collection of great wines, and her father, John, introduced Britain to fine wines from the New World: from Australia, California, and South Africa.

Another online retailer, Naked Wines, has a unique selling-point: it gives the customer the opportunity to invest in wine producers around the world with the object of improving their facilities, and, hopefully, the quality of their wines. Its success has led to its joining the high-street retailers Majestic Wine Warehouses.

Somewhat apart from all these is the Wine Society — or, to give it its full title, the International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society, which was founded in 1874 and has as its slogan “Passion before profit”.

This is different, in that it is truly a co-operative that belongs to its members, who have to pay a £40 joining fee. Its seniority in the field has enabled it to build up a wine-offering that is much deeper than its competitors’, ranging from first-growth clarets to well-priced quaffing wines. Its list offers a wealth of interesting and different wines. One of my daughters produced, to finish off our Christmas lunch, something that I had never tasted before: a late-harvest Astobiza Txakoli, from the Basque region of Spain, made from the Izkirota grape (aka the Gros Manseng of south-west France).

The armchair wine-buyer should also note that every level of the wine trade now has a home-delivery facility, be it Waitrose or Marks & Spencer, Majestic, or Oddbins, or specialist fine-wine merchants such as Tanners of Shrewsbury, or Adnams, in Southwold.

There is a world of wine waiting to be discovered at the click of a button. Here’s to happy drinking in 2019.

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