IT IS NOT so long ago that Sainsbury's own-label claret and champagne graced the tables of every other Sunday lunch party across the country. The company's wine department had the hearts and minds of the great wine-buying masses firmly in its grip - a cachet that had taken Allan Cheesman, Sainsbury's first charismatic departmental director, years of painstaking effort to cultivate.

To meet aggressive competition and satisy demand for lower-priced wines, however, the range began to lurch downmarket, taking quality with it. The grocers-turned-wine-merchants who had clung on to the coat-tails of Sainsbury's in the Eighties were beginning to overtake the company. Faced with criticism, however, Sainsbury's stock response was that it remained a percentage point ahead of Tesco, its nearest rival.

Last month's tasting of about 200 wines, 94 of them new, was a clear demonstration that Sainsbury's has taken the criticism to heart and responded with verve and gusto.

Improving its own-label range was a start. Own-label is crucial not just for image, but because the range - broadly, up to pounds 3.50 in price - also comprises the lion's share of sales.

'We researched consumer perceptions to understand our strengths and weaknesses,' says Simon Blower, senior manager of the wine department. 'Take our Cotes du Rhone and our Vin de Pays d'Oc. Looking at the competition, ours were OK but not the best. We talked to our suppliers, worked on improving the blends, tasted and compared them again. Now we think ours are pretty good.'

At under pounds 3, the basic Cotes du Rhone is peppery, soft and juicy, and the Vin de Pays d'Oc as pleasantly fresh and fruity a blended white as you will find at the price. Even the muscadet is palatable.

One feature of the range is a change in attitude towards suppliers. The wine-buying team has been out on the winemaking trail. Unlike Tesco and Marks & Spencer, which made a big thing of their roving winemaker ranges, Sainsbury's prefers to let the wine do the talking.

'We are trying to use skills and technology to make wines better in areas where they don't normally make particularly good wine, but without marketing them as winemaker wines,' says Mr Blower. 'Research suggests that people are just not that interested.' After reading the back labels of one supermarket range, which reads like a Hello] profile, I tend to agree.

Nevertheless, the influence of modern winemaking is apparent. Sainsbury's has a New Zealander, Kym Milne, producing good value, basic white wines at the Balaton Boglar co-operative on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary. The team persuaded Peter Bright, the Australian who has transformed Portugal's table wines, to supply it exclusively with huge quantities of a good red and white, at under pounds 3, as well as a fragrant Argentintian dry white from Torrontes. And the varietal vin de pays specialist Robert Skalli, along with Hugh Ryman and Hardy's Australian outpost in the Languedoc have been called on to flesh out the southern French range.

Even Jacques Lurton has been pressed into Sainsbury's foreign legion, this time in Italy. So has the wine consultant Angela Muir, who has teamed up with Gruppo Italiano Vini to blend three new wines to a more readily accessible recipe - and price - than British customers ever dreamt possible from Italy. Try the Pinot Grigio, Bianco di Custoza and the astonishing Chardonnay delle Tre Venezie.

Long conspicuous by its absence, Sainsbury's New World range has a bright look. 'We've been too weak for too long in Australia and New Zealand,' Simon Blower admits. A grand tour of those countries in February has resulted in an increased and improved range.

Some of the names - Penfolds, Hardy's, Orlando's Jacob's Creek, Rosemount - are familiar. Others - Moondah Brook's outstanding 1992 Chenin Blanc, Krondorf's opulent 1991 Show Reserve Chardonnay from Australia and Montana's elegant 1992 Church Road Chardonnay - break new ground.

This is just a beginning, says Mr Blower, who expects another consignment of antipodean wines to arrive in the early autumn. And a small but well-chosen selection from South Africa and South America should fill the void likely to be left by New Zealand's disastrously short crop this year.

'Iberia's a bit of a star,' says Mr Blower, who has managed to coax some interesting styles from Spain, particularly the new Navarra blends. Spain and Eastern Europe are Sainsbury's biggest growth areas, reflecting price consciousness and the realisation of potential. Even rose is making a comeback. Indeed, Sainsbury's new range offers a glimpse of a new world wine order. Safeway and Tesco built on Sainsbury's progress in the Eighties. Now Sainsbury's is returning the compliment - with interest.

(Photograph omitted)