The clash of the tastings

14 May, 2010

It was a neat coincidence. As we entered the final week of the Barclays Premiership, with Chelsea and Manchester United competing for the trophy, so the two best high street retailers went head to head in central London. Oddbins’ press tasting on Tuesday was followed by Majestic’s on Friday. The supermarket filling in this appetising retail sandwich was provided by Waitrose, which presented its wines to the Fourth Estate on Wednesday and Thursday. Sensodyne toothpaste time.

The proximity of three such important tastings provided journalists with the opportunity to compare and contrast them. Alongside Marks & Spencer, which held its tasting in March, these are currently three of the four best major wine retailers in the country.

At the time of writing, I haven’t sampled what Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have to offer, but on recent form, I can’t see any of them breaking into the top four. And Tesco? You can forget that right now.

Let’s look at Oddbins first. I won’t comment on the profitability of the chain, or its relationships with some of its suppliers, but managing director Simon Baile clearly believes Oddbins is emerging from the dark tunnel of Castel’s ownership. In terms of the wines on the shelves, this most recent tasting continued the improvements of last year. After a couple of disappointing initial presentations – when to be fair to Oddbins, it was clearing a backlog of stock – it is once again buying some very good wines.

Will Oddbins replicate its glory days under John Ratcliffe and Steve Daniel? It’s not out of the question, although the new team isn’t there yet. But there were a lot of well-chosen core lines and plenty of evidence of a willingness to take risks: a Mosel Trocken, a seven-grape Spanish white blend, a mature Bourgueil, a Tempranillo-based Aussie blend, an Aglianico and a Californian Mourvčdre are all classic odd bins.

Intriguingly, the chain showed a selection of “natural” wines, mostly sourced from specialist importer Les Caves de Pyrene. There may be no precise definition of what constitutes a natural wine – organic or biodynamic, wild yeasts and no or low sulphur are common themes – but it’s an interesting movement that’s gaining momentum in the on-trade. There were some weird flavours on offer, but well done Oddbins for taking a punt on something outside the mainstream.

Majestic wouldn’t take the same risk. I suspect that its customers are more conservative than Oddbins’, which is why you won’t find a cider-like sparkling wine made from Menu Pineau on its shelves.

This remains one of the best-run businesses in the wine trade, partly because it understands its punters so well. Give them what they want, with excellent service and a place to park and they will reward you with good sales figures, even during a recession.

The wine warehouse chain’s recent tasting was well up to its usual standards. This remains the selection against which other retailers should judge themselves: well chosen lines, attractive price points, built on a solid foundation of French wines. Majestic has improved its Italian and Spanish ranges, as well as its New World picks, but it’s France it does best.

The Gallic line-up this time included some excellent wines from the Loire, the Languedoc, the Rhône, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence and especially Beaujolais. The 2009 vintage in this last region is just as exciting as Bordeaux, and the wines are likely to be a hell of a lot cheaper. Could this see a revival of Gamay’s fortunes? It’s overdue in my view.

And what about Waitrose? There was no sign of Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, who will take over as head of BWS later this summer and is still under contract to Tesco. But his arrival should give fresh impetus to what is already the best and broadest supermarket range.

Instead of picking the highlights,

Waitrose put on 292 wines, beers and spirits, challenging the palates and livers of the assembled hacks. This is commendably honest, if a little challenging for tasters. If it chose its best 120 wines it would appear in an even better light.

Waitrose and Majestic are similar in many respects and probably share some of the same customers. Waitrose, too, is at its best in the Old World, particularly France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with a smattering of good wines from Germany and Austria. It also had a line-up of outstanding 2009 Beaujolais.

Where both companies could do better is in the New World. There’s a tendency to rely on big brands – a source of promotional money perhaps? – rather than search out more unusual, smaller wineries. The buying is solid enough, but it’s also too safe. Something for Petrassi to address perhaps.

But this is a caveat. At a time when the four largest supermarkets have consolidated their ranges and appear to be risk averse, Waitrose celebrates the diversity of wine. As with Oddbins and Majestic, we are lucky to have it.

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