Case study

What's in store at Majestic

Last month Sheffield and Twickenham, this month Glasgow. Bringing the tally of Majestic Wine Warehouses to 65, the current spate of store openings reflects its plan to become our only nationwide wine warehouse chain. And, with sales rising in the past year to nearly pounds 50 million, Majestic's expansion improves its ability to cash in on the high street boom.

The company's fortunes started to brighten when it was bought by former Bejam tycoon, John Apthorp, in 1989. Apthorp nurtured Majestic through the recession before turning it into a thriving concern. After last November's placement on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) raised pounds 2 million for expansion, it notched up the AIM award for most exciting newcomer. The morale of branch managers was given a boost, with share options taken up at pounds 1.60 now worth the price of a decent vin de pays.

Despite smart addresses in Knightsbridge and Mayfair, Majestic wine warehouses remain remarkably unstuffy places to browse and buy. The average purchase of around pounds 90 is achieved thanks to regular tastings, good car parking and a young staff to advise you.

Their chief buyer, Tony Mason, a self-styled trader rather than wine buyer, is a youthful old hand whose experience dates back to the pioneering days of Augustus Barnett and Oddbins. Last year, Mason cashed in on Sweden selling off the stock of its state-owned wine shops, snapping up 40,000 cases of wine at rock-bottom prices.

This year, he's cajoled another 90,000 cases of mostly mature red Bordeaux from the same source. These will filter through for the rest of the year, with 7,000 cases of fine wines held back until September and October to bolster the Christmas trade.

But there are already good buys available. The 1989 Chateau Vieux Vantenac, for instance, is a mature, sweetly fruity, merlot-based claret, a snip at pounds 3.99. The fleshy 1989 Chateau de Lisse is voluptuously approachable now and well-priced at pounds 7.99, although in limited supply. And, in handy half-bottles, the silky 1990 Medoc cru bourgeois Chateau Coufran, is a bargain at pounds 4.49 when you buy two or more.

The deal might not have suited every retailer. Mature, old-style claret after all swims against the tide of an increasing consumer perchant for youthful, oaky new world cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But Majestic's Previa and Espace-owning customers are a little bit older and more conservative, not to mention better-heeled, than most supermarket customers. The new world door may have opened at Majestic, but the current trend is back to the classic wines of Europe. It's a trend reflected in Apthorp and Masons's own pro-European proclivities. The appointment of Chris Hardy as a fine wine buyer and the latest offer of Bordeaux 1996 en primeur, is confirmation of Majestic's upmarket leanings.

The latest manifestation of fine wine Europhilia has been the development of a strong range of German estate rieslings. Liebfraumilch has never been much more than a joke at Majestic, which is content to watch from the sidelines as the supermarkets try to reverse the ebb-tide of lieb with the new wave drier German styles. This leaves Majestic free to concentrate on classic rieslings from producers such as Ernst Loosen and Studert-Prum in the Mosel. Among a plethora of fine rieslings at introductory prices until the 12th August, Von Buhl's 1996 Deidesheimer Leinhohle Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken, pounds 5.99, is a beautifully poised young riesling. At just 7.5 per cent alcohol, the appley freshness of Studert-Prum's 1995 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, pounds 6.99, makes it a classic summer aperitif. It may not be quite enough to kick start the much-heralded riesling revival, but, in focusing on this underrated classic, Majestic is at least adding to the sum total of our simple pleasures

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