Tom Lewis is the Cambridge Wine Blogger, living in a city full of excellent places to buy (and drink) wine. So it was with great interest that we read about the merchant he'd selected for our indie writing competition.
My home town of Cambridge is not short of independent wine merchants – the city supports no fewer than seven outlets within a two-mile radius of King's College Chapel; one for every 17,000-odd people.
Many of the surrounding villages and towns are also home to independent wine merchants; about half an hour's drive to the south is the pretty, north-Essex market town of Saffron Walden, home to Joseph Barnes Wines.
The shop, run by Charles Hardcastle, is named after a grandfather who worked as a clothing manufacturer in Leeds. The focus is Languedoc and the Basque region, but there are wines from all over the globe.
Charles, who lived in Languedoc for several years, describes the region as a rustic, peasanty land with an ancient and bloody history – a place of impenetrable dialects, heresy and repression whose strange, earthy character is reflected in its wines, which tend towards an expressively rustic, spicy charm.
Many of the wines on the list are organic or biodynamic, produced from obscure old-vine grape varieties in tiny quantities and imported directly from the domaine.
The aim is to introduce customers to interesting and unusual handcrafted wines from small, independent châteaux and domains, constantly seek out new and exciting wines, rarely available elsewhere, that represent great value for money.
Charles has won numerous awards for his wines, but more important, I think, is that I have been a regular consumer for many years now and had nary a disappointing, or even dull, bottle. Rather, the overriding characteristic of the wines an intense purity, vibrancy and quirkiness.
Two of my favourites are from Languedoc:
Domaine du Meteore, Faugeres, Les Leonides, 2008, £9.20 A GSM + Carignan blend, with an earthy, funky nose of barnyardy wet hay with spice, coffee and cherries. Savoury and concentrated with garrigue herbs and tarriness.
The name of the domaine, by the way, is a reference to a crater in the vineyard caused by a meteorite, so there may just be traces of cosmic space dust in the wine.
Ch Ollieux Romanis, Alicante-Bouschet, VdP Aude, 2011, £15.99 From 100 year-old Alicante-Bouschet vines – the last 2 hectares of this grape in France, apparently. In the glass, it is dark and impenetrably inky – which apparently made it popular in prohibition-era America as it could be significantly watered down and still retain some colour. Dark berry fruit and mocha, peppery spice and mintiness. Concentrated and long, with a custardy texture and a lively, juicy acidity. Grippy finish, savoury and meaty.
If you are looking for a reason to visit an independent wine merchant, Joseph Barnes Wines is it; characterful, rounded and quirky – and that's just Charles Hardcastle.
The wines are also unashamedly crowd-pleasing with lots of personality – again, like Charles himself who has his own YouTube channel.
Joseph Barnes Wines offers free local delivery, runs regular tasting events, has a newsletter, takes orders over the interwebz and runs a wine club.