Difference a year makes

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While Tesco struggles with its a drop in profits and embarks on a programme to enhance its customers’ shopping experience, our own Yorkshire-based Morrisons managed an eight per cent rise in profits, apparently by attracting a whole lot more customers.

Tesco is in another league when it comes to size – 2,700 stores against Morrisons’ 468 – perhaps the smaller northern chain has managed to provide a point of difference for us all in these cash-strapped times.

I last tasted through the Morrisons wine range a year ago. To be honest, it wasn’t terribly good. There were far too many same-tasting wines and there seemed to be an emphasis on half-price offers which really didn’t really provide flavour for money, even on offer. So it was with a feeling of trepidation that I accepted an invitation from their wine development manager, Arabella Woodrow, Master of Wine, to visit their flagship Kirkstall store and taste through a chunk of the range again.

First of all, there was the tour of the store, which was surprisingly good and innovative with exotic veg arranged on ice, upmarket deli offerings and a whole host of freshly prepared foods as well as the usual Morrisons’ butcher, baker and fishmonger.

The wine department had a fresh look too with wide aisles, new shelving and the wines arranged by style rather than by country. Best of all there was a wine department manager who had been on a wine course and who now runs tastings and offers advice to customers in-store. It was particularly good that there was a complete lack of the usual dump bins which can make some stores look like jumble sales. Clean, uncluttered and well-signposted, this was a wine department one could spend some time browsing in.

So far so good – but what of the tastes inside the bottles? “We have been working on the range in the past year, particularly our own label wines,” said Arabella, and that was clear as soon as the bottles were opened. There was a terrific, clean, crisp L’Auberge Sauvignon Blanc 2010 from Mellot in the Loire (£7.99), a more zesty, tropical fruit style Alto Vuelo Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (£6.99) from Chile (£6.99) and bright, gooseberry and citrus flavours in Morrisons Best New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (£7.94).

Morrisons own brand of California Chardonnay Viognier 2010 (£5.99) has soft peachy, apricot flavours with enough freshness to accompany a chicken salad or a pork chop with apple sauce while Columbine Reserve Chardonnay 2010 from Chile’s Casablanca Valley (£9.99) is well-made, with peach-edged fruit, backed by crisp, food-friendly acidity and a long, almost nutty finish.

With a crunchy, minerally, Premier Cru Chablis Vaillons 2009 (£14.99), an elegant, balanced, oak-seasoned New Zealand The Prospect Chardonnay 2010 (£12.99) and a simply fabulous Petra Unger Grüner Veltliner 2010 from Austria (£15.99), it is clear that there are plenty of good white wines in the range. Among the reds the soft, easy, juicy Portuguese Red is well worth a try at its bargain price of £3.99. I particularly enjoyed Corbières Castelmaure 2009 (£6.99) for its good concentrated fruit, a touch of black olives and herbs with light, easy tannins.

Ogier Heritage Côtes du Rhône 2010 is packed with positive, plummy fruit while Ch la Cardonne is a classy claret, normally priced at £18.99 but much more comfortable when it goes on offer at around £12. From Chile it was good to see the elegant and well-structured Trio Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (£8.99) from one of my favourite winemakers, Marcello Papa at Concha y Toro, while Serie Riberas Syrah 2009 (£11.99) is a serious, concentrated plum and pepper-dusted wine that won’t look out of place alongside a good rump steak or game casserole.

There were a few tank samples and unlabelled bottles in the line-up, demonstrating “work in progress” in the range, most of them sourced from Spain. A zesty, citrus-charged Rueda 2011 should be well worth seeking out when it arrives on the shelves at around £6.99 while an Albariño 2011 at £7.99 will offer good floral and peachy notes when it is bottled. Both wines will appear under the Morrisons Best label.

Other work in progress wines are a dark, chunky, Old Vines red from Spain at around £6.99 and a rather good Priorat 2009 which will offer fantastic value if its final price is close to the indicated £7.99.

One of my main grumbles at the previous tasting was that there were too many “trade driver” wines which seemed to offer rather poor value at their normal price, but were frequently on offer. These still exist, but according to Arabella, regular customers recognise the frequently promoted brands and only buy them while on offer.

“Most of our customers know that certain wines come down substantially on a regular basis, so although they do drive better sales, they become less effective over time,” said Arabella.

“Not everything goes on offer, but when it does we think that our customers recognise the real bargains.”

So the rule is keep an eye out for wines that regularly go up and down in price and remember that these are on the shelves to attract the “deal junkies” who have just 10 seconds to select a bottle before dashing off again.

Anyone who has a bit more time should explore further down the aisles for a more extensive, developing range and it is worth asking for advice. Every wine department manager has been on a recognised wine course and regularly attends food and wine matching events run in store to develop their enthusiasm and knowledge. In itself this is a great initiative and is one that many supermarkets have ceased to do, so I hope that Morrisons continue to add this to their point of difference.

Overall this was a good visit to Morrisons and one that showed there was definite progress taking place. I tasted these wines a couple of weeks ago, pre-budget and so new price increases will be gradually working their way through to stores. Indicated prices may vary by up to 25p as extra tax and currency fluctuations are included.