by Tim Atkin

Independents’ day with The Dirty Dozen

Dartmouth House, the home of the English Speaking Union, is an unlikely place for a revolutionary gathering. Set in the heart of Mayfair, it feels like a slightly fusty gentleman’s club and has the Duke of Edinburgh as its president. The sense of somewhere that has seen better days was confirmed when, in the week before The Dirty Dozen was preparing to hold its first tasting, the roof fell in on the room they’d chosen as a venue.

In the end, the event was held in the ESU’s courtyard instead, housed under a makeshift marquee. It was as close to a pop up tasting as anything I’ve seen in London this year. And it was absolutely brilliant. The conditions weren’t great — partly because it was packed with wine writers and sommeliers — and there weren’t enough spittoons. But no one seemed to care.

It’s rare that you attend a tasting where there are almost no bad wines. I didn’t taste everything — there were more than 200 wines on offer — but even the ones I didn’t love were interesting. The group’s aim is to promote wines of “integrity and authenticity” that “speak of their terroir”. Wine merchants say that kind of thing all the time, of course, but they rarely deliver in such an impressive way.

So who are The Dirty Dozen? Step forward, in alphabetical order, Astrum Wine Cellars, Aubert & Mascoli, Clark Foster Wines, Dynamic Vines, Flint Wines, Fortyfive10°, H2Vin, Indigo Wine, Raymond Reynolds, Roberson, Vine Trail and the Wine Barn. With the exception of Roberson, part of a larger business, these are all small operations with a handful of employees and a passion for wine. Some of them were familiar, but several were new discoveries.

The companies are a mixture of specialists (Indigo and Spain, Wine Barn and Germany, Vine Trail and France, Raymond Reynolds and Portugal, Fortyfive10° and Italy) and generalists. That said, even among the latter’s selections, there was barely a New World wine on show. Chile, Australia, South Africa, the United States and New Zealand had one or more representative, but that was about it.

In fact, the tasting could have been sponsored by the European rather than the English Speaking Union. Among the highlights were wines from France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Portugal, most of them produced by small, artisanal wineries rather than large corporations. The emphasis was on wines with flavour, complexity, balance and authenticity.

The Dirty Dozen provides further proof that, against considerable odds, the UK’s independent sector is more exciting and diverse than ever. Add the six members of The Bunch (Yapp, Lea & Sandeman, Tanners, Berry Brothers, Corney & Barrow and Adnams), the 27 members of the Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants and go-it-alone companies such as The Sampler, Artisan & Vine, Vintage Roots, Noel Young, Theatre of Wine, Handford, Vagabond Wines, Jeroboams, Les Caves de Pyrène and D Bryne and consumers are extremely well served.

Why is this happening now? As high street chains have disappeared or been scaled back and supermarkets have focused on cheaper, mass-market wines, so it has created a gap for companies selling unusual, hand-crafted wines with personality. Or, as The Dirty Dozen’s manifesto puts it, “wines for people that care, made by people that care”. These consumers still constitute a significant minority.

The tasting thumbed its nose at inexpensive wines. Almost nothing on the tables sells for less than £8 retail, which would send most punters sprinting for the nearest supermarket gondola end. No matter. Wines such as 2007 Vinci Rafalot, VDP Côtes Catalanes, a pure Carignan from the Roussillon (Aubert & Mascoli), the 2008 Weingut Prieler Lithaberg from Burgenland (Clark Foyster) and the 2007 Domaine Prieuré St Christophe Mondeuse Tradition from Savoie (Dynamic Vines) are never going to appeal to everyone.

The independent sector is small in terms of off-trade clout, although it is more important when it comes to supplying restaurants. But it’s the cutting edge of the UK wine trade at the moment, promoting natural, biodynamic, organic, unusual and unfashionable wine styles. Most supermarket wine ranges are so boring that, without our independents and Majestic, the UK’s much-touted claim to be the centre of the wine world would be laughable.

In the greater scheme of things, The Dirty Dozen’s First tasting was a small affair, even if it attracted some highly influential people. But I hope it’s the start of something significant. It already seems set to become an annual event. I also hope that it will inspire wine writers, consumers, retailers and restaurateurs to recommend, buy, promote and above all drink more individual wines.

Just as importantly, it is another example of a successful collaborative venture. If more independents worked together (and the Boutique Wineries Tasting at the Business Design Centre next week is part of the same a trend), they could become a much greater force in UK retailing. Heaven knows we need them.

Originally published in OLN

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