I’ve heard people say options for buying wine vary significantly between the U.S. and Europe, and from my excursions on U.S. dominated internet forums it is clear that inter-State shipping laws are, at best, chaotic and, at worst, woefully restrictive in what is meant to be a beacon of Democracy, freedom of choice and “free market” economics. My experience of buying wine in Europe is incomplete, and rather than generalize on the few countries I have picked up vino from, this post is on something I have significantly more familiarity with – buying a bottle in mainland U.K.
For the majority of the general public, myself included, the bulk of wine purchases are going to be obtained from the local Supermarket. While this may sound strange for some readers all Brits accept that the big Supermarkets are massive one-stop retail centers – along with the weekly groceries they offer (some say impose) clothes, electrical goods, medicines and entertainment media (books, games, DVDs etc.). In their quest for retail domination wine is no exception, and each of the key players caters for a range of palates and budgets.
Out in front are ASDA, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco. These are the big players, literally – some of the Hypermarkets cover as much as 125,000 sq ft and most big towns have one, or more, within easy driving distance. With smaller stores, or less National coverage come Somerfield, Waitrose, the COOP and Marks & Spencer (Wikipedia has a good entry for the full background of UK stores). Whilst each offers something slightly different from the others, to some extent complementing the type of people who typically shop there, as befits my maverick nature I have no favourites and rotate my weekly shopping between most of the above, not least because I always want to check out if there are any new interesting wines on the shelves since I was last in!!
ASDA, the U.K. arm of Wal-Mart, has a reputation for value and low prices and this theme continues into their wine list, which I rate poorly compared to the other big players – there isn’t even a dedicated wine section on their web-site as I type this. Typically the shelves are stocked with big brand favourites in the £3 – £6 range ($6 – $12), the Gallo’s & Hardy’s of the world offerings, and, for the last year or so, I’ve struggled to pick out anything unusual or interesting on my excursions. At the Decanter 2007 world wine awards ASDA representatives only managed 4 Silver and 4 Bronze medals, the lowest of the main supermarkets represented.
However, there are signs of change on the horizon. The resident Master of Wine, Philippa Carr, has been with the store since November 2005 (something of a record at ASDA) and has recently introduced “Mini-tasters”, 25cl versions of a selection of ASDA wines costing between £1 and £2. See Tim Atkin’s story on this. I’ve already had the own-label “Extra Special” Primitivo di Puglia (very good), the Claret and the Cotes du Rhone Villages (both so-so) and have their Medoc ready to try. They even include the Casillero del Diablo 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva in the range.
ASDA “Extra Special” brings us onto another British Supermarket peculiarity – the own-label ranges. Each of the main chains has one, wine produced specially for the store by local producers (often big-labels in their own right, sometimes boutique producers with a reputation for quality) which typically offers a classic introduction to the style or varietal at an affordable price. Tesco does their “Finest”, Sainsbury’s has “Taste the Difference”, Waitrose has “Waitrose” (simple and to the point!) while all of Marks and Spencer’s wine range is effectively own label.
Sainsbury’s used to be U.K. market-leader but first Tesco, and then ASDA have pushed them into 3rd place. They promote themselves a little more towards the quality end of general grocery shopping, and have become well known for the use of popular TV Chef Jamie Oliver as their public face. As well as their in-store ranges they have an online Wine service and the quality is generally good – earning them 3 Decanter International Trophies, 6 Gold, 28 Silvers and 59 Bronze medals. Their “Taste the Difference” range is good and includes 2 of the 3 trophy winners (an Alsace Gewürztraminer and 12 year old Oloroso Sherry). I can heartily recommend the (Lustau) Oloroso and the (Cave de Turckheim) Gewürz is in the cellar ready to try!
Tesco is the behemoth of U.K. Supermarkets ( 3rd globally behind Wal-Mart and France’s Carrefour) and is fast gaining a reputation for uncompromising corporate mentality and empire building – upsetting large numbers of the public and critics alike in their rise to the top. Their large wine selection is mostly bulk labels sold at low prices, and not all reviews are complementary, but an expanding quality section and a “Finest” range including some great old world classics contributed to Decanter awards matching Sainsbury’s impressive haul, with 2 Trophies, 4 Gold, 25 Silver and 66 Bronze. Tesco bought wine makes up 12% of my current wine collection, in both the “everyday drinking” group (such as their “Finest” 2005 Nero d’Avola from Sicilia) and the long-term storage (with 3 of Tim Adam’s respected range).
Morrisons, who recently acquired Safeway, is strong in the North of England and Scotland, but has not yet got a defining reputation for wine. Decanter awards came in at 2 Silver and 9 Bronze. Since I only infrequently visit Morrisons I can’t give a fair review on this one, so on that note we’ll end this Chapter on the big boys.
Coming up in future posts will be the smaller level Supermarkets and the speciality wine retailers to complete your education on the UK wine buying scene.
Originally published on 2nd February 2008 on Reign of Terroir.