This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
The last time I devoted my FT wine column to UK supermarket wines I received an email from a London-based fine wine trader, furious that I was wasting space that could have been devoted to the sort of wine he sells at thousands of pounds a case on the odd bottle at £3.99.
I have since hesitated to repeat the experiment but there is currently such frenetic activity among British mass-marketers of wine that I think it might well be of interest even to readers outside the UK. After all Tesco is not just the UK's leading wine retailer, selling one in every four wine bottles (and boxes) plucked off a British shelf. This giant supermarket chain also sells more wine than any other retailer in the world, and has stores in Turkey, all over eastern Europe and Asia, and wants its Fresh & Easy chain, to be launched on the West Coast next month, to have a significant impact on retailing in the US. The Tesco wine department in the UK has just undergone its most fundamental shake-up it has ever known, and most of its rivals have been scurrying to respond.
Encouraged by its success selling wines as smart as Penfolds Grange (over £100 a bottle) online, Tesco introduced a specially displayed fine wine range of about 50 very respectable wines in about 250 of its 1,700 UK stores last year and since then has been in a flurry of upgrading of the mainstream wine range. Under Dan Jago, who until recently co-ran importer Bibendum Wine, the Tesco wine buying team has hardly drawn breath. They have just introduced 370 new wines and de-listed 70, bringing the total number of wines in the Tesco range to a jaw-dropping 1,100, including 75 in their range called Finest* and all of 248 own-label wines sold under the name of Tesco rather than that of the producer, much to the chagrin of the rest of the wine trade. The name Tesco Finest* can be confusing, and not just because of that asterisk. Among Tesco's new range, for example, is a rather dull Tesco Finest* St-Emilion 2006 at £7.49 from Yvon Mau and a really delicious Dourthe Barrel Select St-Emilion 2005 at £8.99.
From my point of view, Tesco's ambitions are utterly laudable. British wine lovers (if not British wine merchants) should be pleased that the dominant force is so much keener on wine quality. In theory there should be quite enough decent, if not absolutely extraordinary, wine to choose from in all but the most modestly stocked branches. In practice however, although we are told that this dramatic upgrade owes a great deal to improved logistics, it can still be a frustrating experience tracking down individual bottles.
Tesco has taken a bold step into Waitrose territory. The expanding but much smaller and more obviously upmarket Waitrose had fine wine to itself for years and seems to be reacting to Tesco's incursion rather slowly - by beefing up its mid range wines. After agonised discussion over many years, Waitrose has finally committed itself to own-label wines but from distinctly superior producers. For example, Waitrose's new own-label St-Emilion, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Chianti Classico are associated with, respectively, the producers of Ch Angélus, Ch de Beaucastel and Brolio – all fulsomely acknowledged on the label and offered at Tesco-like prices: £8.99, £14.99 and £4.99.
Waitrose does offer some very fine wine indeed but often in just one or a handful of stores (financial centre Canary Wharf being a flagship outlet whoses wine bar with modest corkage off the shelves doing famous business on Friday evenings) plus in some cases the increasingly important online Waitrose Wine Direct which, unlike the online Tesco Wine Club, cites the vintage of all the wines it offers.
Asda and Sainsbury's are Tesco's more obvious rivals however. The Walmart-owned Asda has at long last emerged from its oenological stasis with a whoosh of personality-driven wines called Asda Extra Special, each with a back label featuring background and serving suggestions from my fellow Master of Wine and Asda wine buyer Philippa Carr under the heading 'What does Philippa think?' This tends to be along the lines of 'best with roast goose and the mother-in-law'. Philippa has also come up with the particularly novel idea of selling 25cl Taster bottles of 15 of their wines giving people chance to sample a third of a bottle before committing themselves to a whole one. On investing £1.50 to £2 in one of these smaller bottles, the customer is issued with a voucher entitling them either to a discount worth the price of the Taster on the purchase of a full bottle, or their money back if they don't like it. Clever, eh? If doubtless financially painful for suppliers.
Asda's new Extra Specal Range is as direct a riposte to Tesco's Finest* as Sainsbury's Taste the Difference was – all of them an attempt to move their customers and margins out of the vinous slough of despond. Sainsbury's has enjoyed some notable successes with some of the 'TTD' wines in wine competitions but is currently reviewing the range – presumably in response to Tesco's dramatic upgrade. Sainsbury's total range, still too often dismally labelled, is much wider than Asda's but now less than two-thirds the scope of Tesco's. They do however have a new weapon in the form of a particularly competent French wine buyer, Abi Hirshfeld who used to be at Laithwaite's Direct Wines mail order operation and seems to have injected the French wine range with real excitement.
Also on the horizon is next month's venture into fine wines for Marks & Spencer who are busy beefing up their online wine operation too. I have to warn that fine wine trader that my pre-Christmas selections to be published on Saturdays throughout December are likely to include some of the best offerings from the UK supermarkets. Meanwhile, just to make him really cross, here are some of the best buys among cheaper wines available on British shelves.
Gran Tesoro Viura 2006 Campo de Borja
£2.99 Tesco 13% alcohol
Really fresh and fruity for the money. You wouldn't want a second bottle but you might be amazed by the first.
Asda Extra Special Gewurztraminer 2006 Alsace
£5.98 Asda 13%
Fine, opulent nose with lovely texture and freshness. Not heavy – textbook example for an MW exam. Quite persistent.
Stamford Brook Viognier 2006 South Eastern Australia
£5.99 Sainsbury's 13%
Very creditable rendition of Condrieu aromas and great freshness under screwcap.
Ch St-Jean-des-Graves 2006 Bordeaux Blanc
£6.49 Waitrose 12%
You'd pay far more for this quality of super-fresh, lees-influenced Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend from Western Australia.
Tesco Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Central Valley
£2.98 Tesco 13%
Sweet, fruity over-delivery at a great price from Cono Sur. For immediate drinking. Take advantage of that buying power.
Dom du Colombier 2005 Chinon
£5.49 Sainsbury's 13%
A lovely vintage of this old standby – so luscious yet refreshing.
Ch Dubois Gramont 2006 Bordeaux
£5.99 Sainsbury's 13.5%
Utterly correct – I bet that fine wine trader has masses of wine that tastes like this (for drinking 2008-10) at twice the price.