by Tim Atkin

Majestic’s six bottle switch

Economic necessity or swift-footed tactical shimmy? Majestic’s decision to reduce its minimum in-store purchase from 12 to six bottles – as predicted here on 2 August – is arguably both things. It’s no secret that, by its own standards, Majestic has under-performed this year, mainly due to flat Champagne sales and the poor performance of its three cross-Channel stores. But this is also an attempt to steal some of Oddbins’ and Wine Rack’s customers.

The high street is becoming more competitive by the week. Was it a coincidence that Oddbins announced a two-week “welcome back” promotion of 20% off six bottles, including Champagne, at the end of August, a deal you can still take advantage of for the next 24 hours? Somehow I doubt it.

To be honest, Majestic’s move isn’t that surprising. It had been experimenting with the six-bottle format in selected stores for more than a year and found that it attracted new punters, many of them on foot as opposed to behind the wheel of a Range Rover. If you’re a body builder you might be able to shoulder a case back home, but for the rest of us six bottles will be a whole lot easier to carry. Incidentally, you can still have your wine delivered free by one of the company’s youthful, well-informed employees, but only if you purchase 12 bottles.

This marks a major shift in the way Majestic sells wine. Since the business was created in 1981, giving hope to estate agents and the owners of disused abattoirs, empty garages and run-down cinemas, it has always sold by the case. And sold very successfully, too. Its average transaction is, or rather was, £135 per well-heeled punter.

It remains to be seen whether new, six- bottle customers will arrive in sufficient numbers to make the revised economics work. But for the casual wine drinker, especially those without cars, the initiative is a boon.

I’m delighted that a wider cross-section of the public will have access to Majestic’s range, because it remains the best on the high street. Majestic won the high street chain of the year award last week at both the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards’ dinners; it has become almost as invincible as Oddbins once was.

So, what should you buy? The first thing to remember is to purchase at least two bottles of what’s on offer, as this can save you as much as £4 on table wines and £20 or more on selected Champagnes. Unlike at Wine Rack, where the single bottle price is often ludicrously inflated to encourage three for two sales, Majestic’s headline prices are reasonable to start with, but the difference is still significant.

Majestic’s customers are Francophile in the main. Not surprisingly, its line-up of French wines, especially from the Loire, Burgundy, the Rhône and the Languedoc, is good. The juicy, aromatic, smoky, Syrah-based 2007 Delas Côtes du Rhône Saint-Esprit (£6.99 each for two, 13.5%) is a case in point and brilliant as an early autumn quaffer. But Majestic also sources well from other countries, namely Italy, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Spain.

Three wines that I’ve added to my wine rack in the past month are the nettley, elderfloral 2008 Flagstone Free Run Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape (£3.97 each until 28 September, 13.5%), the limey, oily, bone-dry 2008 Paulett’s Polish Hill River Riesling, Clare Valley (£8.99 each for two, 12.5%) and from Argentina the spicy, elegant, fine-grained 2007 Amalaya de Colomé Malbec, Salta (£6.99 each for two, 14.5%). Two bottles of each will cost you £39.90, equivalent to £6.65 a pop. A very good reason to take a stroll down the high street.

Tim has just been named Wine Columnist of the Year for his Observer column, in the 2009 Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards

Originally published in The Observer