Wine buying in the U.K. (Chapter 3 – Specialist retailers)

We’ve previously covered Supermarkets where wine is sold along with the weekly Grocery shop. This section covers the dedicated wine stores and on-line retailers whose livelihood is predominantly wine and spirits.

OddbinsOddbins has been around since the early ‘60s and is part of the French Castel group, who also own the Nicolas chain. They have over 100 outlets across the UK and I occasionally browse their Newcastle city centre store in search of something interesting, an unusual area or variety. Typically single bottle purchases can be more expensive than equivalents in the Supermarkets, but sometimes there are good deals to be had and you don’t have to wade through the hordes of cheap labels that you find in Tesco or Asda. Decanter gave them 4 Gold, 31 Silver and 49 Bronze.

ThreshersThe Thresher group has over 2000 stores around the U.K. including the The Local, Wine Rack and Haddows (in Scotland), although many of these are small town “bottle shops” rather than purveyors of fine-wine. For the last few years the group has had a permanent 3 for 2 promotion; buy any 3 bottles of wine or Champagne and get the cheapest free so, while single bottle prices are higher than most competitors, the promotion means some excellent bargains can be had and my visits to a nearby Wine Rack usually result in leaving with 3 or 6 of the more expensive bottles. Decanter awarded 1 Gold, 12 Silver and 29 Bronze last year.

Majestic logoMajestic is Britain’s by-the-case retailer, minimum purchase is a case (mixed or otherwise) of 12 bottles whether on-line or in their local warehouses. Unfortunately, while I appreciate this can let them offer good prices and an expansive range of wines, I am not at the stage where I wish to buy so much wine in one go (I prefer the chance encounter, the single impulse buy, which I am less likely to do if I’ve just stocked up on a case from Majestic, good or otherwise). So until my habits change I have to be neutral and move on, but their impressive Decanter list may give some idea on their quality, with 2 Trophies, 9 Gold, 38 Silver and 58 Bronze.

Like the Supermarkets all of the above offer a street presence plus an on-line store with delivery (Majestic offer free shipping on their cases). Some of the other key players in the U.K. are on-line only.

Wine SocietyThe Wine Society was founded in 1874 and is well regarded in fine-wine circles. For a single lifetime membership £40 you become a shareholder in this member orientated “club”, gaining access to little known boutique wineries, special bottlings and a wine list chosen with quality and a fair price in mind. The wine tasting group I go to regularly has Wine Society purchases on the table and they do tend to be something above the usual Supermarket offerings, and this shows in their Decanter WWA haul of 3 Trophies, 2 Gold, 12 Silver and 18 Bronze.

LaithwaitesLaithwaites is one of the larger internet Wine-Clubs and won Decanter magazine’s Independent Wine Merchant of the Year for 2007. Their WWA medals were modest, at 1 Silver and 12 Bronze, but they have a good reputation for service and consistency.

For the same reason that I avoid Majestic, I have no real experience of Laithwaites nor any of the other key Wine Clubs, such as Virgin Wine, The Sunday Times Wine Club etc. There was a fresh new kid on the block last year with Vinappris; internet and cable TV wine shopping. Selling wine on TV, with some interesting offers interspersed with live tastings and snips from the producers, caught my attention (I purchased some Swiss wines after watching one of the shows) but unfortunately the channel and web-site seem to have closed down and, while I hope it is a temporary measure, one feels that the financial demands a TV shopping channel may have claimed another victim.

I’m going to close this topic with a mention of local wine stores, the single independent shops, or one-off specialist that you are lucky enough to live near and benefit from. Living in the North-East of England there are 2 I have to recount – but each of you will have a similar story to tell.

Spanish SpiritFirst is Spanish Spirit, run by a friend of mine, Oliver Ojikutu. This should actually fall into the on-line category, as you can order Oliver’s wines for delivery anywhere in mainland U.K. through his web-site, but I am particularly fortunate of being practically neighbours to his wine warehouse which is open to the public for single-bottle purchases (he also organise good tasting sessions!). Spanish Spirit specialises in wines from Rueda and Ribera del Duero, plus a few of the other regions of central and north-western Spain and includes the excellent Tamaral, Montecastro, Torres de Anguix and Javier Sanz Bodegas. Thanks to this I have become a fan of the luscious Rueda Verdejo’s and rich Ribera del Dueros that show what Spain has to offer over and above the Rioja everyone knows.

FenwickFinally is Fenwick, which is one of the few surviving U.K. department stores (think Macy’s or Harrod’s). In Newcastle the Fenwick store has an excellent, quality orientated, little wine shop on the ground floor which has a delightful, if small and slightly expensive, selection of wine. I first noticed them by chance during a wine-tasting when 2 of the top 5 wines I tried that night were from their table, including a Julia’s Vineyard 2004 Pinot Noir from California and the stunning Cave de Turckheim 2003 Grand Cru Pinot Gris. Since then I’ve managed to find an elusive 1999 Château Musar (we’re already onto the 2000 elsewhere) and a low-production Cascina Fonda S. Nicolao 1999 Barbera d’Asti which guarantees I’ll be back, although for the sake of my bank balance maybe not too regularly!

Britain may not be the cheapest place to buy wine, but we are blessed with easy access to all the global producers. If you don’t live in the U.K. a lot of the specific wines discussed may still be accessible and the Decanter WWA links typically show U.S. as well as U.K. stocklists for the award winners.

Originally published on 9th February 2008 on Reign of Terroir.

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