by Tim Atkin

The big three: feedback from the spring tastings

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, who presented their 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, who held their 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 Morrison’s, Asda and Sainsbury’s have to offer, but on recent form, I can’t see any of them breaking into the top four. And Tesco? Forget it 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 Simon Baile clearly believes that 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. There were very few poor wines on show, 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, an Aglianico, a Californian Mourvèdre and a Tempranillo-based Aussie blend are all classic odd bins. And Oddbins.

Most intriguing of all, the chain showed a selection of “natural” wines, mostly sourced from specialist importer, Les Caves de Pyrène. There may be no precise definition of what constitutes a natural wine — organic or bio-dynamic, 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 that is outside the mainstream.

Majestic wouldn’t take the same risk. I suspect that Majestic’s 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 in a recession.

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

The Gallic line up this time included some excellent wines from the Loire, the Languedoc, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence, the Rhône and especially Beaujolais. The 2009 vintage in this last region is just as exciting as the one in 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 wine buying later this summer, presumably because he is still under contract to Tesco. But his arrival should give fresh impetus to what is already the best and broadest supermarket range.

As ever, Waitrose weren’t interested in picking the highlights of their vast selection. Instead, they 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 wines from smaller wineries. The buying is solid enough, but it’s also too safe. Something for Mr 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 them.

Originally published in Off Licence News