13 April To help those in the UK intending to buy wine in quantity for this long Easter weekend, we're republishing this recent article free as part of our Throwback Thursday series. We apologise if any of the recommended wines have sold out in the intervening two weeks.
31 March Andy Howard MW returns to the tasting tables of Aldi and Lidl to assess their latest offerings.
A common theme running through my reviews of the wine available from UK supermarkets is that of intense competition. The latest set of data released by Kantar Worldpanel and Nielsen have added substance to the perception that a fundamental shift is taking place in this cut-throat market. With the onset of Brexit, and the prospect of a messy withdrawal from the EU on the horizon, it is unlikely that there will be much stability for several years to come.
The figures published by Kantar last month show that in the 12 weeks to 26 February, the share of the UK market held by Aldi and Lidl had risen to 10.9% (from 10% a year ago). Analysed over two years, the increase is even more dramatic – their market share at that point was just 8.5%. In what is basically a static market, this inevitably means that other major players are struggling to maintain their sales. Two years ago, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda accounted for 62.5% of the market. The latest data shows this has shrunk to 60.1%.
Sainsbury's confirmed the pressures facing the big retailers when announcing a 0.5% fall in like-for-like sales in the three months to 11 March. CEO Mike Coupe stated that the market was 'very competitive'. Asda have been particularly affected by the success of what the press and trade refer to as 'discounters’. However, this somewhat pejorative label does not adequately describe what Aldi and Lidl aspire to. Simply labelling them in the ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ category would be a dangerous misconception.
Aldi has shown the fastest growth in the grocery market in the past year. With over 700 stores in the UK (and plans to open another 70 in 2017) there will be increased opportunities for UK consumers to experience Aldi. They seem to have hit a rich seam through a combination of a simple business model, low costs and an uncluttered approach to business. The UK division works to its own agenda and appears to be highly capable of delivering what customers want. At the same time, Aldi is proud of its links to suppliers, whether they are UK dairy farmers or wine suppliers abroad. As a result, there are some very keen purchases available in Aldi stores.
In contrast, Lidl have a more secretive approach to sourcing and are often unwilling to reveal names of suppliers. As far as wine is concerned, one can understand why producers may not want it known that they have sold stock to Lidl at prices that undercut the market, but this is an unusual occurrence. Most suppliers would be pleased to have it known that their products had been purchased by a major force. I suspect that Lidl wish to hide what they are doing from their competitors. This is a pity as their offerings often represent great value for money – so why not let consumers know where they are from?
What both companies are doing on a regular basis (far too regularly for the comfort of the major supermarkets) is buying well in terms of both product quality and cost. In addition there are indications that Aldi and Lidl are going to become even more of a threat to the established supermarkets. Aldi's expansion plans have already been mentioned but Lidl appears to be aiming for global domination. In addition, both companies are increasingly taking their wine offer online. Many of the excellent, opportunistic buys are now available for purchase (and home delivery) so that consumers need not trek to the very low-key stores.
Perhaps my main criticism (apart from Lidl's secrecy) is that there is still too much of a focus on ultra-low prices as opposed to new benchmarks for top quality and value. There is an important difference between low prices and great value for money. The latter can be achieved through offering fantastic quality at reasonable prices (consider the M&S food offer), whereas the former will deliver reasonable quality at ultra-low prices without ever setting pulses racing. If Aldi and Lidl really start to focus on top-quality wines at market-leading prices, then I for one will be a very keen convert.
The most recent tastings (at Aldi this was their full spring tasting whereas Lidl focused on their Easter Collection, released yesterday) were both very positive in terms of the number of good wines at competitive prices. To my mind the Lidl offer was stronger on whites, with few wines that one would not enjoy drinking. In addition there were a number of esoteric buys that would offer both knowledgeable and mainstream consumers real pleasure (for example, Vigneto del Sole Veneto Bianco and a barrique-aged Rias Baixas Albariño). Red wines were also generally successful, with the only fly in the ointment being another lacklustre range of rosés. This is about the third time I have failed to enjoy any of the rosé wines on offer so it’s either a personal taste thing or the buying team are missing the mark. For the record, I am a fan of this wine style and drink quite a lot of it!
