The Sour Grape

Supermarket Roulette: M&S Vs. Waitrose

Roulette-M&S Vs WaitroseMoving on to the more “exclusive” end of the market we’ve got M&S and Waitrose who probably have more in common with each other than they do with other supermarkets out there… as both have an image and a reputation built around the more expensive end of the market.

When it comes to their wines it is true that you’ll find a much larger portion of their range caters to the £15 to £25 and over price range, but that’s not to say that they don’t still have a significant number of wines on offer which are far more reasonably priced. They’re also more individual than Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and each approaches their wines in a slightly different way.

M&S works along side a lot of vineyards and producers to create exclusives and often has them bottled specifically for M&S. On the one hand this gives you access to wines you’ll not be able to find anywhere else… but on the other hand it leaves you firmly at the mercy of what they have to say about their wines.

This can make it harder to workout the quality of the wine as it’s not always clear where the grapes have come from or even which vineyard has produced the wine. They will often provide the name of the winemaker who crafted a particular ‘exclusive’ wine… but that’s not really all that helpful to anyone is it?

Their wines are excellent, but I think the ambiguity of their labelling coupled with a pricing system that puts a premium on ‘exclusive’ wines, leads to a strange disconnect where I feel disappointed with them for one reason or another. Regardless of any other considerations, I’m naturally going to compare bottles of wine from them with others of similar value I get from elsewhere, and if they’ve added a pricing premium for whatever reason it just means I’m getting lower quality wine for the same price.

I have had incredible wines from M&S… but I do find myself more often than not frustrated with what, while lovely, isn’t what I thought I was getting.

Waitrose on the other hand tends to be classical in their approach, where their wines look and read like any other bottle would do. This avoids the issue with M&S, as even their exclusive wines tend to be labelled by standard conventions, but that’s not to say there weren’t advantages to the M&S’s way of doing things… you’re far more likely in Waitrose to spin a bottle round and find nothing on the back at all! At least M&S will normally give you something useful to go on even if it’s just a suggested food match.

Loosely speaking, while distinctly different, they really are on a par with one another in terms of the quality and pricing of their ranges.

Thankfully, what they both have common are staff that are well trained and trained specifically to be knowledgeable about their range wines. So if in any doubt ask them to help you or to point you in the direction of the person who can. Let them know what wines of theirs you like and watch them do their thing… you don’t have to go with their suggestions, but if you’re looking for inspiration talking about it can’t hurt.


Highly recommended:

From M&S

Plaisir De Merle ‘Petit Plaisir’ 2011 – Western Cape, South Africa [£7.99 full price]

A rich, weighty, complex wine full of smokey plum & Tobacco Leaf

A rich, weighty, complex wine full of smokey plum & Tobacco Leaf

New world wines and comic books have something in common; the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” seems to hover over everything they do. When the sun is that hot, the art and science of wine production becomes more of an exercise in restraint that it does in more temperate countries.

This wine is a good example of a classic South African blend that has all the usual hallmarks you’d expect to find in one, but with just enough balanced restraint at work to prevent them from becoming too much of good thing.

It has a deep purple black colour and an aroma of smoky plum with vanilla and tobacco leaf. This is a medium-full bodied wine with a fresh acidity and integrated tannins that are present but never distracting.

Ripe concentrated baked fruits lead heavily (black cherry, plums & blackcurrant), with a backbone of coffee and a faint smoky hit of pancetta hovering at the edge. The finish is long and continues to develop complexity as it lingers, that is if you let it before raising your glass again!


Rabl Winery Grüner Veltliner 2012 – Kamptal, Austria [£8.99 full price]

Perfect for Chinese take-aways, this Austrian wine is Gewürztraminer/Torrentes like but dryer and more minerality.

Perfect for Chinese take-aways, this Austrian wine is Gewürztraminer/Torrentes like but dryer and more minerality.

Grüner Veltliner, or as my friends and I refer to it: ‘Girdle-Belter’, is a grape that’s native to Austria and also to be found in Slovenia and other eastern European countries, though I don’t imagine you’ll run into too many those bottles on the shelf of English supermarkets.

