Taste the Difference Fairtrade South African Chenin Blanc, Wellington, South Africa 2022 (£8, Sainsbury’s) It’s now 30 years since the Fairtrade Foundation was launched in the UK, and 25 years since Fairtrade International emerged as an umbrella organisation for Fairtrade initiatives around the world – time enough for opinions to harden on the question of how much of a force for good Fairtrade-branded products have been. Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, Fairtrade is somewhere between a milquetoast, sticking-plaster response to the vast evil of global trade and a prime, irritating example of woke over-reach in corporate affairs. There is insufficient space or expertise available in this column to debate all the complex and interwoven issues of justice and sustainability raised by Fairtrade, but I would say my experience of visiting Fairtrade projects in the wine business, in South Africa and Argentina, has left me feeling the initiative (at least in these cases) was very much better than nothing. And that paying a little extra on a well-made Fairtrade wine such as Sainsbury’s brightly fruited Cape white is a net positive for all involved.
El Esteco Finca Notables Malbec Fairtrade, Calchaqui Valley, Salta, Argentina (£22, The Co-op) A curious particularity about Fairtrade wine is that it has never had the same cachet as Fairtrade-certified products found in other parts of the supermarket. From very early on, Fairtrade chocolate, coffee and, to a lesser extent, tea – to give three of the most obvious examples – managed to get a reputation for being better quality than their non-Fairtrade equivalents. This had the happy effect of justifying the Fairtrade premium irrespective of any political-ethical considerations, something which Fairtrade wines have never been able to do. This failure, if that’s what it is, almost certainly has something to do with the fact Fairtrade is overwhelmingly focused on the global south, while quality wine production, unlike cocoa, coffee, and tea, is primarily based in Europe, the United States, and Oceania. It’s a bold move, then, by The Co-op to introduce what it calls “the most premium Fairtrade wine ever sold by a UK retailer”. It’s a bold wine, too, a chunky, rich, suave northern Argentinian malbec that, if we’re confining our attention to what’s in the glass, just about justifies its price-tag.
Aconi Tilting Tree Sauvignon Blanc, Puhoi, Moldova 2021 (£6, The Co-op) The Co-op has long been the UK’s biggest retailer of Fairtrade wines, and its wine department has also been conspicuous in grappling with other issues of ethical and sustainable sourcing. Among its most interesting recent initiatives is the addition of a pair of wines from Asconi, a large producer in Puhoi in Moldova. In The Co-op’s telling, listing the Asconi wines seems to have a similar logic to Fairtrade: they’re good products in both sense of the word. I thought the wines themselves (there’s a Tilting Tree merlot as a well as a sauvignon blanc) were fine, perfectly drinkable expressions of their grape varieties at a decent price. But it’s Asconi’s involvement in housing more than 1,000 families from across the border in Ukraine that would give the purchase of a bottle an extra dimension. The Co-op is not alone in supporting Ukraine via Moldovan wine. The online and direct-sale giant Laithwaites has stepped up its listings of its two high-performing Moldovan estates, Château Varetley and Albastrele, both of which have also been active in housing and supporting refugees since the invasion in February.
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