Food and Drink: Bigger and better: Safeway's innovative wine range has won it a Supermarket of the Year award. Anthony Rose reports

THERE was not a dry glass in the house when Liz Robertson was summoned last week to receive the 1992-93 Wine Challenge Supermarket of the Year award on behalf of Safeway. As diffident a Master of Wine as you will find, Ms Robertson is a popular figure.

Since she left the City merchants Greens, her achievement in transforming Safeway's wine range, from staid and respectable to one of the most innovative in supermarkets, has earned her the respect of a male-dominated wine trade. Sainsbury and Tesco, each with roughly 10 per cent of the retail trade, are entitled to feel less than comfortable at the prospect of Ms Robertson and her team breathing down their necks.

With impeccable timing, Safeway took the wraps off its autumn wine selection this week. News of the award had clearly filtered through to the farthest-flung corporate corners of Safeway, and for a while it was impossible to get near the wines as the management enjoyed themselves as if celebrating a hole in one.

'The faith is there within the company,' said Ms Robertson. 'First and foremost though, the award means recognition from the consumer. Wine is still an area of low confidence among consumers. Not having the residual confidence that Sainsbury's customers enjoyed, what better way to inspire confidence than through this outward testimonial?'

For Ms Robertson, the award will also result in the expansion of the wine range in smaller stores (both existing and planned) such as the new Docklands store, which is one of the 23 to be added in 1992-93 to the existing 323 Safeways around the country.

This week, 112 wines were on show. Among a group of recession-proof reds and whites, the Australians had the better of California by virtue of a six-month start. The cool-fermented, boiled-sweets fruitiness of the Safeway semillon, pounds 2.85, is 1992 vintage fruit, a welcome return to form after last year's relic, and drier than the Californian white. In milk-carton, cork-free Tetrapak, the Australian Dry White, pounds 2.59, is closer to off-dry, as is the spicy, soft, very drinkable Australian Red, pounds 2.65.

Almost equally recession-proof was a handy Eastern European selection. Two reds stood out for value: a gamey, sweetly mature claret-style Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 from Romania, given away at pounds 2.99, and a smoky, charred-barrel Suhindol Cabernet Sauvignon 1986 Reserve from Bulgaria, pounds 3.49.

Until the watershed vintages of 1989 and 1990, no supermarket wine buyer would have considered stocking a collection of English wines. But Safeway has committed itself to presenting 13 wines from England and Wales. The idea has been to introduce one wine nationwide, the respectable Valley Vineyards Dry White 1990, pounds 3.99, and to place one each of the remaining 12 in stores local to the vineyard in question.

I preferred the drier styles such as Sharpham Vineyard's Loire-like Estate Selection Dry 1990 (Devon), pounds 4.99; Pilton Manor's rounded Dry Reserve 1990 (Somerset), pounds 4.99; Three Choirs almost chablis-like Seyval/Reichensteiner Dry 1990 (Gloucestershire), pounds 4.49, and Valley Vineyards' refreshingly fruity Regatta 1991 (Berkshire), pounds 4.95.

A section called Late Summer Whites included three old favourites: Montana's sancerre-like 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.99; the award-winning tropical fruit cocktail, Wairau River 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 6.95, and Hardy's Gewurztraminer Riesling 1991, pounds 4.79. The latter, with its pungent lime and ginger-spice character, was justifiably voted one of the Wine Challenge wines of the year.

Among fuller, autumnal whites, I particularly liked the fresh, ripe fruit character of Domaine de Rivoyre Chardonnay 1991, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 4.99, with its understated brushstroke of oak. Better still, Sogrape's Bairrada Reserva 1990, pounds 5.59, has reached a peak of perfection. Pale gold and nuttily aromatic, the intensity of fruit flavour and full, almost burgundian richness is shocking in a Portuguese white wine.

For sheer hedonism, Rosemount's Roxburgh Chardonnay 1991 offers a brazen display of smoky oak and richly concentrated butterscotch-like fruit. It begs for a special occasion to justify its somewhat steep pounds 16.49 price tag.

Among the lighter reds, I liked the soft, perfumed fruit of Safeway's 1991 Dornfelder, pounds 3.99 and found Chateau Canteloup 1989, pounds 4.99, with its fine cabernet character and mellow, leathery fruit, much the best of the under-pounds 5 clarets.

In the same price bracket, Peter Bright, Joao Pires's innovative Australian winemaker, has produced probably his best-ever Tinta da Anfora. The 1988, pounds 4.99, gold-medal winner and voted one of only two Red Wines of the Year, is soft and spicy with a loganberry-like fruitiness. Next to it, the culture shock of Italy's Salice Salentino Reserva 1986, pounds 4.99, was overpowering. The baked, almost raisin-sweet fruit character of this Mediterranean blockbuster needs room to itself.

I aim to return in the future to the final section of the mostly over-pounds 5 Christmas Reds. It is enough to say for now that Chateau La Salle de Poujeaux 1985, pounds 7.99, the second wine of Chateau Poujeaux, provided an illustration of the hit-and-miss element in blind tastings. Awarded a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge, this pleasant luncheon claret did not measure up to the depth of fruit or finesse of the Chateau Haut Bages Averous 1985, pounds 15.99, the second wine of Chateau Lynch Bages (which only managed a bronze).

I also thought the herbaceous aromas and blackcurrant fruit of Errazuriz Don Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon 1988, pounds 6.39, was far more satisfying and better value.

Finally, Safeway has introduced four sherries in half-bottles from the excellent house of Lustau. Served chilled as an aperitif with salted nuts and olives, the savoury, refreshing tang of Lustau's Manzanilla, pounds 3.29, is God's gift to the tastebuds.

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