Wise words for wine buyers from Matthew Fort, who praises the supermarkets for their range of choice, while reminding us that the small independent wine merchants are well worth an online visit.
My father had a friend in Lancashire who had a legendary cellar. He lived on his own with a manservant (ah, those were the days) in a vast, crumbling ruin. According to my father, his friend used to drink a different kind of Madeira every hour of the morning between 9am and lunch at 1pm, just a glass or so.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always thought of Madeira as an any-time wine. Sadly, I think, Madeira, like Marsala and, to a lesser extent, Sherry, is now out of favour, although they can all be superb tipples when the more habitual glasses of Chardonnay or Sauvignon or Cab Sav simply don’t hit the spot.
Wines for lunch. Wines for dinner. Wines for casual occasions. Wines when you want to impress. Wines for the few. Wines for the many. Wines for beef. Wines for game. Wines for sipping before. Wines for washing down pudding.
Sometimes I think that wines writers live in a different universe than the rest of us. Too often I get the impression that they assume we have ideal conditions in which to keep wines for years until they come to that point of assumed perfection. The reality is, last in, first out. Few of us have the cellarage to keep the range of wines we need to meet all our social needs. At best, that cubbyhole under the stairs does duty, or a rack stuck away somewhere cool-ish. Given restricted space (and budget) and variable temperatures, it makes sense to buy little and often, rather than making bulk purchases only to watch it boil and then freeze over an extended period.
In this country, supermarkets account for about 70% of all wine sales. Of course this puts them into a dominant position, and, to be fair, they do pretty well by the average wine buyer––far more so than in areas such as meat, fruit, vegetables, baked products and larder staples. They really do provide a competitive variety from which to choose. Anyone who has shopped for wine in a European supermarket will have been struck by the geographical eclecticism of choice in UK retailers, as those countries with strong wine industries favour their own.
Snooty wine writers once sneered at supermarket wines. Not any more—which means there’s no shortage of critical assessment in newspapers, magazines and online. This is just as well, as the supermarket-written descriptions on the shelves can be misleading to the point of mendacity.
And, although supermarkets decorate their aisles with all sorts of tempting special offers, some of which are genuine bargains, the wines on offer may not have been kept in ideal conditions, and this can affect their drinking quality.
Supermarkets have another disadvantage. Although they have become much more canny in their buying strategies, in reality, they need to be able to buy any one wine in large quantities. Naturally, this restricts their flexibility, which is where the smaller, specialist wine merchant can step in.
The dominance of supermarkets has not led to the wholesale collapse of the gentleman wine merchant, which seemed probable at one point. There are still plenty of winemakers who simply don’t produce enough to interest the big chains, but still produce high quality wines of serious character, and it is these that are the province of the small wine merchant, many of whom specialise in specific regions. There are few parts of the country without one or several, and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, with their own websites too.
So, when stocking up, make a list of the occasions you will need wine for. Break them down by kind (family lunch, fancy dinner, mass gathering) and buy accordingly from whichever outlet seems most suitable. And add a third to the quantities you originally estimated. If you don’t drink it at the time, you can always do so later.
Read more about the world’s greatest premium spirits, what’s new, and where to buy them via the pages of the new issue of Matthew Fort’s Drink Hamper magazine. Featuring special cocktail recipes from the Savoy, fine wine expertise from Selfridges, and a feast of fine food recipes from Matthew Fort.
See more: Matthew Fort’s Champagne Moments