Have the British turned to drink in the current crisis? When you’re stuck in front of an online merchant’s checkout page, waiting for an elusive and inevitably distant delivery slot, that feels like the logical conclusion.
It’s backed up by sales figures. According to market research firm IWSR, sales of beer, wine and spirits in supermarkets and off-licences were up by a fifth in the first week of lockdown at the end of March, while online sales of alcohol for the same period jumped an unprecedented 50%.
That sounds suspiciously like a boom. The kind of boom that even alcohol sellers might want to be wary of celebrating too much, lest they’re accused of profiteering or having too good a crisis.
In reality, while some wine sellers – notably Majestic and the supermarkets, but a number of online-savvy independents, too – have struggled to keep up with the surge in demand, the wine business as a whole has been badly hit by the economic shutdown.
The same IWSR report estimates that the drinks trade lost 40% of its sales at a stroke when the government closed pubs, bars and restaurants. The spike in home drinking (which, anecdotally, seems to be slowing down anyway, as money and health worries mount) could never hope to make up that fall. Given that most UK wine importers will supply both the on- and off-trade – and many specialist independent wine merchants double up as restaurant suppliers or as wine bars – that’s a lot of lost sales in a very short time.
The global lockdown has been a struggle for producers, too. The EU has seen the return of the wine lake, filled with unsold wine from producers whose sales to local restaurants and overseas have collapsed. In the southern hemisphere, Covid-19 struck in the middle of vintage – not the easiest work to carry out while practising social distancing. In South Africa, the government’s strict lockdown conditions initially prevented the Cape’s winegrowers from harvesting at all. They’ve since had a change of heart, but a potentially ruinous lockdown ban on exports remained in place for two weeks until the end of April.
The wine world has also been mourning the complete loss of its preferred method of promoting and selling its wares: the tasting. From the Napa Valley cellar door shop to the London fine wine importer’s new vintage launch and a vast Dusseldorf trade fair, in normal times there are, without exaggeration, thousands of wine tastings being hosted around the world every day.
Enterprising producers, aided by wine merchants and importers, have set up video-link alternatives, where participants receive a case of wine and taste in the company of a winemaker. If the speaker is one of those rare people who can do charisma on Zoom, these webinars can be a fun way to pass an evening: better, certainly, than trading wine stories on social media.
But even if the host avoids the occupational poor connection hazards, I find myself longing, as so often these days, for the real, messy, human thing – for tasting in a time when wine can be truly social again.
Six wines for lockdown
Château Argadens Rouge Bourdeaux Supérieur, France 2016 (from £10.91, thewinesociety.com; davywine.co.uk)
The Bordeaux wine trade had to cancel en primeur week, the annual showcase of the new vintage, at the beginning of April. This perfectly pitched, succulent modern claret is more than enough to be going on with while we wait for a new date.
Stellenrust Old Bush Vine Cinsault Stellenbosch, South Africa 2018 (£7.49, Waitrose)
With South Africa’s winemakers having to cope with a lockdown ban on exports, they need all the support they can get. Filled with fresh red fruit with a cranberry and rosehippy tang and a savoury-earthy tone, this is a great example of currently fashionable red grape cinsault.
Hacienda Lopez de Haro Rosé Rioja, Spain 2019 (£10.99, or £8.99 as part of a mixed case of six bottles, majestic.co.uk)
Majestic had to up its free standard delivery terms to 10 days to keep up with lockdown demand, the company’s range in good shape since its change of ownership last year, with gems such as this fresh, strawberry-filled Spanish rosado.
Tesco Finest Franciacorta DOCG Brut Lombardy, Italy NV (£15, tesco.com)
From one of the regions hardest hit by Covid-19, this apple-creamy, fresh Franciacorta sparkling wine is Lombardy’s answer to champagne, and the bottle to put aside – to use the phrase of the moment – for “when all this is over”.
Terroir Sense Fronteres Negre Monstant, Spain 2017 (£22.72, armitwines.co.uk)
A number of wine merchants are donating a portion of their sales to charities. Posh London firm Armit, for example, is giving £10 on every delivery of wines such as this deep, dark, fragrant Catalan red to the Drinks Trust’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund.
Lyme Bay Winery Bacchus Block Great Whitman’s Vineyard, Essex, England 2018 (£17.50, lymebaywinery.co.uk)
With restaurant and farmgate visitor sales disappearing, English wineries are increasingly relying on home deliveries, with Devon-based Lyme Bay’s shipping such treats as its superbly grassy-herbal, racy dry white for free with deliveries over £20.
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.