Anthony Rose: Chain-store massacre?

One chain’s misfortune is another’s opportunity, and Oddbins is starting to look the real deal

The news that the high-street wine merchant Thresher has gone into liquidation, with 373 stores and 1,738 jobs to be axed, brings mixed feelings.

Christmas is the worst of times to see so many jobs lost, but with the exception of its more upmarket sister chain Wine Rack, Thresher is one of the dreariest of offies. The high street is the toughest battleground for wine, and it's always been a struggle for the 1,200-store chain to survive. Its three-for-two offer on wine may have worked at the start, but in the end the high price for a single bottle may have been the final straw.

But one chain's misfortune is another's opportunity and Oddbins is starting to look like the real deal once more. After all the pain suffered at the hands of Castel Frères, owners of Nicolas, the slimline version of 150 shops under new owner Simon Baile showed its intentions with the most encouraging tasting in years. Baile has always said that the process of winning customers back would be a slow one, acknowledging that much of the indifferent stuff that had crept on to the list needed to be replaced by the sort of hand-picked, small-grower wines that made Oddbins' reputation in the first place.

With over 400 new wines in the range, the past year's efforts by Oddbins' wine buyers Richard Verney and Julie Buckley have borne a cornucopia of fruit. Albeit still a work-in-progress, the wine list is in transition from the mundane into something approaching Oddbins' best again. France and Italy are strengthened and the New World, Australia and New Zealand in particular, has had a much-needed makeover.

To complement the new range, Oddbins plans to embark on a series of tastings of new wines and old favourites throughout the year; and the 20 per cent off case price makes life a little sweeter.

On the European front, there's a crisp, nettley 2008 Côteaux du Giennois Domaine de Villargeau, a palate-cleansing gooseberryish sauvignon blanc with the lemony fresh air and grace of Sancerre. Burgundy is represented by a mouthwatering 2008 Bourgogne Aligoté Domaine Borgeot, £11.99, better than many a chablis, and for star quality, an appetisingly taut and textured parcel of the deftly barrel-fermented 2007 Bourgogne Chardonnay Etienne Sauzet, £19.99. There's good-value claret in the modern vein with a blackcurrant-fruity 2006 Les Tourelles de Sipian Médoc, £7.99, and a vivid, bright, smoky Spanish red in the 2006 Condado de Haza, 2006, Ribera del Duero, £17.99, with its pristine dark-berry freshness of fruit.

The New World sidesteps the big brands to make a point with an excellent selection of individual quality estates, traditionally Oddbins' greatest strengths. There's a dry lime- marmalade and toasty 2003 Peter Lehmann Wigan Eden Valley Dry Riesling, £16.99, and from New Zealand, a richly fruited apple and pear-fresh, Alsace-like 2009 Tupari Pinot Gris, £13.99. Reds include New Zealand's fragrant and gamey red-berry-fruit 2008 Lobster Reef Pinot Noir, £9.99, Chile's paprika-smoky, peppery 2007 Chono Reserva Syrah, Elqui Valley, £7.99; and from Australia, a parcel of the 2007 Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz Viognier, £14.99, a ringer for Côte Rôtie with its herb-tinged raspberry and cherry-fruit concentration. This is one of a number of superb "odd bins" of the kind that should encourage a return to the fold.

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