As I waited for candidates in the regional heat of Sainsbury's blind wine-tasting challenge to retrieve their noses from their glasses, I was offering customers a free thimbleful of the company's Australian chardonnay from Cranswick Estate. It is tropically fruity with a touch of oak and enough residual sweetness to make it less than bone dry. 'Nice and dry,' nevertheless, was a typical reaction; and I was surprised by the number of those who winced, thinking it too dry. For every 'too dry', though, two or three said: 'I like this wine; I like fruity German wines' or 'it's different, I normally drink sweet wine'.
This was a useful reminder that, although New World wines have made a considerable impression on palates and pockets in this country, there are still many for whom wine means the fruity-sweetish German variety. It was also, however, proof that for those falling out of love with liebfraumilch, Oz and other soft, on-their-way-to-off-dry chardonnays are the answer. In America, you do not ask for wine any more; you ask for a chardonnay.
Tim Sutton, deputy manager of the Sunderland store, confirmed that I had witnessed a general trend. 'The change from hock and liebfraumilch to drier French styles and New World wines is apparent. People are definitely moving away from German wines.'
This feeling is echoed at the more up-market, traditional wine merchant sector by John Thorogood, deputy managing director of Lay & Wheeler of Colchester, Essex. 'With six dry French and two Australian wines in our 10 best sellers, and only one German, it would indicate that tastes are becoming drier,' he said. 'In 1989, the list would have included three or four German wines and none from Australia.'
While hock and mosel remain a staple of customers' diets, French country wines and those from Australia, New Zealand and Spain have made the most progress in the past two years. 'We sell a vast quantity of wine between pounds 3.50 and pounds 6.50 from the south of France, and a fairly large amount from the Antipodes at a respectably higher price bracket, pounds 6- pounds 10,' said Rob Chase of Adnams.
In Sainsbury's coffee shop, the serious sniffing was drawing to a close. It had taken an hour for the 20 or so competitors to complete the blind tasting. The six questions were hard. Candidates had been asked to identify 13 wines, describe some of them, guess their prices, and write an appropriate back label or indicate which were ready for drinking and which would improve. Most did a good job, and the top seven showed an impressive level of knowledge.
Apart from two wines under pounds 3, the rest, from around the world, ranged from pounds 3.35 to pounds 14.95, with not a liebfraumilch in sight. Ironically, a glance at Sainsbury's 10 best-selling wines (see table) shows that its customers have been slow to change their drinking habits. Three French wines and one Italian apart, the list contains no fewer than six medium dry German wines. Hardly surprising, then, that in the wider marketplace, five in every 20 bottles sold are German. Liebfraumilch is still the best seller at Safeway, Tesco and Victoria Wine, too, although it is pipped into second place at Thresher by lambrusco.
The move to better-value-for-money wines is more obvious at Safeway, where the bottom has dropped out of muscadet and lutomer laski rizling, while Cinzano Bianco and Martini Extra Dry are no longer in the top 10.
Michelsberg, muscadet and laski rizling have disappeared from Victoria Wine's top 10, too, as have Anjou rose and piesporter, to be replaced by Bulgarian and Hungarian country wines, an Australian semillon and a red corbieres. The company brings three new Spanish wines into the fold: Leziria white and red and Castillo de Liria, and a new French vin de pays des coteaux du libron.
Where three years ago it had none, the Thresher top 10 now contains three Australian wines and two Bulgarian reds.
Tesco's top 20 has four New World wines: three Australian and a Chilean cabernet sauvignon.
No high street chain, though, has rung the changes more thoroughly than Oddbins. Muscadet, soave, liebfraumilch and the basic French fizz, Cavalier Brut, have been replaced by no fewer than six New World wines, with California's Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut almost the most expensive best seller of all time at pounds 8.69. Two Spanish wines and two French, including a pounds 16.99 champagne, Perrier-Jouet, make up the top 10, whose average price, thanks to three sparkling wines, is pounds 6.10. Compare that to Sainsbury's (pounds 3.59, including a three-litre wine box at pounds 10.95), Thresher (pounds 3.10), Tesco (pounds 3), Victoria Wine (pounds 2.78) and Safeway (pounds 2.57).
Recent figures show that wine sales began to stagnate in the past year. Of the extra 140 million bottles sold annually since 1986, the New World and Eastern Europe have increased their share from 18 million to 113 million. French vins de pays and Spanish wines are the other two expanding areas. As Mr Chase puts it: 'The perception of value for money is greater now than ever before. The buying public is vastly more educated than it was five years ago.' And the good news is that, where there is value for money, there is growth.