Emporium might have been a good word in 1847 when a 19-year-old Edwin Henry Booth first opened the doors of his Blackpool shop selling tea and other groceries, and that is really how the shops have remained. Walking into a Booths store is a bit like entering a good quality grocers’ shop. Despite being laid out like a supermarket, there is a lot of local produce in the fruit and veg section and on the meat counter, while on the shelves there is a wide variety of brands, not the usual basic three big names found everywhere else.
For years it has been the same in the wine department. The now chairman, Edwin Booth was the wine buyer for many years “It was really an extension of my training years,” and then other buyers took over, each one carving out an individual range, with a clear emphasis on good value, well made wines from single estates, particularly southern France. The range was eclectic, personal and balanced.
Now there has been a change of buyer and Andy Green has big shoes to fill as he follows his predecessor Sally Holloway who assembled a particularly good range. With 98 new wines about to hit the shelves, it seemed a good time to meet up with the Booths team and taste through some of the bottles.
The whites started with fizz and Booths own-label champagne (£19.59) stood out for clean, well-made citrus fruit with a background of light, yeasty notes. Moving up to Prestige des Sacres Brut NV (£29.99 full price, down to £19.99 on November 7) there was a clear step up in quality with more toast, elegance and length of flavour.
I particularly liked Les Cépages Oubliés Marsanne/Roussanne 2011 (£7.49) from the Languedoc for its herbal notes among the melon and waxy lemon tones. This is a food-friendly wine to be enjoyed with roast chicken, fish and light, creamy vegetarian dishes.
Also good was the Booths Verdejo 2011 (£5.99) for clear, lively, lime-edged fruit and the wine which followed it K-Naia Verdejo 2011 (£8.99) which comes from Rueda and manages more zest, more minerals and a distinct note of fennel on the finish.
Among the more classic choices head for the crisp, minerally Booths Chablis 2011 (£11.99) and the fresh-tasting, honey and lime flavours of Booths Alsace Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2008 (£9.99).
Among the reds there was an interesting flight of Rhônes. The straightforward Booths Côtes du Rhône 2011 is packed with simple, easy-going red, juicy fruit with just a sprinkle of spice. At £5.99 this is good value and it makes a great suppertime wine. Listed at £11.99, a Côtes du Rhône Villages le Sentier Sous Les Oliviers 2009 was definitely deeper and more concentrated with a dusting of tannins but if you wait until November 7 it will go down to half price which brings it to the same price as the regular CdR. On offer the Villages wine is a better buy, but perhaps it is slightly challenged at its full price. If you want to step up in quality head for the Ogier Rasteau Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010 which shows its style in layers of dark berry fruit and a definite kick of spice on the finish. At £9.39 this was comfortable at its full price.
Nudging up the quality ladder again is Châteauneuf-du-Pape Remy Ferbras 2010 at a heart-stopping £23.30, but down to half price from November 7. This is another one to wait for until it reaches its comfort zone.
For sheer value, go for the herb-sprinkled red berry fruit of Domaine Mas Barrau Cabernet Franc 2011 (£6.99) from the Pays du Gard and the deeper, mulberry fruit of Les Cépages Oubliés 2011 which is a blend of Carignan and old vines Grenache. This is a partner wine to the Marsanne/Roussanne white and the two make a good pair to have in stock for mid-week drinking.
Highlights from Spain included a savoury, sturdy Mencía Luna Beberide 2011 from Bierzo (£7.99) and a terrific, intense, well-structured Clos Gebret 2011 from Priorat (£9.99).
Overall this was a tasting with mixed results. There are still some excellent wines in the range and buyer Andy Green has started well in introducing many new Booths own-label wines, but I was disappointed to see Booths indulging in the half-price mechanic beloved of the big supermarkets. Edwin Booth explained, “Our customers expect it, especially the younger ones.” He believes that his wines are worth their full price and declared that Booths do not inflate prices merely to bring them down again. The trouble with regular half price offers is that many customers won’t buy from the wide range of wines on the shelves just in case their choice goes down to half price next week. Good offers promote a particular wine, but half price offers usually have a sting in their tail somewhere along the line.
With regular tastings in many stores, even some involving the food departments so that food and wine can be tasted together there is every reason to pop into Booths when you are close to Ripon, Ilkley and Settle. In time there might be more Yorkshire stores. Booths are hardly in an aggressive expansionist mood but they are looking seriously at Leeds, Northallerton and Durham as potential sites. In a world where retailers are all starting to look the same, Booths is a refreshing alternative.