The closing weekend of the Manchester Food and Drink Festival saw the return of the Big Indie Wine Fest. It’s the 11th year of this wonderful showcase of independent wine merchants and retailers in the North West.

Independent wine merchants can struggle to compete with the cheap offerings available in supermarkets, but shoppers are missing out on unique quality wines that are produced carefully, rather than en masse, as well as the personal service and expertise they provide. The Big Indie Wine Fest is all about celebrating these small wine retailers. It reflects the ever-changing wine scene and current trends, and presents opportunity to speak to an array of experts in one room.

On entering the Manchester Hall, I was instantly amazed that such beautiful and charismatic building has been sitting unassumingly near Spinningfields without my knowledge. It’s fabulous. An old, Grade II listed building, built in 1929, filled with oak panelling, parquet floors and high ceilings. It used to be a Freemasons Lodge and the third floor is still used for this purpose. The cabinets of freemasonry artefacts, texts and framed regalia are a nice touch. Two years were spent restoring and preserving original features before it opened to the public in November 2017, including a reception desk built from an old organ and a grand staircase.

But I digress – this review is about the wine. Armed with a tasting glass and guide to the exhibiting merchants, we booked onto a masterclass tasting session during the evening before wandering into the main exhibiting room. As promised, a stunning breadth of wines from around the globe was on show. One minute we were sipping traditional family crafted Italian wine; the next, we were sampling Japanese sake infused with whiskey.

First stop, Iberica, which prides itself on sourcing from small wineries in different regions to represent the diversity of Spanish wines. Anthony showed us where each wine came from and how that characterised the flavours. One standout was an aromatic white, filled with intense lemon and pineapple flavours. It’s named El Perro Verde (Green Dog), a phrase in Spanish to describe something very different. A showstopper rosé only sold in bottles containing 20 glasses caught my eye. Anthony explained its popularity on their restaurant terrace in the summer, making me wish we weren’t firmly in the grip of autumn.

Commanderie was up next; a group of wine lovers who showcase small Bordeaux winemakers. We tasted several bold reds and learned about the differences within the similar styles. Moving swiftly from France to Italy, we met the latest generation of the De Palma family, Alessandra, the great-granddaughter of one of the Cantine De Palma vineyard’s founding brothers. The winery still follows traditional workmanship and relies as little as possible on machinery.

We discovered something entirely different at Ukiyo Republic, an importer of Japanese sake. Kaisa, one of the co-founders, talked us through the process of making sake and the different grades available. We sampled everything from low-grade table sake to the top grade and even though I was initially dubious about the whiskey infused one, I adored it. She told us the story of one producer, an American named Cody, who worked for the Japanese brewery for 10 years before they allowed him to produce his own; such is the tradition of the craft.

Before we could sample any more we were called to the masterclass, a whistlestop tour of the French classics, hosted by wine expert and owner of 3D Wines Andrew Bennett. We knew we were in for a treat when top of the bill was champagne – Brut Origine from Champagne Fresne Ducret. Andrew told us everything there was to know about the fizz – how it’s made, the fermenting, riddling and ageing process, and imparted a handy tip on how to open a bottle without resembling a Formula 1 driver on the podium. The Champagne itself was divine, a crisp, refreshing blend of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes. Producers Pierre and Daniella’s family have been making Champagne in the village near Reims for seven generations. Contrary to popular belief, it was a British scientist, Christopher Merrett, who invented this type of wine, adding sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation years before Dom Perignon’s claim.

Up next was a rare wine, Cote de Nuits Villages Blanc from Domaine Desertaux Ferrand in the Burgundy region. Its Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc blend was creamy and slightly woody. With each wine, Andrew added more background detail to increase connection with the producers. I could imagine French bakers bringing croissants at 5am for workers burning straw to prevent frost from ruining the vine crop.

Moving to the reds, we were introduced to the Margaux from Chateau Mongravey in Bordeaux. This was smoky and spicy with bold blackcurrant flavours and hints of coffee and mocha from toasting of the barrel – my favourite of the evening. If Champagne was a great way to start, then Chateauneuf du Pape was a fitting end and this one from La Fagotiere in the Rhone Valley didn’t disappoint – deep in colour, spicy and herby.

Following the session, we sampled the remaining stands, with a world tour via Alpine Wines, Carringtons, Portland Wine and Inspiring Wines – who also had an interesting take on the bottle, with flat bottles to fit through your letterbox, merging progressive ideas while sticking to traditional production methods.

The event was a fantastic celebration of small wine producers across the world. I tried things I wouldn’t usually have chosen. Some I loved and others less so. Either way, I learnt so much about methods of production, wine regions and styles, inspired by people with great knowledge and exuberant passion for their product. It’ll certainly make you think twice about just grabbing a supermarket bottle.

The Big Indie Wine Fest took place at Manchester Hall on 5-6 October, as part of Manchester Food and Drink Festival.

Tracy Reeves