Last week I witnessed a scene I never thought I'd see: a member of Tesco's wine department arguing passionately about the relative merits of the different premiers crus produced by a cult Chablis grower. As someone who has over the years dutifully tasted my way through many a pedestrian wine range chez Tesco, I had seen remarkably little evidence of real, full-blooded passion for wine. Tesco wine chat had always been more bulk shipping and screwcaps.
But Graham Nash, the Chablis enthusiast and now Tesco's 'product development manager France, South Africa', worked for traditional merchant Lay & Wheeler and until quite recently managed Tesco's wine store in Calais. He is not a supermarket being but a bona fide wine nut. And even Jason Godley, 'wine category manager' who has come from buying other, quite different products for the behemoth, is now 'a real wine anorak' according to one of his colleagues, who admits to the same sorry state himself. All of this may soon have a decidedly benign effect on the British wine enthusiast.
Britain's leading supermarket chain has just unveiled its first serious attempt to sell fine wine in almost a third of their stores. By early April 90 of them will be 'fixturised' so that they can offer all 50 of the 'premium range', as they call it (having rather debased the currency of the word fine by claiming so many of their own-label products are the 'finest'). A further 110 stores should have about half of these superior new wines.
The supermarket claims it is responding to signs that its customers include many people who do or want to dabble in wines over £10 a bottle, as so many have already via Tesco's online operation. The Tesco Wine Club, for example, was relaunched last October and already has almost half a million members. They may not have paid any membership fee but they have either registered online or been targeted via all that juicy data yielded by loyalty cards and taken the trouble to get their vouchers scanned at a checkout.
They all receive a glossy wine mag every month or so and in February an offer of six bottles of Torres top red Mas de la Plana at £90 sold out immediately. Their wine fairs have already attracted 2,000 wine lovers in London and 1,200 in Manchester. It is probably only logical therefore to try to offer these people a bit more stimulation than the usual big brands and own-label varietals at £3.99 in the stores.
Looking at the initial range of 50 it is easy to see how closely some of the supply lines relate to Tesco's mass market wines. The most obvious example is Australia's most famously collectible wine Penfolds Grange, a regular in the salerooms of the world yet sold in the greatest quantity anywhere probably by Britain's number one supermarket. Presumably the fact that Grange is made by Southcorp, which also makes mammoth quantities of everyday Chardonnay and Shiraz that need to find a home on UK retail shelves is not unconnected to Tesco's unique ability to source Grange. But since Southcorp was acquired by Foster's last year, all sorts of other possible 'premium wines' are available from the same salesman such as the Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2000 now offered at £19.99.
Then there are superior lines from other global conglomerates such as LVMH (Veuve Clicquot 1998 Champagne and Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Malbec 2003 Mendoza) and Constellation (a superior Robert Mondavi Cabernet), but not as many as a cynic like me would have expected. Many of the wines are small-production, top-of-the-range bottlings from producers or importers who either already supply much bigger quantities of more ordinary wines to Tesco or presumably hope to in the future. But there are also wines that you might find on the list of any independent fine wine merchant.
Château Montrose 2002 St-Estèphe is perhaps the most obvious example, a thoroughly respectable, if not heart-stopping vintage from the famous second growth bordeaux property which has reportedly been sold to prominent French businessman Martin Bouygues by the family who have owned it for the last 120 years. The ability to buy a wine like this by the single bottle rather than by a case of 12 as it is usually offered by the fine wine trade, or even as part of a mixed dozen as from a Majestic wine warehouse, is likely to be Tesco's trump card as far as consumers are concerned. Pricing is presumably critical. This particular claret is being offered at £34.99 a bottle, which is a pretty fair market price - unlike the £25.99 asked for Château d'Angludet 1999 Margaux (check www.winesearcher.com for comparative prices, as the Tesco team doubtless have done).
The big Burgundy negociant Antonin Rodet features twice in the first Tesco premium wine selection, as does Ropiteau, a subsidiary of the giant Boisset. True domaine bottled burgundies are produced in notoriously small quantities and are surely unlikely to feature much on Tesco's new premium shelves, specially constructed to allow the bottles to lie at an angle, keeping the corks, and the odd screwcap, moist - although the bottles are unlikely to remain there for long - three to six months in supermarket theory apparently.
Tesco claims that this initiative is a long term one and that they are already sourcing the second tranche of premium wines to fill the vacated slots, but admits that it will be difficult to find suitable wines available in the quantities they need (at least 2,400 bottles). And to an outside observer it looks as though the premium wine range will eat up an enormous amount of time and effort per penny of profit. Presumably the current Tesco team of wine nuts is well capable of arguing to Sir Terry that it is all worthwhile.
It will be fascinating to see how Tesco's competitors react. Both Waitrose and Sainsbury's have better selections of fine wines, but only online and in two or three London stores. The Tesco approach is, perhaps predictably, more inclusive if less exciting.
My favourite premium wines from Tesco
E - excitingly innovative
C- utterly correct
V - great value
Villa Maria, Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2005 New Zealand £9.99 C
Jack & Knox, Green on Green Semillon 2004 South Africa £12.99 E
Domaine Lamy Pillot, Chassagne Montrachet 2004 White Burgundy £18.99 C
Ropiteau, Meursault 2003 White Burgundy £18.99 C [but see my suggested better-value alternative in inside information]
Geoff Merrill, Reserve Chardonnay 1998 South Australia £8.99 V
J L Wolf, Forster Dry Riesling 2004 Germany £7.99 V
Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Gewurztraminer Herrenweg 2000 Alsace £16.99 C
Stockmans Station, Central Otago Pinot Noir 2003 New Zealand £12.99 C
Antonin Rodet, Santenay Clos Rousseau Premier Cru 2002 Red Burgundy £12.99 C
Arnoux Pere et Fils, Beaune En Genet Premier Cru 2001 Red Burgundy £17.99 C
Antonin Rodet, Domaine des Perdrix, Nuits St Georges 2002 Red Burgundy £21.99 C
Geoff Merrill, Reserve Shiraz 2000 South Australia £12.99 V
Michele Chiarlo, Barolo Riserva Tortoniano 1999 Piedmont £19.99 C
Robert Mondavi, Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 California £22.99 C
Flagstone, Mary Le Bow Red Blend 2003 South Africa £15.99 E
Penfolds, Grange 1999 South Australia £99.99 C
Ch Suduiraut, Sauternes 2002 £19.99 a half C