What does a kid in a sweetshop grow up to become? Simple. Me, in a shed, in a walled garden at the heart of the Sussex countryside. And why? Because I took a trip off the high street and into the arms of a truly, madly, deeply independent wine retailer.
For me at least, that pretty much answers the question posed above. But I’ll admit it’s a qualified yes. As with so much about wine, context is everything. Where you buy depends on many things – what it’s for, who it’s for, when it’s for and, yes, how much you want to spend.
Naturally, supermarkets are the first port of call for everyday wines. Convenience is the high street’s unspoken loyalty card and why should wine be any different? (Not when you can snag yourself bargains like Torres’ flower-power fruitbasket Viña Esmeralda for under £6. A thousand thanks, Waitrose.)
But here’s the thing. There’s a world of difference between drinking wine and trying wine. If you’re anything like me, an unopened bottle is Schrödinger’s Box. It could contain a thrilling burst of life; an evocative world of vivacious sensation lingering on the tip of your tongue. Or it could be 75cl of dead cat’s piss. The fun is all in the exploring. And there’s nowhere better to start your expedition than your local independent.
If you’re lucky enough to have one near you and you’re after something beyond the run of the mill, get yourself down there and start asking questions. You couldn’t hope to be in better hands. Nearly every independent is a labour of besotted love, run by hopeless romantics eager for you to share in it. They’ll tell you things, show you things and let you taste things you couldn’t dream of finding on Aisle 13. And so what if they’re a couple of quid more expensive than the big boys? It’s worth it for all the knowledge you’re imbibing along the way.
In fact, the only excuse for not visiting your local independent is not being able to find it in the first place. The aforementioned Sussex shed is a case in point. Called Sheffield Park, it’s ostensibly home to some National Trust gardens. I drive past regularly. Every time for six months or so, I’d notice the unassuming sign about unusual wines, think vaguely about taking a look then carry on with my journey. Then one day I pulled in.
Blimey H Christ. Talk about hiding your light under a bushel (or rather hiding a blindingly good collection behind a bush). Because housed in some scraggy old boxes, in a modest outhouse at the back of the garden centre, is an extraordinary micro-tour of the whole wine world.
Old and new, it’s all there: Mature Bordeaux, aged Beaujolais and white burgundies, the latest weird and wonderful offerings from Chateau Musar, refined Rieslings, succulent South African chardonnays, meaty Malbecs, premium Ports. An alliterative abundance of well-sourced, hand-selected, intriguing wines, each one reviewed with hilariously, charmingly bizarre tasting notes.
“Stroll through avenues of raspberries, corridors of ripe spices, to a cellar full of old leather armchairs” to an “almost pleasant” Chilean Pinot Noir. A Lebanese red is “what the gods drink while waiting for their ambrosia to be warmed up” despite being a Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah/Merlot blend (“they’d be shot for doing that in France”). Feel the love and fall head over heels for it.
30 minutes in, I was still choosing between clarets (finally swerving into leftfield and settling on a bottle from Barons de Rothschild’s Chilean operation, with the owner’s advice to ‘stick it in a decanter and serve it up as Lafite’). After fractionally less than an hour, I’d put together a mixed case with more character, mystique and nationalities than a line-up of Bond villains.
So how have they worked out? Bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. An unoaked Stellenbosch chardonnay was a fresh tropical storm of sweet melons, nectarines and clean citrus acidity. The Musar Jeune’s insipid red fruit and cidery tang was disappointing. I’m still waiting for the right moment to test out the counterfeit Lafite, along with a Malbec Reserve that I reckon deserves careful attention.
Even more exciting are the treats that still lie in wait. Who wouldn’t want to try an award-winning Soave that’s “all Italian elegance, not a hint of Berlusconi”. Or sample a Lebanese red redolent of “old leather trousers”? They may be amazing. They may be a letdown. One thing’s for sure: you won’t find either on Aisle 13.