Lord of the aisles

TESCO: Its range may be terrific and its prices fair, but wine buyers should look beyond the supermarket giant, writes Christine Austin.

It is a slightly terrifying thought that Tesco has around 25 per cent of the UK’s wine market. That means that one in every four bottles of wine that is bought and carried home to be slurped with supper has come from a small team of wine buyers in Cheshunt. As well as their 3,000 or so UK stores, Tesco has a very successful mail order wine business which lists most of the mainstream wines plus some exclusive extras. And rather than just sending mailshots to their customers, they engage with them via social media and even do online tastings, reaching hundreds of thousands of potential customers in one hit.

They have created a “Wine Community”, made up of ordinary customers who get involved with the retailer and its wines via social media. Some even get invited to taste alongside journalists at the Press tasting and it was clear from their enthusiasm that this group of drinkers positively value their link with Tesco.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

To be honest, it is what every retailer wishes they could do – buy well, sell widely and stay in touch with customers. But I wonder if I am the only one who finds this somewhat monolithic presence rather daunting?

However, with the prospect of 100-plus wines to taste from their range, I decided that the best way to evaluate Tesco was to see how they rank in the flavour-for-money stakes, so on your behalf I waded into the crowd and here are my thoughts.

Tesco’s Finest range has been growing rapidly, providing a selection of classic well-known names under the Tesco own label as well as some unfamiliar varietals such as Fiano and Teroldego which wouldn’t attract much attention on their own, but with a Tesco Finest endorsement they become a safe choice for adventurous customers. Much of this range is sourced from well-known quality producers who perhaps wouldn’t have enough of their own brand to sell into Tesco but are happy to supply an own-label.

Among the whites, I particularly like Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling 2012 (£9.99) from Western Australia, made at Howard Park Wines by Janice McDonald. This is a young, lively, lemon and lime wine with a distinct minerally streak that hasn’t yet headed down the petrolly route. Perfect with fish, this is a terrific wine for summer drinking. Finest Vermentino 2012 from classy producer Settesoli in Sicily (£6.99) offers clean, dry, almond and herbal notes while Falanghina 2012 from Puglia (£6.99) is delicious with tangy, greengage notes and a long finish. Both these wines make good aperitifs on a sunny evening and will carry through to partner salads, starters and fish.

Among the reds Teroldego 2010 from Trentino Alto Adige in northeast Italy (£7.99) stands out, not just because it is one of the more easily available wines from this fairly unknown grape but also for its simple, soft-hearted cherry and blueberry fruit that goes so well with pasta and chicken. Tesco Finest Touriga Nacional 2011 from the Alentejo, Portugal (£7.99) also offers straightforward, luscious dark plummy fruit with supple tannins and this is one to have ready for a barbecue whenever the sun shines.

Two Finest rosé wines also stood out for flavour. Finest Garnacha Rosé 2012 is packed with juicy summer pudding flavours (£7.99) while Domaine de Sours Rosé 2012 (£7.99) is lighter, more delicate, with clear, precise raspberry fruit and a crisp finish. All we need now is the weather to accompany them.

There are more expensive “Finest” wines such as the excellent Meursault 2011 (£19.99) but I really feel that it is the mid-range varietal wines that give the Tesco Finest the quality edge. Much of this range goes on offer on a regular basis offering a pound or so off the regular price.

Managing to slide under the £5 barrier, the Tesco Simply range offers good value drinking at bargain prices. Try Simply Garnacha 2012 (£4.59) for bright, juicy, strawberry-scented flavours and an astonishingly good, crisp, clean Simply Muscadet for just £4.50. Both are good enough to pour for a garden full of visitors.

The Tesco team was clearly very keen to demonstrate the strength of its mail-order catalogue since a third of all the wines lined up for tasting won’t appear in stores at all but are “wine by the case exclusive”. They include a stylish Chablis from William Fèvre at £90 for a case of six, a seriously good Crystallum Clay Shales 2011 Chardonnay from Peter-Allan Finlayson in South Africa (£138 for six) and the intense ripe red berry fruit and supple tannins of McGuigan Handmade Shiraz 2009 (£150 for six).

Find the whole list on www.tesco.com but be prepared to shop around with other on-line merchants to check prices.

New at this tasting was a small range of 2009 Bordeaux wines from some top-name châteaux. Tesco bought a stack of this excellent vintage and are now selling them on-line in cases of six, compared to most merchants who insist on a 12–bottle case. Fonreaud 2009 Listrac-Médoc (£84 for six) is ripe and ready, although it has enough structure to mature for a few more years. Cantemerle 2009, Haut-Médoc (£180 for six) is soft, silky and perfectly balanced with dark fruits and refreshing acidity while Ch Beychevelle 2009 St Julien (£396 for six) is harmonious and elegant with a long life ahead of it.

Clearly Tesco has a terrific range both in-store and in their mail order operation while their prices are fair and competitive. They also seem to be moving away from half price offers which at least gives more confidence in their pricing structure. But despite all this I really do feel that 25 per cent of the market is enough. By all means go buy the weekly bottle of wine there with the grocery shopping but have a thought for all the other retailers, especially independents. It is good to leave enough space in the market for other retailers who can keep this power-broker of wine on its toes.