Wine buying in the U.K. (Chapter 2 – Other Supermarkets)

As discussed previously Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons are the big 4 in U.K. Supermarkets, and offer a good wine selection, but for some of the better wine ranges (in terms of variety and quality) then you need to look a little further down the pecking order.

SomerfieldSomerfield is (was) the 5th largest chain in Britain, but is not strong in the area I live and, while I read good things about its wine choices, I have no direct experience. Keeping to the Decanter 2007 World Wine Awards as a benchmark they were awarded 4 Silver and 7 Bronze.

COOPThe Co-operative Group (COOP) is a long-standing survivor of British store history. Their coverage is nationwide but their stores tend to be smaller and they concentrate on staple products as opposed to luxury items. The wine range is diverse though, and often includes some well known producers and some undiscovered gems. My current holdings include a Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt 2004 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett, a Louis Bernard 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Papes and a Château Roumieu 2005 Sauternes, each bought for about £7.50 ($15). Of the 18 COOP wines I’ve had over the last couple of years (all between £4 and £7) I’ve rated all in the mid-high 80s, which sums up their products – reliable, if a little boring, with the occasional good bargain. Their Decanter standing this time round was a modest 4 Silver and 9 Bronze. For me the COOP is probably over-represented compared to where it’s wines slot into overall quality and price because, of all the Supermarkets discussed above, this is the only one which has a store in my home-town, while each of the others is a 30 minutes drive in one of several directions. This means I am usually in the store three or four times a month and more subject to those impulsive buys as I walk past the wine shelves!

The next 2 stores have a best reputation for Quality food and drink products. Neither of these stock bulk or budget labels in anything they do, they focus on the best brands, luxury goods, the freshest produce and local, organic or sustainable productions – the same is true of their wine ranges, both of which I am happy to return to again and again. However be warned, neither make apologies for their prices – here you pay for what you get and real bargains are few & far between!

WaitroseWaitrose possess one of the smaller wine selections, but lack of quantity is more than made up for by unsurpassed quality – which is what they have nurtured as their general corporate ethic. As far as I am concerned this is the only retailer in the U.K. I would happily go into and choose a random bottle of wine off the shelves without worrying about whether it’s going to be good or not. An eclectic international choice also adds to their draw, including wines from Georgia, Moldova , Greek Assyrtyko from Santorini, Chateau Musar from Lebanon, a good British selection etc. This may explain why, with a much smaller choice, their Decanter awards better both Tesco and Sainsbury’s, netting 5 Trophies, 9 Gold, 28 Silver and 59 Bronze medals.

M&SMarks & Spencer is a British institution dating back to 1884, most famous for their clothing business, but in the last few years it’s food and wine sections have become synonymous with luxury. All of their wine is own-label, blended exclusively for them by local producers (Their Corte Ibla Single estate Nero d’Avola is delicious, but it’s not just small operators; dig deep and you’ll find their Twin Wells Hunter Valley Chardonnay is actually from the Tyrrells stable). Their Decanter haul this year initially seems lacking, with 1 Gold, 7 Silver and 34 Bronze, but when you realise that nearly every wine they entered won an award it shows that, like Waitrose, they concentrate on quality first.

To finish off the Supermarket sector we’ll visit the bulk-buy stores, which for most Brits means Costco or Makro. I’m happy to be within driving distance, and lucky that my partner Sarah is a member, of both.

MakroMakro is a European store that had a brief fling in North America. Unlike Costco, where atypical U.S. brands are much in evidence, Makro concentrates on the same labels you see in all Supermarkets, just in larger volumes and lower prices. It’s wine selection is unusual, a mix of well known producers (such as Tyrrell’s excellent Chardonnay and Pinot-Noir), a good mix of classic European types (I was tempted by an Aglianico del Vulture on my last trip, but as I’d already picked up a 1993 Tokaji Asu 6-Puttonyos I had to walk on by!) and some famous cult wines – the multiple Penfold’s Grange gathering dust in a side bin makes me wish for some special “clearance sale” that never seems to come!

CostcoCostco should need no introduction for readers in the U.S. except you may have not realised it is also popular in the U.K. as well. As well as having a large choice of “box” wine and 6-packs in the £2-4 per bottle range (Sutter Home White Zinfandel anyone?) they have an excellent by the bottle choice from all the main wine countries and classic regions.

Their Domaine De Torraccia 2001 (Corsica) is the oldest (purchased, as opposed to Vintage) wine in my cellar and the last bottle I opened from Costco was the Turkey Flat Vineyards 2006 Barossa Rosé which was well reviewed by Gary Vaynerchuk on WLTV last month. I was just in there last week and picked up a Kirkland Signature 2005 Columbia Valley Syrah and a Didier Pabiot 2006 Pouilly Fumé, although I was sorely tempted by some seriously bottle-aged Châteauneuf-du-Papes (1992 and 1995 Vintages) for £20 and may go back for some once I’ve done some background research.

OK, that’s enough for now, we’ve covered the Supermarkets in the last 2 Chapters, next time we’ll focus on the dedicated wine retailers, specialised or local wine stores and a few internet only options.

Originally published on 6th February 2008 on Reign of Terroir.

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