Buying wine by type rather than country is a great idea - but will it be enough to save this high-street independent?

Much has been made of a new venture from Unwins, the beleaguered high-street wine retailer. The venture, a shop called Phillips Newman (142 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, tel: 020 7373 6833), sells wine according to style rather than country. So, instead of having a France section and an Argentina section and so on, there is a central display table with signs guiding you to three categories for red (fruity, mellow or chunky) and three for white (bright, rounded or smooth). The main display presents wines in each category, with a tasting table for those who want to try before they buy. After four months of trading, the concept seems to be coming along nicely with sales up on when the shop traded as a plain old Unwins.

Much has been made of a new venture from Unwins, the beleaguered high-street wine retailer. The venture, a shop called Phillips Newman (142 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, tel: 020 7373 6833), sells wine according to style rather than country. So, instead of having a France section and an Argentina section and so on, there is a central display table with signs guiding you to three categories for red (fruity, mellow or chunky) and three for white (bright, rounded or smooth). The main display presents wines in each category, with a tasting table for those who want to try before they buy. After four months of trading, the concept seems to be coming along nicely with sales up on when the shop traded as a plain old Unwins.

The idea of selling wine on the basis of a stylistic assessment is more or less new, and I'm more or less solidly behind it. Quibbles? Of course I've got my share. I can imagine, for instance, a wine that some people would describe as not only fruity but mellow and chunky too, especially one from Argentina or Australia, and white wines, especially from Italy or Spain, that no one would describe as bright, rounded or smooth.

But neither of these objections counts for much when I see what Unwins is trying to do: revive the high-street wine trade in the face of the supermarket takeover and get people to look at wine without fear and mystery. And Jean François Dehé, PN's general manager, says that the categories work well for 95 per cent of his customers.

If it takes a novel, untraditional approach to get people opening the door of a high-street wine merchant, so be it. As I was reminded recently when I visited Luvians, an independent of fantastic quality in St Andrews, a good off-licence gives a town a sense of seriousness and completeness.

Unfortunately, the PN initiative comes just as Unwins seems to be admitting defeat in the battle for the UK wine market, and is making moves to put itself up for sale. It has announced its intention to sell off its 388 shops and, as of July, had had 50 or so expressions of interest. So I suppose it's a race against time. Either there will be a juicy offer for Unwins and it will be game over. Or, with any luck, the PN gambit will prove so successful that Unwins will take itself off the market. It offers some good wines, and I'd love to see it give the supermarkets a run for their money.

Unwins isn't the only company trying to group wines stylistically, but you may have to go to Sweden to find another. On a recent trip there, I was fascinated to see Systembolaget - the state-owned alcohol monopoly - in action. Now, everyone knows one thing about alcohol in Sweden: it's expensive. I have news for them. Yes, paying for spirits will kill you. But wine is gobsmackingly reasonable, either the same as in the UK or lower. The differences in price are most apparent at the higher end. For instance, Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre, one of the best Gewürztraminers from Trimbach, costs £19 in Sweden as compared with £23 plus change at www.everywine.co.uk. And the Systembolaget selection is outstanding.

The stores, which were for many years a byword for dreariness and implicit disapproval of the very idea of buying alcohol, are now pleasant places to shop. The wines are arranged by style and then in ascending order of price. The staff give advice and are friendly to all, even the shirt-less, shoe-less bon viveur who staggered around the store I was in with a case of extra-strength lager and a case of brewer's breath that could have felled a sparrow at 30 paces. Would you get that kind of gracious reception even at a Phillips Newman shop? I wouldn't count on it. Sweden, the next destination for wine tourism? If so, you heard it here first. *

Top Corks: Big Argentinian reds

Clos de los Siete 2003 £9.99, Waitrose, Oddbins A new wine overseen by über-consultant Michel Rolland, concentrated Malbec-based blend of distinction, big oak and exuberant cassis fruit.

High Altitude Cabernet Tempranillo £4.99, Somerfield Another newish wine, well-handled fruit amply dosed with American oak. Highly enjoyable quaffer for drinking with BBQ steak.

Michel Torino Malbec 2002 £4.99 from £6.99, Sainsbury's Part of its 'Wine Festival', and worth having at full cost - but even better at this price. Solid, absolutely typical Argentine Malbec.

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