Any doubts I might have had on this topic were laid to rest while I was researching the 1995 edition of Grapevine. This annual publication, a handbook for anyone wanting to buy wine in Britain, focuses on supermarkets and high street retailers and looks at their wine selections. This year it includes an expanded cross-Channel section.
On publication, Grapevine makes a number of awards. This year, because of a new award for Cross-Channel Wine Merchant, we decided to combine the UK awards for supermarket and high street merchant into a single trophy.
After much deliberation, the Thresher Group was nominated Wine Retailer of the Year. We felt that through its three main retail chains, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack and Thresher Wine Shops, Thresher has successfully shown there is a lot more to the high-street off-licence than cigarettes, soft drinks and pounds 1.99 promotions.
Two of Grapevine 1995's wines of the year at Thresher typify the approach. The unusual 1989 Cartuxa from Evora ( pounds 5.99) is ``a structured, old-fashioned blend of Portuguese traditional grapes with tarry, peppery fruit and raisiny sweetness''. Riesling may not be the most fashionable of wines, but Thresher has stuck with it. From Australia, Pam Dunsford's 1993 Chapel Hill Riesling, Eden Valley ( pounds 6.49, Bottoms Up only) is ``one of Australia's most delicate rieslings . . . a superb, cool-climate Eden Valley riesling, highly aromatic, fresh and zesty''.
It became apparent during our tastings this summer that a number of the high-street chains and supermarkets have made a significant effort to improve the breadth and quality of their ranges, most notably Somerfield/Gateway, Kwik Save, Fuller's and Marks & Spencer. And it was Marks & Spencer that won the Most Improved Retailer of the Year prize, having taken criticism on board and introduced a number of value-for-money bottles and dinner party fine wines.
Two from the throng feature in our wines of the year selection: the 1991 Il Caberno, Giordano ( pounds 4.99) a blend of Piedmontese nebbiolo with 15 per cent cabernet sauvignon, ``an intriguing, approachable wine with finely judged oak and none of the traditional nebbiolo hardness''; and the 1988 Vintage Champagne Saint Gall, Premier Cru Brut ( pounds 17.99), ``aromatic, with intense pinot noir character and toasty richness; classy stuff''.
Choosing our Winemaker of the Year was an equally tough decision, given the number of exceptional winemakers contributing to our well-being. The award finally went to Danie de Wet of De Wetshof Estate in South Africa. Known as ``the chardonnay king of Robertson'', de Wet is committed not only to producing world-class, good value chardonnays, but to good labour practices, too.
The 1994 vintage of the superb Danie de Wet Grey Label Chardonnay will be available at Sainsbury's in mid December. Meanwhile a number of his other excellent chardonnays can be found at Thresher, Tesco, Oddbins and Safeway.
In the year of the Channel Tunnel, it would have been apt to award a French retailer the Cross-Channel Wine Retailer of the Year prize. But Perardel and Le Chais apart, no French retailer is yet in the running. Martin Brown's Grape Shop in Boulogne snapped up the award ``for providing excellent service and the best and most cosmopolitan range of wines in the cross-Channel ports, if not the whole of France''.
The Grape Shop's Michel Genet Blanc de Blancs Brut, Chouilly (Fr98), ``a 100 per cent chardonnay fizz with a malty bouquet and considerable finesse'', was one of Grapevine's sparkling wines of the year. The Grape Shop's range of growers' champagnes is second to none, but the white burgundies, as well as a smattering of southern French and new world wines, are also excellent.
Grapevine 1995, by Anthony Rose and Tim Atkin, is published by Hodder Headline,Reuse content