How virtual wine tasting became 2020's hottest drinks trend

Home tastings, wine webinars and vineyard rambles have changed the way we drink

virtual wine tastings
‘You can taste along with Jasper Morris MW and that’s a fancy ticket’

On a screen, Ronan Sayburn MS proudly shows me the newest – game-changing – acquisition of 67 Pall Mall, the private members’ club where he is head of wine. It is a fish tank; a huge glass fish tank with not a green swordtail in sight. “I’ll show you what we’re doing,” says Sayburn excitedly, before rattling on about micromesh filters, oxygen monitors, first growths (as in the Bordeaux wine) and argon (the noble gas).

The 67 Pall Mall fish tank has revolutionised wine webinars by enabling the club to fill sample-sized bottles with fine wines and deliver rarefied wine experiences such as a flight of 2000 clarets or the wines of California’s Harlan Estate to living rooms around Europe.

No prizes for guessing why the online wine scene has been so dynamic this year. It burgeoned at the start of lockdown; a hastily assembled patchwork of dodgy Zoom connections, tastings, IGTV offerings, interviews and slicker presentations put together by wine shops, clubs, wine producers and wine critics stuck at home. At the height of our lockdown wall-climbing, 1,200 people participated in an online Château Musar tasting held by The Wine Society. Now the initial rush has subsided and been winnowed what looks as if it will be around in the longer term? And where will this lead us?

Kevin Dilton-Hill, founder and director of halfwine.com, which specialises in half-bottles, says the trend for home tastings has revolutionised his business, but not in the way he expected. He thought the demand would be for tasting packs with a live hosted service or video. Instead people are buying the wines – half-bottles are a good size – and running the tastings themselves. “Our biggest demand is from corporates, generally for 12-20 but sometimes up to 50 people. This accounted for 25 per cent of our sales in July. My sense is that the motivation is not wine education – it’s the get-together. The wine provides the excuse and a bit of distraction.”

Before this year so much wine filming involved rictus grins and bland razzamatazz – almost as if it were being shot for an audience of nine-year-olds. What has emerged triumphant now is a more thoughtful conversational style.

One of The Wine Society’s big success stories is “A Glass with Marce!” – a series of short videos shot at home by the wise Marcel Orford-Williams, a WS buyer of some 34 years’ standing. “It’s his personal, quietly-spoken style that have made them a hit with members and non-members alike,” says The Wine Society’s Ewan Murray.

Sorry to use the A word, but 2020 has shown that we appreciate the authenticity of a 3D postcard from a real place and person. “We did a virtual press trip to Lebanon with Château Ksara and Domaine des Tourelles which was so well received – a highlight for many was [Tourelles’] Faouzi Issa zooming live from the vineyards to talk about the terroir,” says PR Madeleine Waters. I think we’ll see more of these.

The birdsong and quiet intimacy of Katie Jones’s early morning vineyard rambles on IG Live have also done well. It’s such a tonic to enjoy the glorious sweep of Languedoc landscape and to watch the vineyard develop over the year and as Jones says, “I was doing them anyway so thought I’d bring you with me.” Detail is proving a real draw; in one, for instance, Jones demonstrates how to check if a grape is ripe by pulling it apart, and checking the colour of the pip and how much flesh is sticking to it. She says the rambles have had a “massive impact” on sales and plans continue in the winery once harvest begins. “Ramblers can’t wait to see the grapes they’ve watched growing being made into wine.” She plans to invest more in tourism as a result of the rambles.

Spirits, too, have seen big success in the virtual arena. If you’re after an online tutorial check out the offerings at the Whisky Exchange, whose head buyer Dawn Davies is so excited about the popularity of the tastings she offers that she has big plans for a huge virtual whisky show. “It connects you to the customer – people see there are people behind these faceless online entities.”

In the wine webinar space, it’s 67 Pall Mall that has really bossed it. The club hosts up to five online tastings a day, seven days a week. “It’s being able to send out the wine that’s made them so successful,” says 67 Pall Mall founder Grant Ashton. “You can jump around to Joe Wicks when you see him on the TV but you can’t cook to Rick Stein. You can taste along with [burgundy expert] Jasper Morris MW and that’s a fancy ticket.”

The roster of past tastings is glittering. There’s Jean-Guillaume Prats on Château Lafite and Carruades de Lafite; Chiara Boschis on Barolo; Saša Radikon; Francis Ford Coppola and Philippe Bascaules on Inglenook; Francisco Baettig on Chile’s Aconcagua Valley; Janet Wang on Chinese wine. Some of the bordeaux and burgundy tastings hosted by specialists Jane Anson and Jasper Morris have been so popular that Ashton is threatening to release box sets at Christmas. He also makes the point that some of the least obviously box-office subjects have done surprisingly well. “Jasper said he wanted to do ‘Stems or no stems’ [a treatise on the decision to destem or not before making wine] which we thought was too geeky but he did it and it did well.” Detail, again.

All the 67PM webinars are available to watch online (free for members, or you can pay £10 a month to be a Virtual Member). You can even order wines from some of the back-episodes.

The wines go out in sample-sized bottles and prices vary according to the cost of the wine. For instance, “Discover Great Loire Valley Wines” came in at £75; The Grand Crus of Chambertin £175; the Lafite pack £390.

By the end of July 67 Pall Mall had sent out over 10,000 six-bottle packs and amassed so many hours of video Ashton is now planning to launch 67 Pall Mall TV. “An internet TV channel that will broadcast 24/7.” He swivels the camera on his phone around to show me the building across the road from the club. “That’s 55 Pall Mall, the home of our new TV studio. We’ll have a news magazine programme, our standard tastings going out live, some location pieces from vineyards, education…” And he’s off, envisaging viewers from Singapore, Chinese subtitles – an international audience for a channel that, at the start of this year, no one had even begun to conceive.

Wines 
of the 
week

Château Ksara Blanc de l’Observatoire 2018

Lebanon (13%, 
allaboutwine.co.uk, £11.89)

An unusual and aromatic white wine made from a blend of four grapes – muscat, clairette (also found in Rhône blends), obeidy (a local Lebanese blend) and a bit of sauvignon blanc for lemony brightness. The flavours here are mostly floral with waxy white flowers and yellow plums.

Domaine des Tourelles Cuvée Pierre Brun 2017

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (14%, Majestic, £12.99/9.99 
single bottle/mix six)

A superstar red from Faouzi Issa, and a winery first established in 1868, this is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cinsault and carignan that has been fermented and aged in concrete tanks. You can taste the French influence, and there’s a scent of liquorice root and an intensity that feels very Lebanese.

Domaine des Tourelles Rosé 2019

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (13%, Hennings Wine, £13.50)

Wine is a major export for Lebanon, a country in crisis even before the explosion that tore through Beirut. Faouzi Issa is one of the country’s most dynamic winemakers. He’s worked in the Rhône and at Château Margaux in Bordeaux and is the man behind this rosé made from cinsault, syrah and tempranillo.