Food and Drink: Masters of the made-to-measure wine: British buyers are using their muscle to demand from producers the styles and flavours that customers want, says Anthony Rose

TEN YEARS ago, if you walked into the nearest off-licence or supermarket, the chances are that the wine you chose had itself been bought 'off the peg'. The people who bought the wine tended to be making snap decisions on the samples placed before them. Control over the style was generally left to the producer. Apart from a nod in the direction of the bottling line, little attention was paid to the condition of the wine.

With increasing consumer expectations, not to mention the sums of money involved, buyers have had to think harder about what will please their customers. They have become a lot more adept at following the product through from conception to ultimate in-store destination. It is no coincidence that Safeway's wine department, for instance, has a quality and selection controller and a technical controller among its personnel.

The most dynamic among Britain's wine buyers have taken the process a step further. Responding to customer demand for quality, flavour and value, they are now insisting on a say in fashioning the style of the product itself.

The idea of a wine buyer poking his or her nose into the vats is alien to most traditionally minded producers, particularly in France and Italy, where the affinity between winemaker and soil is regarded as sacrosanct. But the need to maintain or increase market share or, in the case of emerging countries, simply to get a foot in the door, has given forward-looking buyers an edge. Go- ahead producers are starting to listen to those buyers who have clout and are looking for tailor-made products.

Buyers need to know the market well enough to be able to convince suppliers that it will pay to do things their way. Angela Muir started out at Grants of St James's, where her experience in bulk wine blending helped her to grasp the importance of linking what the supplier could do to what the customer wanted. 'You need the humility to realise that you're trying to please the public first so that they get conscious pleasure out of anything you choose,' she says.

She was one of the first to realise the potential of Slovakia, and recently collaborated with the Gruppo Italiano Vini to produce excellent white blends for, among others, Sainsbury's. Latterly she has completely overhauled the previously lacklustre Kwik Save range to put a new gloss on its cut-price wines.

Ms Muir believes in establishing a rapport with the producer to get the best possible service. Cold storage of white and rose wines from hot countries to keep them fresh is a feature she introduced and now insists upon. Training producers not to remove flavour by over-conscientious filtering is another. Not as easy as it sounds if the producer is brought up, as many are, to treat the stability of the product as top priority.

No one could accuse Oddbins of not knowing its target market. 'In our experience, being close to the consumer in the way you think is the most important thing,' says Steve Daniel, senior wine buyer. 'All of us have been through the shops, so we're all very tuned in to how the consumer thinks.

'Historically, marketing and buying are separate activities. We combine the two in a single operation. When we taste wines before buying, we ask ourselves how a wine compares against the benchmark and then put a price on it. That way, we can say to our suppliers: look, you may want price X, but we can sell your wine at price Y. We're a good shop-window for a lot of producers.'

Oddbins is starting to go into partnerships with producers for custom- made wines. 'A direct input into the wines means working with winemakers who understand what's required,' says Mr Daniel. It could be a little more time in oak barrels for extra flavour or complexity, or picking grapes earlier for freshness or later for more fruit ripeness. It might be a technical winemaking feature: a malolactic fermentation to give a chardonnay more buttery flavour, or less filtration or none at all.

Beginning with Randall Grahm's wacky The Catalyst, Oddbins is proud of the tailor-made wines on its list. The Vanishing Point, for instance, is a Coonawarra chardonnay custom-made for Oddbins by Penfolds. Vino da Tavola] is an oaky cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese blend put together with Rocca di Castagnoli.

Being quick of the mark is part of the art. Mr Daniel says: 'You have to keep your ear to the ground about what's happening in the local economy, in winemaking, in the winery. If there's an area under the cosh a bit, deals will be there.' He cites Spain last year, where recession in the domestic market (and a favourable exchange rate) made inward- looking producers more receptive to Oddbins. The result was new relationships forged with Spanish bodegas.

Useful lessons were also learnt. In one instance, Oddbins found a wine that tasted so good it wanted it bottled as it was. But instructions for immediate bottling omitted the all-important message not to filter. The producer duly filtered the wine to oblivion. The story is typical of the risks involved in custom buying. One small but vital misunderstanding can be expensive.

Custom buying is creeping into the traditionally more conservative independent trade, too. Simon Farr, wine buyer for London wine merchant Bibendum, spends several months of the year travelling, not just to find new products, but to get to know the producers. 'It is essential to understand the way the guy who makes the decisions is thinking,' says Mr Farr, who believes independent wine merchants need to be competitive to survive the supermarket onslaught. 'After all, there's never been a better reason for trading down. Looking at the quality of wines in the high street, you have to be competitive in 90 per cent of the market.'

To achieve his aim, he uses the bargaining muscle that buying in quantity gives him. In his words, he can 'bully producers into trying to do what I think will make the wine better'. With Val d'Orbieu, a giant 24-million-case operation in the South of France, he created La Serre Chardonnay, which at pounds 3.99 became White Wine of the Year in 1992. In California, he persuaded the producer of a souped-up sauvignon blanc to cut out the sugar. The resulting drier, fresher Kah-nock'-tie Sauvignon Blanc has been a hit in British restaurants.

Italy is one of the hardest nuts to crack. 'When we first went in, we realised it wasn't enough just to find good growers. No one talks in straight lines,' says Mr Farr. 'Quality control issues are a nightmare.' Now, by joining forces with an Italian-based importing company, he has been able to put together one of the most impressive Italian collections in the country.

GOOD BUYS

FOR A taste of what Angela Muir has been up to at Kwik Save, try her bordeaux selection: a refreshing 1992 Bordeaux Blanc, Cuvee V E, pounds 2.85, a fine 1992 Sauvignon Blanc, Cuvee V E, pounds 3.37, which has a little more depth, and juicy Claret, Cuvee V E, pounds 2.67.

Her new-wave Italian whites are exceptional. Now at Sainsbury's, the 1992 Bianco di Custoza, pounds 3.49, is a summer treat. The 1992 Le Veritiere Chardonnay is available, from pounds 3.99- pounds 4.50, at Bentalls in Kingston, Selfridges, Harrods, The Barnes Wine Shop, London SW13, Fulham Road Wine Centre, SW6, La Vigneronne, SW3, and Corney & Barrow, EC1.

Her St Laurent, pounds 2.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, is a soft, juicy red from Slovakia.

The best of Simon Farr's La Serre range is the fragrant southern French 1992 La Serre Sauvignon Blanc, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 3.99, Victoria Wine.

Oddbins's Spanish excursions include the fruity red 1992 Vega de Moriz Tinto, pounds 2.79 and the classy, modern white rioja, 1992 Campo Viejo Barrel- Fermented Viura, pounds 4.49. From the South of France, the 1992 Oddbins Red, pounds 3.39, is robust and fruity. The Vanishing Point 1991, pounds 5.69, is an elegant chardonnay from Australia.

(Photograph omitted)

ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power