Just as the tasting of the Bordeaux 2009 vintage switched to sales mode a couple of weeks back, Tesco was announcing the launch of a new Fine Wine range on tesco.com. This has nothing to do with Tesco's Finest range which, despite the name, is simply a clever way of marketing everyday wines. According to Tesco itself, it was to do with the return of consumer confidence, although it was notable that it coincided with Waitrose and Majestic's Bordeaux 2009 opening offers.
The term "fine wine" is difficult to pin down. I suspect that for many, it's a turn-off, conjuring up what the toff tendency lays down, invests in and occasionally drinks. To think more positively about fine wine may require a higher disposable income than the norm, but it also involves a recognition that there are indeed wines worth paying the extra for. Why? Fine wine can be broadly differentiated from everyday wine by elusive features such as intensity of flavour, texture, elegance, ageability and a mineral element hinting at a unique sense of where that wine comes from.
The history of supermarkets trying to sell fine wines is littered with bottles left unloved on the shelf. Marks & Spencer's Connoisseur range, Sainsbury's Vintage Selection and other attempts to package the idea of fine wine have generally resulted in much dust – a perceived attribute of fine wine – gathering. If you're prepared to buy by the case, the internet allows supermarkets to sell small premium parcels without interfering with consumer footfall. As Tesco baldly puts it, "It is not that fine wine cannot sell in store, it's that the space they would command in store is never going to be as much as the opportunity online."
If Tesco has more or less ceded the sale of fine wine in store to the independent wine merchant, it's not always easy to find "fine wine" in store anywhere any more. There was a cornucopia of excellent wines at Waitrose's recent summer tasting, all available online, but most in a limited number of branches. Some are so good none the less that they're worth the detour: the complex 2006 Querciabella Chianti Classico, £17.99, for instance, available in just 20 stores, is a great Tuscan red with concentrated sour cherry fruit flavour, a hint of star anise and super-sleek texture.
Marks & Spencer, too, tends to limit its pricier offerings to the bigger stores or even, in the case of a perfumed strawberryish pinot like the 2008 Wild Earth Pinot Noir, £17.99, to their growing range of online exclusives. Oddbins at least is trying to restore the idea of one-off parcels of wine, while making an effort to refresh the list with quality such as the youthful, bright 2007 Château Tournefeuille, Lalande de Pomerol, £24.99, case price £19.99, a Right Bank claret with a touch of cedary oak spice and textured cassis and cherry fruit flavours.
Of all the major retailers, Majestic has the greatest abundance of fine wine in store, much helped by their clever reduction to a minimum of six instead of 12 bottles.
Try Te Mata's stylish vanilla and lemony, Graves-like 2008 Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc, from Hawkes Bay, £17.49, buy 2 = £13.99, or the fragrant, modern, raspberryish 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Rouge, £19.99, buy 2 = £14.99, from Louis Jadot. A taste of how the other half lives, and drinks, could become addictive.