Heard it through the grapevine

Heard it through the grapevine

How can a discount supermarket chain like Lidl offer high-quality wines from Bordeaux at affordable prices? Peter Ranscombe heads for France to find out.

Mention the word “Bordeaux” and most wine buffs will start reeling off the names of the famous first-growth chateaux – Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion – the five producers whose bottles sell for hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds.

Yet Bordeaux is about much, much more. The region is massive, stretching from close to the mouth of the Gironde estuary on France’s Atlantic coast all the way inland along the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, with its vineyards producing around 15% of the country’s entire wine output.

As well as the individual classified growths that only need to use their chateaux names on their bottles, there are myriad village and regional designations for wines, including those labelled simply as “Bordeaux”, which offer more basic, easy-drinking options.

Logic dictates that a discount supermarket chain like Lidl should only be selling basic Bordeaux; thin reds and flat whites to accompany a mid-week pizza or salad. Yet a quick glance down the list of bottles in its latest Wine Cellar promotion – which begins on 29 September – reveals a number of quality wines from both Bordeaux and other famous French regions.

So how can the firm offer top wines at affordable prices? Part of the answer lies in its scale. More than six million shoppers now use the chain’s 630-plus stores in Scotland, England and Wales each week, with its car parks full of BMWs, Mercedes and Volvos after middle-class bargain hunters long ago shrugged off any suggestions they were trading down.

Instead, the company has won a series of awards, not just for the quality of its wines but for its other produce as well, culminating in prizes from publications as diverse as The Grocer and Good Housekeeping.

In November, the firm unveiled plans to invest £1.5 billion in its stores over the next three years, accelerating the number of sites it opens each year from 20 in 2014 to between 40 and 50, along with the refurbishment of up to 150 shops over the next three-to-four years.

The brand isn’t just expanding in the UK either. Tracing its roots back to the 1930s, the German company opened its first discount outlet in 1973 and now has more than 10,000 stores spread across 29 countries and territories.

Such scale gives the company increased buying power when it seals its deals with merchants or ‘négociants’ in Bordeaux and elsewhere, buying wines that could potentially be sold throughout Europe. “We would always match the cheapest price in the market,” explains Paul Gibson, buying director at Lidl UK, whose remit includes wines and spirits. “But we would never undercut the cheapest price – we see that as irresponsible.”

The company is smart about the wines it selects too. Les Hauts de Pez 2012, one of the bottles in the latest promotion, is made by Chateau Tour de Pez, a producer listed among the ‘Cru Bourgeois’, a group of winemakers ranked just below the 61 classified growth chateaux. Crus Bourgeois offers value without compromising on quality.

Stepping outside the most famous areas also provides winners. Chateau Roque le Mayne 2014 comes from Cotes de Castillon, sitting next to the celebrated town of Saint-Emilion, and uses a similar blend of grape varieties to produce a comparable style.

Another factor is the advice the chain takes when selecting its lines. Lidl UK uses three masters of wine – Ed Adams, Richard Bampfield and Caroline Gilby, members of an elite group of fewer than 350 professionals – who consult with the buying team when it is making its decisions and who sample each wine before it goes on sale, writing tasting notes that sit alongside bottles on shelves to inform and entice customers.

“We mark each wine out of 100 points and only wines that score above 80 make it into the stores,” says Bampfield. “Using three highly-qualified and experienced palates means our scores are as reliable as they can be.”

The combination of buying power, site selection and expert advice appears to be working – the Wine Cellar promotions featured 48 wines each quarter last year, but have been expanded this year to five tranches of 40 wines, with bimonthly offers planned next year to cope with demand, sitting alongside the 70 lines in the retailer’s core range that are available year-round.