A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The Bunch group of independent British wine merchants was formed back in 1993 when Graham Chidgey of Laytons, the company that owns Jeroboams wine shops, suggested that the original seven get together and establish themselves as the good guys of the UK wine trade. This was a reaction to several instances in which wine companies went bust without delivering the wine that customers had bought en primeur from them. The original members – Adnams, Armit, Corney & Barrow, Laytons, Lay & Wheeler, Tanners and Yapp Bros – signed up to a code of practice that guarantees to keep their customers’ reserves safe in all circumstances and allows UK-based customers to return (unopened, presumably) purchases within a month without question.
Membership has changed slightly over the years to reflect changes in ownership so that today’s members are Adnams, Berry Bros & Rudd, Corney & Barrow, Lea & Sandeman, Tanners and Yapp, six being quite enough to fit round a well-laden table at which the issues and gossip of the day can be discussed comfortably. (The fact that precious bottles yield six generous glasses presumably also comes into it.) Wine merchants are naturally gregarious and the social aspect of Bunch meetings has always been important to members. The elephant in the room of course has been the mass market and the threat to independent wine merchants posed by the buying power of the supermarkets. Bunch members have tried to respond by offering more characterful wines, ideally (though not always) from independent growers, than those buying in vast quantities can usually manage (although Marks & Spencer deserves an honourable mention for the wine byways they have been exploring).
But I would suggest that there is a new and different threat to members of The Bunch. Even before the post-referendum slide of the pound, the supermarket wine departments have been under increasing pressure to deliver more profits, with an observable downward effect on wine quality. The gap between what’s available on supermarket shelves and from Bunch members may have widened over time, but the sort of traditional merchant that is typical of The Bunch is arguably no longer viewed as cutting edge. For a start, only one of the members, Alistair Marshall of Adnams, sports a beard, and that a decidedly non-hipster one. Some Bunch members don’t even know where Shoreditch is.
The Bunch now seems rather staid in comparison with the rabble of newer, younger independent wine merchants that has flowered in Britain in the wake of the demise, or at least shrinkage, of off-licence chains such as Oddbins, Wine Rack, Unwins and Victoria Wine. Those listed below, some aimed specifically at Britain's mushrooming restaurant and bar scene, typically seek out the new wave of quirkier wines now evident in most wine-producing countries. And Bunch members are also fighting for business with the likes of Majestic, Naked Wines and Laithwaite’s massive and logistically sophisticated mail-order and wine-club operation.
Every autumn Bunch members travel to the capital to put on a popular tasting for the wine media, each of them showing ten of the wines they are most proud of. The exact selection each year has been as good a measure as any of current trends in wine.
This year, in recognition of the region with which so many winos are obsessed today, most merchants were showing a (relatively expensive) burgundy, even Yapp, who in theory specialise in the Loire and Rhône. One of their Rhône suppliers has inherited Domaine Paul Misset in Vosne-Romanée, lucky chap. Both Adnams and Tanners showed a Chablis from the excellent 2014 vintage in view of the tiny 2016 Chablis crop that has been shrunk by both frost and hail. I suspect the Marcel et Blanche Fèvre Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume 2014 at £23.95 from Tanners will look unimaginably good value this time next year.
Both Adnams and Corney & Barrow peppered their ranges with their own-label bottlings, and I was pleased to find the new, 2015 vintage of Corney’s White Burgundy from Dominique Cornin in the Mâconnais as good as the 2014, and great value at £11.95.
As one might expect, the Bunch chaps (all chaps, now I come to think of it) are markedly faithful to France – 35 wines out of 60 this year, with the 10 offerings from the Languedoc-Roussillon providing a fair proportion of the bargains. Both Berry Bros & Rudd and Tanners fielded wines from the Jura region that is currently – or at least was recently – a hipster favourite. There were wines teetering on the brink of naturalness, although I suspect it may be a while before The Bunch thoroughly embraces the natural wine trend.
Italy in general, and Barolo and good-value Italian whites such as Pecorino in particular, have been making their presence felt in Bunch selections at long last. Tanners, whose range was the best I have seen from them for quite a while, have been exploring Sardinia to good effect. This long-standing, family-run Shropshire wine merchant has always taken more trouble with its German range than most of its peers. Tanners showed not just one but two bargain 2015 Rieslings, one dry/trocken and one Kabinett, from exceptional biodynamic Rheingau producer Peter Jakob Kühn, voted Winemaker of the Year this year by Gault Millau.
The general assumption might be that supermarkets offer value while independent merchants such as The Bunch offer interest. But if you take real intrinsic wine quality into account, there is considerable value to be had hovering here above the mass market. In my tasting notes on these 60 wines I marked six of them GV for ‘good value’ and a further six VGV for ‘very good value’. A selection of them is listed below. As is evident throughout the world of wine, the range of grape varieties on offer has expanded enormously from the old handful of familiar international ones. A decade ago not one of the Bunch members would have heard of Merseguera, Vranec, Bovale or Trousseau, I suspect. Today they represent some of their finest offerings.
Other stockists can be found on Wine-searcher.com. See The Bunch’s 2016 selections for tasting notes on 53 of the wines shown (I did not taste many of the own-label wines since they are available only in the UK).
SOME FAVOURITES – ALL GOOD VALUE
Prices are per single bottle but considerable discounts are available for those who buy at least 12 assorted bottles.
Dominique Cornin, Corney & Barrow White Burgundy 2015 Mâcon-Chaintré
£11.95 Corney & Barrow
P J Kühn, Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Kabinett 2015 Rheingau
Mustiguillo, Finca Calvestra Merseguera 2013 Vino de España
£18.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Stobi, Vranec/Syrah/Petit Verdot 2013 Macedonia
Melis Bovale 2014 Isola dei Nuraghi, Sardinia
Domaine des Trinitès, Le Portails 2014 Faugères, Languedoc
£12.50 Lea & Sandeman
Domaine Jean-Louis Tissot Trousseau 2013 Arbois. Jura
£14.65 Yapp Bros
SOME OF THE NEW-WAVE INDEPENDENT UK WINE MERCHANTS
Aubert & Mascoli
Les Caves de Pyrène
Noble Fine Liquor
Planet of the Grapes
Red Squirrel Wine
Theatre of Wine
Under the Bonnet Wines
The Winemakers Club