MARY Portas would warmly applaud Ellies Cellar’s founder Gordon Polley and his support for the British high street.
Almost all of his half-dozen wine merchant stores are in the commercial centre of what he considers lively, traditional, medium-sized Scottish towns.
Alva was first, in 1998, followed by Dollar and Auchterarder, then came six or seven years’ consolidation. The collapse of Threshers allowed Crieff and Perth to be added with, finally, a store opening in Linlithgow last autumn. Borrowing is minimal, online activity has been implemented incrementally and stock selection is canny. Products seem to be shrewdly positioned to encourage supermarket shoppers to trade up methodically without turning off more adventurous wine drinkers.
It is no surprise, then, to discover that Polley is a retailer through and through – building up from a Co-op delivery bike to his key role, while part of the Whitbread hierarchy, bringing Bottoms Up to Scotland.
So much for the business, but what about the product? 2010 Mazets Saint Victor Cotes du Rhone (down to £8.99 from £10.99) has beautifully smooth, lively cherry-based acidity and warm cinnamon undertones. Although there are many traditional Rhone elements, it has a new world light and fruit-forward style.
Another impressive red is 2007 Muros de Vinha, Douro, Portugal (£9.99) with deep, ripe bramble flavours, pliable tannins and hints of plum stone, vanilla and chocolate. Typical of the Douro, there is, I fancy, a sizeable portion of Touriga Nacional in this blend which may explain why (port-like) it works so well with tasty, mature, hard cheese.
With the whites, I followed the less trodden path towards a couple of unusual but delightful examples. The first shows exactly how small independent retailers can stand out. While most supermarkets listen exclusively to whatever fashions are demanding, shops like Ellies Cellar can plough their own furrow. A small group of wines are marked as ‘oaky and proud’ to provide traditional fare for lovers of wooded chardonnay. South Africa’s 2011 Lourensford Winemaker’s Selection Chardonnay (£13.99), for example, provides all those familiar vanilla aromas and the creamy, rich butteriness you would expect but the fruit delivers excellent peach, mango and nut undertones with, above all, vibrant acidity that gives the whole thing life, energy and vitality.
Equally off-piste is 2011 Clos Berger Vouvray (£9.99) which illustrates why we used to love wine from this part of the Loire so much. The chenin blanc combines beautifully fresh red apple flavours with some mellow honeyed touches to give you a floral and complex wine with tremendous versatility when it comes to food matching.
Further up the price points, Polley is very proud of the smaller parcels of red Burgundy he can source and the excellent quality they represent. 2007 Domaine d’Ardhuy, Ladoix (£20.79) and 2008 Domaine. Seguin-Manuel, Savigny les Beaune Premier Cru les Lavieres (£29.99), for example, sit either side of Beaune’s famous Aloxe Corton appellation yet offer great value for money. A little further to the south, and to the west of Montrachet, can be found the similarly impressive 2007 Domaine Des Meix, St Aubin Premier Cru, Les Mugers des Dents de Chien (£25.69).
Trying to future-proof sales, Ellies Cellar has an expanding online facility and seeks to engage with younger drinkers through social media. These aspects are largely driven by Polley’s daughter Danielle (the original ‘Ellie’) who is now part of the business.
With so many wine merchants closing down, it is great to see that well-managed, family-run drinks stores not only survive on the high street but also help shoppers on to the second step of the wine enjoyment ladder in a way supermarkets cannot match. Climbing that ladder is the route to so much experimentation and fun.