If it’s Monday, it must be Marks & Sparks, if it’s Tuesday it must be Tesco….Yes, this year’s crop of supermarket and high street press tastings seemed even more bunched together than usual. As night followed day, so Asda followed Aldi and Marks followed Morrisons as their revolving doors welcomed the wine press before spitting us, dazed and confused, back onto the street. On the plus side, this lack of consideration for the wine writer’s schedule, teeth and gums, did at least offer a snapshot of the new Spring / Summer showcases.
To make a general point, there is a squeeze on between the independent wine merchant sector at the quality end and the German discounters Aldi and Lidl at the sharp end. With a 17% rise in sales, Aldi has now nosed ahead of Waitrose to become the sixth biggest supermarket in the UK. Not only is it doing remarkably well, but together with Lidl (with a 12% rise), the duo have squeezed the pips of the traditional Big Four, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, who all lost market share in the first quarter of the year.
The fact that Off-Licence News voted Aldi’s wine buyer Mike James the most influential of 100 people in the wine trade, speaks, as it were, volumes. With the gold medal-winning 2014 Exquisite Collection Private Bin Sauvignon at £7.99 and 2014 Clare Valley Riesling at £6.99 as examples, the consolidation of Aldi’s power (and to an extent Lidl’s) through a good value, albeit basic, selection of wines, has struck terror into the hearts of the Big Four. Lidl didn’t hold a Spring tasting this year but Aldi did, and there was little faulting its no-frills, no-nonsense value for money wine offer, even if the introduction of four new higher-priced (£9.99) Lot-numbered wines was a bit of a damp squib.
The response has been mixed. There were few surprises from Waitrose, the discerning wine shopper’s favourite supermarket. It maintains a good range particularly in fine wine, even if it’s not quite as on top of its game as it was three to five years ago. It scores big on fine wines, fortified and sparkling wines. Its range of Champagnes in magnum is second to none. Also outside the Big Four, Marks & Spencer’s range is one of the better thought out with a genuine attempt, albeit not always successful, at variety and innovation, bringing on board for instance, Jura, Uruguay, Brazil and the eastern Mediterranean. And like Waitrose, Marks has also done much to raise the profile of English wines.
My biggest surprise of the Spring / Summer tastings was the effort that Asda had put into rejuvenating its Extra Special range and making a splash with a new concept it calls Wine Atlas of fairly priced wines with arresting, ‘wish-you-were-here’ postcard-style labels. The Exquisite Collection range has improved and there were some pretty decent finer wines too. Morrisons and Tesco both offered more of the same, refining their core M Signature and finest* ranges. In common with Waitrose, they have clambered aboard the online train to offer smaller batch, more expensive wines, many of which are only available online, but ‘can do better’ still applies to both.
The biggest disappointment was Sainsbury’s, for a slimline showing, suggesting a period of retrenchment and transition. The Co-operative fared a little better but not much, with too few highlights in a decent if uninspiring range. As for Majestic, this is an interesting time because we have yet to see the effects of its surprising merger with Naked Wines. Deals are at the heart of the Majestic offer and with an experienced buying team, some of its ‘buy two save x%’ deals are well worth having.
I know it has a big traditional customer base but I found too many of its Bordeaux and Burgundy showings below par. I also can’t understand why it hasn’t upped the ante on its Champagne selection with a handful of exciting growers’ Champagnes, but who knows, perhaps with Naked’s Rowan Gormley at the helm, positive changes are around the corner.
The Wine Gang
1 June 2015