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Waitrose - the best British supermarket for wine lovers

3 Aug 2001 by JR

Those of you in southern Britain should immediately print out this page and head as fast as possible for their nearest Waitrose, the supermarket chain that extends, alas, only as far north as Newark.

I despair of most British supermarkets and their approach to wine. Each month they come up with a list of special offers and promotions that is drearier than the last - because they are dominated by deals with a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger companies who pay the supermarkets to promote their brands.

But Waitrose is an exception. Its wine department is run by wine enthusiasts, a high proportion of whom are Masters of Wine, who understand genuine wine quality. They know that true variety of flavours and styles can come only from a wide range of different producers. It is all very well boasting shelves groaning with wines from x different countries, but if they have all been made using the same handful of buying criteria and winemaking advisors then the wines end up tasting dismally similar. (It is notable that the Waitrose buying team is less interventionist than most of their peers, who pride themselves on flying round the world telling their suppliers how to make wine.)

What has inspired this unusually specific tribute is that I have just looked at the 40 wines on special offer at Waitrose this month and see price reductions not only on bottles as quirky and varied as Greek Roditis, Canadian Vidal and Calera's Central Coast Pinot Noir 1997 (from £16.49 to £13.99) but also a couple of wines that I was actually intending to recommend at their full price.

Most notable bargain is surely Seigneur d'Aiguilhe 1998, the second wine of the Côtes de Castillon property of Stefan von Nieppberg of La Mondotte fame. I was impressed by the amount of modern St Emilion winemaking glamour packed in to this wine when it sold at £7.49, but until 2 September, or when stocks run out, you can buy it at Waitrose for just £5.99. Admittedly, the wine is not a cellaring candidate; it should be drunk between now and Christmas. But it is dramatic, well made and as plump and attractive as you would expect one of the right bank's most dynamic teams to make of a Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend (75:25) from nearly 30 year-old vines in this useful appellation between St Emilion and the Dordogne.

If your branch has run out of Seigneur d'Aiguilhe, Ch Haut d'Allard 1998 Côtes de Bourg is a very sound alternative claret at £5.49, even if there is not the psychological satisfaction of benefiting from a special offer. As one would expect from the slightly traditionalist bent of the Waitrose buying team, they have always been good at choosing the plums from the vast and variable red bordeaux pie.

The other wine that impressed me even at full price is Bassermann Jordan's Pfalz Riesling, usually sold at £6.49 but reduced this month to £5.49. The two most recent vintages are currently on sale and both 1999 and 2000 bottlings offer a lovely caressing texture, lots of direct, off-dry citrus fruit and a perfect partnership with Thai spices and flavours.

But there is no shortage of first class wine value among Waitrose's full price offerings. J P Ramos' beguilingly bumptious red Vila Santa 1999 from the fashionable Alentejo is £7.99 at Waitrose and closer to double that in the US, according to WineSearcher (which reveals all sorts of interesting international price comparisons). Vila Santa, incidentally, is a much more luscious Portuguese red than the new Altano 1999, the long-awaited table wine from the Symington port dynasty which Waitrose are selling for £5.49. Altano is distinctly tamer than some of its more exciting rivals from the Douro valley.

Over the border in Rioja, it is nowadays rare to find the sort of wine that made us fall in love with Rioja all those years ago: mature wine expressing a sensitive balance of oak and lively strawberry fruit at a decent price. Viña Herminia Rioja Crianza 1996 (£5.89 Waitrose) is an exception.

Waitrose is the sort of supermarket where you can be sure of finding a true Pouilly Fuissé (ultra-sleek Ch Vitallis 2000 at £10.45) and correct Pouilly Fumé (appetisingly flinty Chatelain 1999 at £8.49). Neither is cheap but paying a pound less for something that tastes like nothing more distinctive than white wine is no economy.

For New World value, South Africa is the place here as elsewhere: specifically Springfield Special Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc 2000 at £6.99 which is admirably sophisticated for the money.

Although most British supermarkets pay some notional dues to fine wine, www.Waitrose.com offers the chance to buy some very serious bottles at fair prices by mail order.

Tags:  uk wine market
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