Realistic prices for real wine
Wine-wise, Lidl has made a great leap forward. Until this year, the German no-frills chain sold a very modest collection of about 50 brands, and I hope it is fair to say they seemed mostly chosen for price rather than interest.
But back in the spring, the stores introduced a dozen or so new lines under the heading of the "Wine Cellar". Every one of the 600 branches around the country was kitted out with a special display section for the wines, at a reported cost of £1 million. Lidl's wine manager Ben Hulme proudly announced it as "our first ever premium wine range in response to growing demand for fine wines from affluent but spend-savvy customers."
Judging by the business being done at my local Lidl, Ben is a shrewd judge. Lidl customers do indeed seem spend-savvy, and they clearly appreciate a decent bottle of wine. The excellent chablis among the first tranche of the Wine Cellar range, priced at £7.69, sold out in about a week. Even the grandest bottle in the new range, Château Laroze 2007, a St Emilion, Grand Cru Classé, no less, sold steadily at £19.99.
One of the most telling features of the Wine Cellar range is the wines are priced pretty much as they would be at any other supermarket. My guess is that the Lidl wine-buying team, for all their corporate clout (the chain has 9,000 stores across Europe) have discovered you have to pay for quality. They have clearly decided it is worth it.
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"We believe in offering affordable luxury to everyone, and this Wine Cellar is a true extension of that. We're wanting to offer people the opportunity to enjoy really good wines at prices that aren't ridiculous," says Ben Hulme. "Since the recession hit, we've seen a shift in customer spending habits with many people, even those from more affluent backgrounds, finding smart ways to continue enjoying fine wines and good food at home."
This starts to put Lidl on an even footing with other supermarket giants. The choice might be a small fraction of what you'll find in Morrisons or Tesco, but even among the mere score or so under the Wine Cellar heading, there should be something for most occasions. I believe you can now safely add wine to the list of Lidl essentials like the famous olive oil and Greek yoghurt.
This month, there are new additions to the Wine Cellar range. I have been tasting them, and if anything they are even more impressive than the original number of earlier in the year. The prices are realistic, because the wines are real. This selection, includes a few from the first run in case there are any left in your store.
Cepa Lebrel Rioja Reserva 2008 at £5.99 is an impressive-looking package, a mature Rioja with forward sweet-vanilla oak and fruit keeping up quite well. It is a wine to enjoy now and seems under-priced.
Cimarosa Cuvee Winemaker'S Selection 2011 (£7.99). New this month, it comes in a smart, heavy bottle and has correspondingly extravagant darkly blackcurranty and creamy flavours, smooth, silky and juicy. The grape blend is quite a mélange – cabernet sauvignon, carmenère, syrah and petit verdot – but the overall effect is deliciously integrated. It has the natural poise of the best Chilean wine, elegant and pleasingly weighted. Smart wine at a smart price.
Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune Jean Truffaut 2011 at £7.99 is a fine, pale red burgundy of genuine quality at a safely respectable price. I liked the savoury earthy pinot noit fruitiness and mellow cherry ripeness. A real find.
Vacqueyras 2011 at £7.99 is an authentic and characterful grenache-based red from a well-regarded southern Rhône appellation. From a vintage as ripe as the yummily roasted core of fruit in this intense, spicy wine reveals, it is already drinking well but will certainly keep. A thoroughly solid Vacqueyras, at an unusually sensible price.
Soligamar Rioja Reserva Doca 2008 at £9.99 is a Rioja in what might be called the modern style. It is a fruit-led blackcurranty wine of vigorous intensity that feels younger than its five years of age, delivering a lot of satisfying sinewy dark juiciness (and 14% alcohol). A nice package.
Tenuta Pule Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2008 is priced at £19.99. It is a sensational wine by any standard and is fair value. Amarone, which means something like "bitter" in Italian, is a speciality version of the Valpolicella red of Verona in northeast Italy. Concentrated part-dried grapes are added to the must (fermenting juice) during vinification to give the wine extra body, intensity and alcohol, and the dry amarone pungency. This one, with 16% alcohol, is dense, velvety and dry but nuanced with dark chocolate, coffee and cassis flavours.
Grillo Terre Siciliane 2012 at £5.99 is a dry white from grillo grapes grown in Sicily. There's an almondy perfume with an intriguing petrol note and green orchard fruit in attention-grabbing counterpoint here. Big-flavoured, herbaceous-citrus wine to match fish or poultry.
Gros Plant du Pays Nantais 2012 at £5.99 is an esoteric Loire estuary wine known, if at all, as the most astringent dry white of France. But this one is positively friendly, bone-dry but with plenty of crisp white fruit, briny freshness and neat balance; it grows on you and the price is very keen; it is just 10.5% alcohol.
Mâcon-Villages 2012 at £6.99 is a proper white burgundy, healthily mineral in the true Mâcon chardonnay style with an alluring peach-melon-spearmint nose and bright, apple-crsip fruit. It has freshness and citrus twang in abundance and is genuinely good of its kind.
Lidl Chablis 2012 (£7.69) smells and tastes so much like Chablis. In my melancholy experience, nine out of 10 wines labelled chablis and costing under £10 do not remotely resemble the unique style of this wondrous appellation at the northernmost point of the Burgundy wine region. What I'm looking for is the spare, flinty aroma and keen, oyster-shell minerality, relieved with a sunny, fleetingly minty white fruitiness that make proper chablis the truly distinctive rendering of the chardonnay grape that it is. This one, in spite of the modest price, absolutely hits the spot. Besides the authenticity of style, this is utterly delightful, refreshing and stimulating.