I hadn't previously been aware that Neil and Christine Hamilton had swelled the sponge of wine writers, as we're collectively known, until they turned up at the Asda tasting, he in red trousers and blue shirt, she tastefully colour co-ordinated in red top and blue skirt. I was leaving as they pitched up on their bikes, but it was hard not to miss Neil, after a quick slurp of cava, sashaying like a latter-day Bond to the Bollinger. It can only be a matter of time before their ambit includes Corney & Barrow and Justerini & Brooks, unless they are detained by their duties as hosts of Destination Lunch on Overseas Property TV (Sky 287).
Speaking of absent friends, we'd heard barely a peep from the apparently publicity-shy Asda, who two years ago dumped their wine-buying dynamic duo – Tara Neil and Sara Brook – for reasons best known to themselves. A press tasting was long overdue then, as the supermarket group admitted. The good news was that Asda hadn't just been sitting on its hands since that time, but appointed its consultant, Philippa Carr, a master of wine (MW), to full-time wine buyer in November 2005. MW status is not an automatic guarantee of wine-buying skill, but Carr has both the experience and, on the evidence of the launch of the new range, a palate that gives her the aptitude, and attitude, for the job.
As distinct from Tesco, whose new range incorporates a substantial number of high-end wines, Carr's ambition for Asda seems more modest but no less practical. She feels there are still plenty of consumers around who need a holding hand when it comes to paying more, which is why she's put a lot of effort into the continuation of Asda's Extra Special range. Extra Special is Asda's answer to Tesco's Finest and Sainsbury's Taste the Difference, a set of superior, own-label wines that take customers to the next rung of the ladder. To encourage buyers, Philippa has introduced a new range of mini taster bottles, a third the normal size, priced at £1.50-£2, with seven in the Extra Special range and another eight well-known brands such as Casillero del Diablo and Jacob's Creek.
Carr's self-confessed francophilia shows in her selection of the French own-label and Extra Special wines. The whites kick off with a typically bracing fresh Extra Special Muscadet sur lie, £4.98, complemented by a classically nettley 2006 Extra Special Pouilly Fumé, £7.48, an elegant dry 2005 Petit Chablis, £5.48, and a pot pourri of fragrant rose petal and lychee in the 2006 Extra Special Gewürztraminer, £5.98. Her French red selection manages that rarest of things, gluggable raspberry pinot noir with the 2006 Extra Special Red Burgundy, £5.98, while the 2006 Extra Special Médoc, £5.98, 2006 Saint Emilion, £7.98, and 2006 Côtes du Rhône Villages, £4.98, are all fruit-driven examples of their type. You can hardly ask for more at Asda's bottom-patting price.
Italian whites are ably represented by a superior pinot grigio, if that's not an oxymoron, in the refreshingly stonefruity 2006 Riff Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige, £6.98, and the 2004 Extra Special Primitivo, £5.98, lives up to the Extra Special tag with the generously juicy plum and damson fruitiness of the southern Italian variety. For any mouths watering for the southern hemisphere, the 2006 Asda Extra Special New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, £6.47, offers classic Marlborough pungency, aroma, zip and passion fruit flavours, and the blackcurranty 2006 Asda Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon look set to be one of the party scene stealers of the season at £2.98, while the fresh spritz and juicy pear fruitiness of the 2007 Extra Special Chenin Blanc, £5.98, shows off the delights of Cape chenin.Reuse content