Join the Big But Good Club
Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 2020 (from £9.25, Asda; widely available) There was widespread bafflement in the wine trade earlier this year when the parent company of New Zealand’s Villa Maria, one of the most popular wine brands in Britain, went into receivership, and the brand itself was put on the market. Villa Maria has long been one of the best loved names in wine, its founder and owner Sir George Fistonich a popular and much-respected figure, its wines a model of consistency. With debts to the tune of around £110m, however, all was clearly not right behind the scenes, and after a three-month hunt for a buyer, the firm’s assets – including the Esk Valley, Leftfield and Vidal brands – were snapped up by New Zealand own-label specialists, Indevin, in August. Fingers crossed that Indevin doesn’t mess too much with a formula that has made the Private Bin sauvignon such a reliably luminous and well-balanced example of the classic passion fruit and elderflower Marlborough sauvignon style.
Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Valley, Chile 2019 (from £7.50, Sainsbury’s; widely available) The Villa Maria news got me thinking about the very specific sub-set of wines to which it belongs, that category of large production brands that pull off the Beatles’ trick of being simultaneously massively mass-market popular and respected (and drunk without complaint) by critics and serious wine enthusiasts. It’s the sort of brand that is a reassuring presence in even the most random and unappetising supermarket or local offie’ selection, with wines that actually taste like wine rather than some Frankenstein approximation of fruit juice, sugar and alcohol. The stand out champion in this category is the Casillero del Diablo range produced – on a massive scale, with £200m worth of sales in the UK off-trade alone – by Chilean giant Concha y Toro. The range’s mainstay, the cabernet sauvignon, is a particular achievement, the latest 2019 vintage a cassis-scented, deeply flavoured, plushly upholstered bargain.
López de Haro Blanco, Rioja, Spain 2020 (£10.99, or £8.99 as part of a mixed six, Majestic) From a purely business point of view, the most impressive part of Concha y Toro’s work with Casillero del Diablo is logistical: that they’ve managed to keep making appetising wines even as they’ve ramped up production. They’ve even taken the brand out of Chile, with the latest addition to the Casillero del Diablo stable being a typically suave Tempranillo from the Cariñena region in northeast Spain (£8, Tesco). It’s an unusual move, although they’re in good company: Spain’s Torres, another of the exclusive Big But Good club, has long had a presence in Chile and California. Spain is also the home to another brand that seems to know how to make good wine in large amounts. In scale Rioja’s López de Haro is nowhere near the level of Villa Maria, Casillero del Diablo or Torres yet. But smart wines such as the creamy-rich white, in their distinctive, mildly retro packaging, are cropping up in new places all the time, and they could be the next good big thing.