Not that being a Master of Wine is the be-all or end-all. Oddbins, Majestic and Tesco manage quite well without one. However, Waitrose customers are prepared to pay a bit above the average for quality, and perhaps draw confidence from such experts.
Until a couple of years ago, Waitrose was a safe if anodyne place to buy wine. Julian Brind and David Grandorge had pioneered individual stars such as Chateau Musar from the Lebanon and Venegazzu della Casa from Italy, but the range seemed generally to indicate that the sun shone only on the traditional wine regions. The three additional recruits to the department, Dee Blackstock, Neil Sommerfelt and David Gill, however, have brought a more adventurous mixture to the range. Customers still expect to see old favourites, but the New World is better represented.
John Lewis, which pulls the Waitrose strings, also rather pooh-poohed wine-tasting competitions and frowned on competitors advertising their medal tallies. If, occasionally, you came across Mr Brind at a tasting, he would be wearing a furtive look. Yet, at the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia this year, there were queues for samples of the Waitrose party foods service and selected wines.
Joining in the fun, I found the spicy 1992 Blanck Tokay Pinot Gris d'Alsace, pounds 5.25, a godsend with the salmon; Beef Wellington and a pork, turkey and cranberry pie were offset by the second wine of Chateau Cantemerle, the effortlessly smooth, oaky 1990 Baron Villeneuve du Chateau Cantemerle, pounds 7.95.
The biggest surprise was the combination of a chocolate truffle torte and the Scholtz Solera 1985 Malaga, pounds 4.49 (half-bottle), a raisin-rich treat with overtones of coffee and chocolate and a tangy, dry finish reminiscent of a creme brulee topping.
At the Waitrose spring tasting last month, I picked from nine sauvignon blancs, two to beat bordeaux at less than pounds 4. The first, zesty and fresh, with an aromatic passion-fruit fragrance, was the 1993 Domaine des Fontanelles Sauvignon, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 3.49, whose thirst-quenchingly dry pink relation, a 1993 Vin de Pays d'Oc Syrah Rose, pounds 2.95, will also make excellent spring drinking. Less aromatic, but more substantially fruity, the 1993 Domaine Gibault, Cepage Sauvignon, pounds 3.99, from Touraine, was nicely grassy and crisp. Among the higher sauvignon orders, the 1993 Pouilly Fume from Domaine Masson-Blondelet, pounds 6.95, concentrated and flinty, is a classic of the type.
With its graves-like, delicately smoky veneer, and modern, grapefruity tang, the Australian 1992 Chateau Carsin, Cuvee Prestige, pounds 6.45, made by Amanda Jones, combines the best of the Old and New Worlds. Of chardonnay, more next week. Meanwhile, do try Houghton's 1993 Wildflower Ridge Chenin Blanc, pounds 4.75, a full-bodied, subtly oaked Western Australian white with outstanding fruity intensity.
Among the better value-for-money reds, I singled out three. The 1992 Trapiche Pinot Noir Reserve, pounds 3.99, is aromatic and unpretentiously strawberryish. The 1993 Avontuur Cabernet Merlot, pounds 3.99, is exuberantly fruity, with a particular South African flavour. And from Touraine Amboise in the Loire, the 1993 Chateau de la Roche Gamay, pounds 3.99, delivers the juicy fruit that beaujolais seldom achieves at this price.
Moving up-market, the 1991 Fetzer Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 5.95, uses American oak to create a smoky, vanilla-tinged fruitiness, which is seductively lush, supple and rich.
While it may seem perverse to be recommending classified bordeaux by the case from a supermarket, Waitrose offers a good opportunity to snap up a top classified claret for laying down at a competitive price. The voluptuous blackcurranty, youthful Margaux 2nd Growth, 1990 Chateau Lascombes, pounds 12.75, works out, with 5 per cent case discount, at just over pounds 12 a bottle.
Champagne has long been one of Waitrose's strengths. Its own-label Brut Champagne, pounds 11.75, with its powerfully fruity pinot noir influence, remains one of the best supermarket champagnes on the market. Equally good is the Duc de Marre Special Cuvee Brut, rich in toasty, elegant fruit, available at 12 for the price of 11, or pounds 11.87 a bottle, through Waitrose's mail-order wine merchant arm, Findlater, Mackie, Todd (Freepost, London SW19 3YY; 081-543 0966).Reuse content