Should you worry about supermarkets?

ArticlesFeatured ArticleJust Williams

Imagine that you had a friend who would taste all the most significant wines from the multiple grocers’ autumn line-ups and then feed back an honest assessment of their quality. Well, you have, and his name is David Williams

 

We do the X so you don’t have to” is a surprisingly resilient bit of marketing boilerplate. In the last few days alone I’ve spotted it on the vans of a local plumbing firm (“dirty work”), an estate agent’s mailout (“leg work”) and a Stonewall initiative for improving conditions for LBGT+ people in the work place (“hard work”).

And so, in the spirit of another deathless cliché, if it ain’t broke, I’m happy to say that I too have done my bit of labour-saving labour. Over the past couple of months I’ve tasted my way through hundreds of supermarket wines to prepare the latest in my occasional series of reports on the state of play in the multiple grocers for Wine Merchant readers – and all so you don’t have to.

These pandemic years have of course been boom times for supermarket wine (and other booze) departments, just as they have for many in the independent sector. Last year saw double-digit growth in BWS sales across the grocers, although a dip of 6% for the sector in August (according to Nielsen) suggests things might be moving back towards pre-Covid levels as customers return to the on-trade.

What was most interesting to me, however – as I returned to large-scale supermarket tastings after a more or less two-year hiatus in which my impression of the multiples was largely gleaned from sporadic samples – is how and in what ways their ranges have changed, both individually and as a sector.

What follows then are a few headline developments which I feel may be of particular relevance to independent merchants – the shifts in emphasis and focus that in ways both good and bad will impact your business and shared customers the most.

 

Finding the Found and the Loved & Found

The needle on my bullshitometer flips deep into red whenever I hear supermarkets trumpeting unusual, or off-the-beaten-track wines. It’s not that the wines themselves are bad necessarily (although they may be). It’s more that my innate cynicism about supermarket margins and buying practices suggests that wine quality probably came second to price. I’m always suspicious that the supermarket in question is making a marketing virtue out of buying necessity, passing off a slightly random set of purchases made on the spot market as a coherent ranging strategy.

That remains my default setting whenever I find myself browsing the wine aisle at Lidl, which has always seemed to me to be a reactive rather than proactive wine seller, finding the cheapest parcels and adapting its range accordingly (albeit with some occasionally excellent results), rather than seeking out wines to fit a pre-existing slot.

The needle was twitching, too, when I noticed that both Marks & Spencer and Waitrose had introduced very similar ranges – in terms of name, price and concept – last year. But the quality of the wines in M&S’s Found and Waitrose’s Loved & Found selections presented a challenge to my cynicism.

In both cases, these are wines that deserve to be found (or rediscovered): whether it’s Chilean old-vine País (in both ranges), South African Grenache Blanc, or Gascon Gros Manseng. Varietally true, and with consistent quality, at reasonable but not stupidly, unsustainably low prices (around £7 to £9), this strikes me as being exactly what a supermarket wine range should be, offering a safe space for exploration to neophyte or cautious wine drinkers.

Waitrose No 1; Sainsbury’s still in a rut

The Loved & Found range is just part of a very healthy-looking wine selection at Waitrose, which is full of good things at every price level sourced by a buying team which has very much got its mojo back. It’s clearly the market leader in the multiple grocer sector, and would challenge many indies, too.

Some way back in second, M&S has put most of its creativity into two baskets: the Found range and Classics, its similarly well packaged, clear and consistently good quality counterpart comprising better-known wines from claret to Zinfandel. The rest of the range, however, while offering generally consistent quality, could do with a bit of a refresh.

In the chasing pack, Morrisons, led by the engagingly thoughtful head of wine operations, Mark Jarman, is in pretty good shape, with some genuinely excellent finds in its The Best own-label range (Rioja and English fizz being personal favourites), and a smattering of well-chosen brands from the new and old world alike. The Co-op’s tightly focused range is similarly full of smart choices from a reliable roster of suppliers, while Tesco, if not setting pulses racing exactly, does a pretty good job with its main priority – the Finest range – with typically reliable staples from the likes of Concha y Toro and Villa Maria.

Sainsbury’s, however, is stuck deep in the same mediocre rut it’s been in for some time now, its sole focus the rather ordinary Taste the Difference range, which only occasionally comes to interesting life in southern France and Spain.

Aldi: Can discounters do “fine wine”?

Besides Waitrose, the standout multiple grocer player at the moment is Aldi, which has continued to diversify its range in sometimes surprising ways. Like M&S and Waitrose, it has added a line of genuinely good unusual bottlings sourced from Lebanon, Greece, Canada, Bulgaria, Switzerland and China.

Also of interest for independents is the company’s new “super-premium” line. The range’s name, Winemaster’s Lot, may sound like a title for a slightly naff fantasy film or board game, but the wines themselves, while small in number (10), are actually pretty good.

It may well be that you have better white Burgundy and Nebbiolo than Aldi’s Mont de Sène Chassagne-Montachet 2019, or Winemaster’s Lot Barbaresco 2018, on your shelves. But don’t be surprised if some of your customers aren’t using the Aldi price tags (£34.99 and £17.99 respectively) as benchmarks for both styles this Christmas.

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