From next month, Safeway wine shoppers will find the bottles on the shelves clearly and simply classified in a new, unique way. It's the culmination of an ambitious two-year project designed "to break open the wall of wine and make it accessible at a glance to people who have little time," according to Safeway Master of Wine, Liz Robertson.
The wine shelves will still be grouped by colour and country. But in front of every wine a colour-coded shelf ticket (bronze, silver or gold for different qualities) will slot that bottle into one of nine taste categories: the four red categories (above), plus five for white and rose (dry and crisp, dry and smooth, dry and full, medium, and sweet/dessert). The labels of all 180 wines in the Safeway-branded range have been redesigned to incorporate the same colour strip and descriptions.
Safeway's wine-buying team honed the two-word descriptions and tested them on customers and employees. "We had an astounding 75 per cent success rate: people who were completely inexperienced with wines, tasting them `blind', were able to pair up the words with the flavours," says Liz Robertson.
I would score perhaps 75 per cent, too. Personally, I would have chosen different adjectives for some categories. But working within the Safeway nine, I'd re-classify perhaps a quarter of the bottles. It's a great idea, but the criteria don't seem to have been consistently applied.
I'd quibble over some of the words: I'd normally apply "mellow" and especially "mature" only to wines that were a few years old, but Safeway use these terms for some young wines, too. I'd also like a "dry and aromatic", category for whites. As it is, the very spicy Safeway Alsace Gewurztraminer (pounds 5.79) gets the same "dry and full" classification as some far blander whites.
The colour-coding for quality scores better on my scale. You might think that price gives enough of a quality guide, but market forces, fashion, hype and rarity set prices in some parts of the wine world far above the station of the wines.
The idea was to rate the wines for intrinsic quality, based on the degree of individual care during production. Bronze (the majority of the range) are "wines of large production, decent basic commercial blends" - that includes plenty of appellation controllee wines. Silver (about a fifth of the range) are wines made from single classic grape varieties, specific vineyards, Classico and Riserva wines in the "Old World". Gold means "hand- crafted", says Liz Robertson, "maybe barrel-fermented or barrel-aged, estate bottled, single vineyards. People might be surprised to see a gold band on three barrel-fermented and barrel-matured wines from Hungary at around pounds 5." Not every "hand-crafted" wine in the world is good - it rather depends on the hand in question. But the system works so long as the wines have been well selected - and Safeway's buyers are good.
Here are some top value wines in the Safeway range to test your (and Safeway's) adjectival accuracy: among the whites, Italian 1995 Chardonnay del Salento Barrel-fermented (pounds 5.99, gold, dry and full) a real, rich, tangy star; soft, delicious 1993 CVNE Monopole Barrel-fermented Rioja Blanco (pounds 5.99, gold, dry and full), and honeyed and lightly spicy 1995 Pinot Grigio delle Venezie (pounds 3.99, silver, dry and smooth). Among the reds, the silver-rated 1995 Safeway Oak Aged Pinotage Reserve (pounds 4.49, smooth and mellow) is to my mind not so mellow, but delicious and seriously underpriced. Also underpriced is the 1994 Montepulciano d'Albruzzo, Barrique- aged, Chiaro di Luna (pounds 4.49, silver, dry and firm). 1994 Cosme Palacio y Hermanos Rioja Crianza (pounds 4.99, silver, rich and mature) is rich, attractively oaky, but youthfully fruity rather than mature.Reuse content