Aldi also showed their buying prowess with some highly interesting purchases, and were generally strong across the board. Of particular interest were a couple of great-value, classy sparkling wines from France – the Cabernet Franc Crémant de Loire (a revelation) and the latest vintage of their highly popular Crémant du Jura (100% Chardonnay). However, they appeared to lose their way a little with two new ranges. The first of these is the somewhat condescendingly named range from France – ‘Pardon my French’. It appears that the marketing department have come up with this, but to my taste the characterisation is simplistic and old-fashioned. In addition, many of the wines are not great examples. I was puzzled to see that this range appears to have been put together in conjunction with Lacheteau – a major French wine supplier. I don’t have anything at all against Lacheteau, who are highly reputable Loire specialists. However, to see the Languedoc offerings sourced from them as well suggests a lazy approach to buying where the quality is less important than the concept. Not a good direction to take.
The second range which failed to tick the boxes was that labelled the ‘Green Collection’. As can often happen with a focus on organic and no-added-sulphur wines, the principle can become more important and influential than the quality of the product. A few of the wines in this collection were decent enough (and the range included a highly promising and distinctive organic Prosecco) but far too many were dull (at best) and, in some cases, unpalatable. So, this is a great principle to promote but it was not delivered as well as one would expect of Aldi.
Castellore, Grillo/Sauvignon Blanc NV Sicily, Italy £4.99
Despite not offering much hope in its description (85% Grillo blended with 15% Sauvignon Blanc, non-vintage and only £4.99), this unusual blend actually works very well. The fairly hefty dollop of Sauvignon just lifts the stone-fruit character of the Grillo to a higher level. Fresh acidity finishes the blend off nicely. Surprising. 15
Dom Wachau, Grüner Veltliner 2015 Wachau, Austria £6.99
Lime fruit and fresh acidity adorns the palate, with that hint of white pepper that often characterises Grüner Veltliner. There is also some nice concentration and a little mineral lick on the finish. Pretty good value for a Grüner at this price level. GV 15.5
Lachetau, Crémant de Loire NV Loire France £7.99
Not, as you might expect, a Chenin Blanc sparkler but a really well-chosen, interesting and rather delicious 100% Cabernet Franc creation. With a fleshy, red-apple fruit character on the palate this is a very smart buy which looks as well as tastes more expensive than it is. VGV 16
Vitis Projekt, Lot 18 Pinot Blanc 2015 Baden, Germany £9.99
This is quite a surprising wine, partly as it rather breaks the Aldi mould of fairly obvious wine choices at ultra-competitive prices. This is a blend of 91% Pinot Blanc, beefed up (in a very good way) with 9% Pinot Gris. Pinot Blanc can often be pretty neutral and dull but this wine has a complex, smoky, stone fruit and plush palate, with some hints of smoked bacon on the finish. Aged for six months in oak, the wine is finished off with lingering acidity. Well worth a try. 16
Paul Mas, Lot 22 2015 Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac, France £9.99
Another success in the ‘Lot’ range, this is a blend of 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache. Smoky, ripe, soft and fleshy this is well worth the asking price for an interesting and complex Languedoc red. 16
Ch Fauzan, Lot 23 2015 Minervois-La-Livinière, France £9.99
A small estate with ten hectares in the north east of Minervois-La-Livinière. This Syrah-dominated blend (60%) also contains 30% Grenache and 10% of Carignan and is full of red and black fruits, with very good concentration, careful use of oak and a mineral, liquorice finish. GV 16
Lachetaeu, Pardon my French 2015 Minervois, France £4.99
One of the less successful wines in the slightly contrived Pardon my French range of ‘French discoveries’. Although this has quite a bit of weight, it is rather coarse on the palate, with hard tannins, and it tastes a little green and underripe. With this texture it should be on sale for £3.99. 13.5
BVC Bodegas Toro, Local Bobal/Merlot 2015 Utiel-Requena, Spain £4.79
Today, some of top values for wine come from Spain, both for red and white wines. Despite the £4.79 price point, this isn’t one of those examples. A Bobal/Merlot blend doesn’t promise much, correctly. Soft, flabby, full of very ripe dark fruits and too sweet on the finish. 14
Fratelli Martini, Exquisite Collection Gavi 2016 Piedmont, Italy £5.49
Cortese can be one of Italy’s severely underrated white grape varieties, but this is a bit of a disappointment. The wine is just about fresh enough but has no real character or lift and is, sadly, a bit dull. There are much better examples of Gavi out there. 13.5
