Drink: A taste of the new world wine order: Sainsbury's has 94 new wines on its books. Anthony Rose charts the company's return to form

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)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
books...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Recruitment Genius: Processing Partner

    £15000 - £19200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Processing Partner is require...

    Recruitment Genius: PPC Manager - SW London

    £34000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist travel agent ba...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower