High Street UK is not a good place to buy wine and it hasn’t been for a long time. As far as offies are concerned, the tumbleweed proliferated a couple of years ago with the collapse of First Quench – not surprising, really, with a name like that – the company that owned the 1,200 Threshers, Wine Rack, The Local and Haddows shops. It could be fairly said that they discounted themselves to death. The wines generally weren’t up to much anyway so on the whole it was good riddance.
It hardly seems possible that a whole generation can have graduated with an NVQ in binge-drinking and been rewarded with its first Asbo without ever knowing why old people have such a soft spot for Oddbins. The company went tits-up last year after a brief period in the hands of the son of the man who started it, after having been bought and sold a few times, lastly by French giant Castel, the biggest wine company in Europe (and owners of the useful Nicolas chain). In the ‘eighties Oddbins awakened millions of Brits to the fact that wine could actually taste nice and it’s encouraging that the residual 39 branches (under still newer ownership) show signs of doing what the original company did best. It’s early days but, at the risk of sounding like a dickhead, the fact that they are stocking wines from a decent number of the smaller, quality-conscious producers recommended in my book (like Viu Manent, Henry Fessy, Redfin, Tedeschi, Caves de Hunawihr, San Marzano, Setencostas and McHenry Hohnen) bodes well.
In similar vein, the remaining 20 or so Wine Rack shops in and around London, again under new ownership, seem to be far more focussed on quality than in their previous incarnation. With wines from the likes of De Bortoli, Simmonet-Febvre, Keuntz-Bas, Louis Latour, Louis Jadot, Meerlust and Vergelegen – to name a few – you need not fear or shun them.
The steadily burning light in UK town centres – although not often on the high street itself – is Majestic Wine who maintain a consistently high standard while experimenting with the gaps on the street by doing things like reducing their minimum purchase from 12 to six bottles. The range is large and includes many excellent producers – too many to mention here – but some top-class cheapies (under £6 on special offer until Monday 30 Jan) are, among the whites, Wither Hills, Esperanza, and Neblina (all Sauvignon Blanc), Luis Felipe Edwards Chardonnay, Undurraga Brut Rosé and, among the reds, Rioja Reserva Viña Eguia, Ch. Mont Milan Corbières, Flichman “Gestos” Malbec, Neblina Merlot and Luis Felipe Edwards Cabernet Sauvignon. If there is a quibble, it’s a tendency towards discounting that risks being not a million miles from the sort of thing that so confuses consumers in the supermarkets. Remember what happened to First Quench ..?