Taylors, Exquisite Collection Chardonnay 2016 Limestone Coast, Australia £5.79
Another rather lacklustre bottling in the optimistically named ‘Exquisite Collection' range. Although there is nothing wrong with this very mainstream Australian Chardonnay, it is rather innocuous and functions purely as an alcoholic beverage rather than as a crafted wine. 14.5
KWV, Earth’s Essence No Added Sulphur Shiraz 2016 Swartland, South Africa £6.99
Oh if only some sulphur had been added here! Despite the credentials (Swartland and the mighty KWV) and the interesting use of rooibos and honeybush wood, the spicy and dense palate is dominated by a hefty dose of what appears to be furniture polish, with an aroma and aftertaste which reminds one of a visit to an industrial dockside. 13.5
Veuve Monsigny NV Champagne France £9.99
A ‘classic’ blend of 33% each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this is a great advert for the proposition that consumers should explore sparkling wines from other areas (eg the Crémant de Loire above) and shun poor champagne. This is a very oxidative style which claims to have had five years on the lees. Sadly, although this has added to some yeasty notes on the palate, the wine is simply not very fresh and lacks class. Not even worth the asking price of £9.99. 14
LIDL (The background information here is unfortunately limited by the supplier information provided)
Corte Allodola, Terre di Vulcano 2015 Soave Classico, Veneto, Italy £6.99
A very smart example of Classico Soave from volcanic terroir, this sports a long mineral thread on the palate which marries very well with crisp and concentrated citrus fruit notes. Lovely purity and good concentration are evident here. 16
Vigneto del Sole, Bianco 2015 Veneto, Italy £6.99
A surprising blend of Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave (Verdicchio) which works very well. Although the wine comes in an overly-hefty bottle and sports a very attractive label, this is absolutely not a trial of style over substance. With lots of depth in the glass (both colour and concentration), ripe (almost tropical) fruit profile, this has the acidity to make the blend work. Tastes as though it should be at least twice this price. VGV 16
Condes de Albarei, Barrica 2015 Rias Baixas, Spain £7.99
One associates this part of Spain with squeaky clean, mineral and salt-driven wines made from the Albariño grape. So it was with some trepidation that I tasted this oaked version. The wine actually has a lovely vibrancy, great concentration and an intense, zesty, finish. Perhaps it would be even better with a tad less oak but this is certainly an interesting direction to take. GV 16
Cascina Valentino, Arneis 2015 Roero, Piedmont, Italy £8.99
Roero Arneis is rarely cheap and often under-delivers. This wine, happily, is not in that category. The bottle sports a very attractive Japanese-influenced label and this 2015 vintage has great acidity and freshness allied to a delicate, floral and persistent palate. GV 16.5
Louis Dupleix, 2015 Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Blanc, Burgundy, France £9.99
Produced by a proprietaire-récoltant, this is a very decent price for one of the better examples of Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. An attractive green-gold in the glass is matched with freshness and persistence on the palate. Not the most complex white burgundy but much better than many sub-£10 offerings from this region. GV 16
Ch Soleil, Promesse 2013 Puisseguin-St-Émilion, Bordeaux France £9.99
From the Stephan von Neipperg/Canon La Gaffelière stable, this is a pretty classic example of St-Émilion and, despite being from the lacklustre 2013 vintage and a satellite appellation, is really rather classy. Elegant red/blackberry fruits on the palate from a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this has some nice juicy fruit and good purity to finish. GV 16
Viñas del Vero, Rosado 2016 Somontano, Spain £4.99
There really is no excuse (even at £4.99) for a coarse rosé with harsh, disjointed acidity and overtly reductive characters. Apparently this is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo yet these noble grapes have failed to make any positive impact. 13.5
Compagnie de la Vallée de La Loire 2015 Cabernet d'Anjou, Loire, France £5.99
Personally, I am a bit of a fan of Cabernet Franc and Rosé d’Anjou (I’m not afraid to admit it). When done well, the combination of bright strawberry fruit flavours, low(ish) alcohol and a sweet aftertaste takes some beating. Sadly none of those elements are on show here, with harsh, cooked characters and not enough freshness dominating the palate. 13.5
Masseria Metrano, Primitivo 2014 IGT Salento, Puglia, Italy £7.99
Fairly hefty, jammy fruits dominate the palate and the wine lacks a bit of drive. Clean with red plum fruit character, this is just a little bit warm and lacks some acidity. 14