Supermarket sweep; A guide to buying wine at the big stores

In a rapid turnover culture where price is king, it's too labour intensive for supermarkets to help shoppers out as a matter of course with simple queries Illustration by Spike Jerrell
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The Independent Culture
"I'm looking for a nice South African wine to go with fish," said the woman at the Safeway in High Street Ken. The staff member duly pulled out a bottle, which on closer inspection turned out to be Spanish. "Well, it says SA on the label," said the hapless wine department assistant, who hadn't registered that SA is Spanish for Ltd. Across the river in Sainsbury's flagship Nine Elms store, a puzzled-looking shopper was busy failing to locate the Portuguese section, while another enquired hopefully after "a chardonnay that's not too oaky". Sainsbury's shelves were giving nothing away on either score.

In a rapid turnover culture where price is king, it's too labour intensive for supermarkets to help shoppers out as a matter of course with simple queries such as: does white or red go better with chicken? and how long can I keep this wine once it's opened? But everyday wines are still expensive purchases. Waking up to the potential market in customers who never venture into the wine department (the vast majority), supermarkets are becoming cannier and more sophisticated in how they sell their wines.

Waitrose was the first to sell wines by style rather than country, but what works for Waitrose won't work for everyone. The average spent per bottle by Waitrose customers is the highest in the country. When Asda ventured into the wines-by-style, it took a risk. It has since pulled back a bit from its extreme position with "shelf-talker" flags of various countries. Despite the carping of jealous rivals, though, the new look, backed by staff training, eye-catching labels and good-value wines has paid dividends.

Safeway unveiled the culmination of two years' research, this week, aimed at making it easier for customers "to surf the shelves with confidence in the outcome". The principle behind the Safeway Wine Shop, featured in 166 stores from Monday, is to cut through the red tape of useless information with simple new "recognition guides" to quality and style.

The style guide kicks out the archaic 1-9 sweetness scale for whites, which are now "dry and crisp", "dry and smooth", "dry and full", "medium" or "sweet dessert". The unintelligible old A-E code for reds is replaced by "light and soft", "smooth and mellow", "dry and firm" or "rich and mature". The descriptions are rather bland and generalised, and "rich and mature" for 1994 reds is positively misleading. Might not "aromatic", "spicy" or "oaky" say more? "We tested `oaky' and `aromatic'," says Safeway's Victoria Molyneux, "but they didn't ring any bells." And when specific dishes were matched to wines on back labels, customers rebelled. "They wanted more general guidelines."

Wines are still listed by country, but Safeway awards its wines Olympic- style medals for quality. Bronze is for "popular, everyday" wines, silver for "superior quality", and gold for "special occasion" wines. It takes a while to adjust to the subtle colour distinction between bronze and gold. And when you have, you can't help wondering what the suppliers of the pounds 8.99 Pouilly Fuisse, the pounds 9.99 Meursault and poor old Veuve Clicquot Champagne at pounds 21.99 will make of Safeway's modest award of mere silvers.

At Sainsbury's, where Allan Cheesman admits that "the display in merchandising has not been changed essentially in 25 years", research has identified three basic categories of wine customer. Cautious Colin represents half of all Sainsbury's customers and sticks to the same limited number of wines. Ambitious Andrew, who makes up 40 per cent of Sainsbury's market, "doesn't give a shit where the wine comes from but he won't go over pounds 6". Then there's Connoisseur Claude, a member of the Wine Society, who buys his 1.5 litre French red in a plastic bottle from Sainsbury's.

Wine Without Worry, the first phase of Sainsbury's own research, runs until 9 November. Cheesman is using Oddbins-style cartoons to bring a light-hearted touch to the proceedings. With prices slashed on 70 wines, plus wine suggestions at the deli, meat and fish counters, Sainsbury's hopes to lure more customers to the wine department. There will also be tastings on Friday and Saturday afternoons.

With the biggest range in the country, Tesco, which recently overtook Sainsbury's as the country's leading drinks retailer, can ill-afford to rest on its laurels. In a flagship store, such as the 40-checkout Reading superstore, the Tesco range in all its glory is a mouth-watering sight. Smaller in-town stores with only a core range of wines, though, could be in line for a radical overhaul. Tesco, with a reputation for innovation, is no doubt watching its rivals closely as it ponders its own research

Wines of the Week

1995 Cortese del Piemonte, pounds 3.95 (reduced from pounds 4.95), Sainsbury's. Refreshingly dry Piedmontese white with delicate lime and pear fruitiness. 1995 Marques de Grinon Durius, pounds 3.99, Somerfield. Fresh aromatic, sauvignon/verdejo/viura blend with zesty crisp, gooseberry fruit. 1995 Tim Adams Riesling, pounds 7.99, Tesco, selected stores. Piercingly aromatic, elegant Clare Valley dry riesling with classic kerosene notes and sumptuous lime-like richness of flavour. 1993 Vina Porta Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, pounds 5.99, Asda. Serious Chilean claret lookalike, but with more spicy oak and intense blackcurrant fruit richness than most claret at this price. 1994 Penfolds Clare Valley Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 6.99, Safeway, selected stores. Deep-hued, slinky, organic Clare Valley red with sweet, caramel-like oak and blackberry fruitness. 1993 Warwick Cabernet Franc, Stellenbosch, pounds 7.99, Waitrose. A stylish estate-grown Cape red with intensely flavoured fruit, supple tannins and green pepper undertones.

Asda M&S Safeway Sainsbury Somerfield Tesco Waitrose

No. of branches 206 283 371 355 609 553 117

Refund policy Yes No Refund & replace No quibble refund Refund & replace Informal refund or exchange Informal no quibble refund

Discount pounds 1 off 6 12 for 11 5% off 6 5% off 6 12 for 11 5% off 6 5% off 6

Shelf talkers Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Glass loan Yes No Yes Yes No Yes - 220 stores Yes

Delivery No The wine cellar No Sainbury's wine direct No Tesco direct Waitrose direct

Wines by style or country Style Country Country Country Country Country Style

Free wine carry case Yes Selected stores No 6 bottle box Looking into it 6 bottle box Coming shortly