"After some exciting changes, we're setting off on a new adventure," says the new Oddbins. If hitting the rails and imploding could be called exciting, the 36 branches that survived the debt-ridden crash engineered last year by ex-Oddbins boss, Simon Baile, must be breathing a sigh of relief simply to be alive. Today's chain may look a bit under powered compared to the 150-odd high street branches of two years ago. Yet considering that we'd all said our fond farewells to the once-popular high street institution, it's miraculous to see the phoenix rising once more from the ashes.
This month, a new slimline Oddbins, owned by Whittalls' multimillionaire founder Raj Chatha, showcased 100 new wines which are either on or about to hit the shelves of its stores. Nineteen are in London, 10 in Scotland and the remaining seven dotted around the country. A welcome note was to see continuity maintained with pre-phoenix buyer Emma Nichols in charge of the wine buying, along with a new member of the team, Ana Sapungiu. A quick glance at the wines on show revealed some of the old acumen and innovation, if not the prices, on which Oddbins first made its name.
Representation of Europe and the New World was roughly equal. Europe kicked off the reds with mixed results. I was seduced by the juicy fruit of the 2008 Castello di Farnetella Lucilla, £12, and the opulent raisin-rich fruit of the 2009 Baltasar Gracian Viejas Viñas, Calatayud, £13. I was less enamoured with one or two overoaked wines, but I found the 2010 Perrin Syrah, £10, as elegantly peppery as I could wish for, the 2009 La Folle Noire d'Ambat, £9.50, a successfully quirky négrette from Toulouse.
By and large, the New World trumped the Old. Smoky with dark berry fruit richness, the 2009 Chamonix Ripasso Pinotage, Franschhoek, £13, is an off-the-wall red that works. So, too, Chile's green pepper and blackcurrant-laden 2010 Perez Cruz Carmenère, £13. I generally preferred the New World whites too, a lemon and lime zesty 2009 Plantagenet Riesling, £13, from Western Australia, an intense peach and greengage-fruity 2011 Scott Fiano, £15, among them.
Of the four sparkling wines, I preferred the cheapest and only non-champagne, the Ovaltiney and toasty Roederer Estate Quartet, £20, to the three champagnes. I came away feeling encouraged even if the majority of the wines were closer to crowd-pleasing than exciting. This is not a resurrection yet, but a sort of Oddbins-lite that's making the right noises. The jury remains out on the phoenix question.