Clash of the titans

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Sainsbury vs Asda: How do these two supermarket giants measure up? Christine Austin puts their latest ranges to the test.

With 150 wines lined up at the Sainsbury tasting and another 150 or so at Asda just a couple of days later, it was natural to compare these two supermarket giants. Together they represent around 35 per cent of the UK grocery market and while they may have different customer profiles, depending on where their major stores are located, there is a considerable amount of switching going on in the hunt for good value. So if you haven’t shopped at Sainsbury or at Asda for a while, here is what you should look out for.

Asda

This was the good tasting of the pair. To be honest, in recent years the Asda range hasn’t been terribly exciting. Mainly hitting the lower price points with a fairly boring range, and with an irritating habit of not being able to predict when or by how much their offers will last, they have become the poor relation in this column, gathering a few comments but lacking my full endorsement. Despite wishing this Yorkshire-based company as much good will as possible I have not been able to mention them as often as I would have liked to. But maybe things are changing. At their tasting I found one wine after another hitting the mark for flavour and value. I left the tasting reflecting that Wine Selection Manager Philippa Carr has done a good job in creating a coherent, balanced quality range where the average shopper can pick up a bottle of wine and have a decent chance of getting something good.

Like most supermarkets Asda has its range of own-label wines and as this has developed they have added new layers, each one hitting a target price range although there is some overlap depending on the region the wine comes from. The Wine Selection was introduced around six months ago and it has now bedded in providing some great value wines even in that challenging sub-£5 area. What is even better is that there is clear water between The Wine Selection and the next tier up Extra Special. For example The Wine Selection Chardonnay 2012 from the Languedoc Roussillon area of France has simple melon and citrus fruit but is perfectly well balanced and well made for £4.50. Trade up to Extra Special Chardonnay 2012, also from the Languedoc Roussillon and you get delicious light peachy notes with zesty lime and a long finish. It costs another £2.50 but clearly distinguishes a Tuesday night wine from a Friday night. There is the same kind of effect with The Wine Selection Côtes du Rhône which for £4 a bottle is cracking value with ripe, easy, gluggable fruit. This is drinkable from Monday through to Thursday, but switch to Extra Special Côtes du Rhône Villages (£6.75) for weekend drinking to appreciate greater depth of flavour and a touch of spice on the fruit.

From The Wine Selection range I particularly liked Marsanne 2012 (£4.50) for its peach and honeysuckle notes; New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (£6.25) for its clean, zesty tropical fruit; Beaujolais 2011 (£5.50) for its fresh, juicy cherry flavours and Marques del Norte Rioja Joven 2012(£5) for its clear Rioja character with bright, raspberry-edged fruit and easy style.

The Extra Special range has enough lift in quality that makes you appreciate that your extra money has been well spent. In particular look for Extra Special Fiano 2012 (£7) from Sicily which shows clear tropical fruit with a soft, food-friendly texture; the nutty, elegant style of Extra Special Falanghina 2012 (£7) is well worth its price while Extra Special McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009 (£10.25) might push the budget but it’s clear red berry fruit and soft, ripe tannins make it a perfect Saturday night experience.

Asda has also pushed back some of the boundaries in terms of range now listing a dark and chewy Paul de Albas Ribera del Duero 2012 (£8.25) and a terrific, intense yet balanced Noster Nobilis Priorat 2009 (£8.75).

It is really good to see this kind of progress at Asda.

Sainsbury

Over at the Sainsbury tasting I developed a kind of malaise that comes from tasting one wine after another that simply misses the mark. The biggest problem was with their Winemaker’s Selection which, like Asda’s new range was also launched last October and has since been revamped with new but surprisingly retro-looking labels. From the Orvieto Classico 2012 (£4.99), the Pinot Grigio Chardonnay 2012, Californian Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (£5.99) and Merlot 2012 (£5.99) there was just not enough flavour or definition. There were some wines in their Winemakers’ Selection which lifted me briefly out of my malaise such as the zippy fresh flavours of Côtes de Gascogne 2012 (£5.99), the gentle, rounded fruit in Falanghina del Beneventano 2012 (£6.99) and the bold, spicy notes in Nero d’Avola 2012 (£5.99) but essentially this range didn’t seem to be quite ready for market. The bright star was their Taste the Difference range which has consistently delivered quality drinking from around the world for several years.

When I need to demonstrate the right balance of floral fruit and frothy elegance in a Prosecco I often choose the Sainsbury Taste the Difference Conigliano Prosecco Superiore (£9.99) which inevitably gets approval from my audience. There are many other wines in this range which hit the mark for flavour for money such as the green-edged, minerally citrusy, crunchy Taste the Difference Pouilly Fumé 2012 (£11.49) and the flavour-packed, raspberry-charged Taste the Difference McLaren Vale Grenache 2010 (£10.49). New in this range is a delicious melon and peachy, minerally Taste The Difference Greco di Tufo 2012 (£10.49) which shows that this range is expanding and still finding good wines.

These are wines anyone would be pleased to put on their table any night of the week, although the prices are more suitable for Friday and Saturday nights.