Like two other grapes I’ve showcased in these articles, Gewürztraminer (AKA ‘Girdle-Trimmer’) and Torrontes, Grüner Veltliner has the exotic fruit aromas and flavours that work so well with Asian and Indian cooking. In fact the three of them sit on a sort of intensity/sweetness spectrum moving from the richest/sweetest (Gewürztraminer) to the lightest/driest (Grüner Veltliner), with Torrontes sitting pretty in the middle.

For those of you that find even Torrontes, let alone Gewürztraminer, too sweet for your tastes, Grüner Veltliner could be the perfect compromise when looking for wine to go with your Chinese/Thai take-away.

However… we are starting to get to the sort of dryness levels that some dishes will be too sweet for. Some Grüner Veltliners are bone dry and if you try matching them with crispy duck and sticky sweet Hoisin sauce, you might find yourself sucking on a lemon… so be a little carful. That said, there’s nothing stopping enjoying a few glasses of extra dry Grüner while waiting for your food to be ready, before moving on to one that’s a little sweeter to match your dishes.

This one in particular is in the middle in terms of dryness and while distinctly drier than most Torrontes wines, it still has a little ‘off-dry’ about it to make the most of your Chicken Chow Mien.

It has a pale straw colour and aromas of lychee and rose water with a fresh salty element to it. In spite of its more restrained and elegant nature, there’s enough glycerol here to lean this toward being medium bodied for a white, though acidity balances that without becoming noticeably acidic in and of it self.

Apple, lychee and citrus flavours build in the mouth before fading to a creamy applesauce finish.

This wine is a great example of how the ‘texture’ of a wine can elevate it above others in it’s price range and at £8.99 this has more going for it in spite of its subtlety, than many others I’ve come across over the years.


From Waitrose

Mont Gras Carmenère Reserva 2012 – Colchagua Valley, Chile [£6.99 on offer – £9.99 full price]

A curry night favourite, this wine has depth and richness laced with chocolate and vanilla… think Merlot but with extra character.

A curry night favourite, this wine has depth and richness laced with chocolate and vanilla… think Merlot but with extra character.

I have a confession to make… I’ve always struggled slightly with Merlot.

I know it can make incredible wines, both by itself and in blends, especially those from Bordeaux; but more often than not those I try come across as either too simplistic on one hand or too cloying (jammy) on the other.

It’s one of those grapes that are easy to grow in abundance and easy to make simple characterless wine with or throw into blends to increase production volume.

To make an awesome Merlot is a trickier and more expensive prospect than many wineries are willing to consider… which is where ‘Carmenère’ comes in.

Carmenère is a grape variety grown almost exclusively in Chile and until relatively recently everyone, including the Chileans, assumed it was Merlot. Which is understandable considering how similar the grape varieties are and how much Merlot they grow. Like the Malbec grape it originates in France, and after finding its way to Chile (rather than Argentina with Malbec), it largely disappeared in France and was forgotten about until recently.

In spite of the similarities between them, Carmenère excels in all the ways Merlot struggles; creating wines with character and complexity but without needing the dense weight of fruit and heavy oaking, often required with Merlot, to bring them about. Where heavier wines are made with Carmenère, they are able to balance the dense weight of fruit and acidity better than many Merlots, allowing them to walk the fine line between rich/dense and thick/jammy, without overstepping it.

The Mont Gras Carmenère is a great value example of the richer style made with the variety. It has a brooding purple black colour with soft plum and blackberry aromas. This is a medium-full bodied wine with intense fruit (blackberry/blackcurrant/plum) and vanilla on the pallet.

A rich wine but with acidity to match and a white chocolaty depth to it that leads to a long mouth coating vanilla finish.

This is a vivid and rewarding bottle of wine that showcases Chile at it most ‘New World’, showing that they don’t always have to emulate the French to create something special.

This and others in the range from ‘Mont Gras’ are often on offer at Waitrose, so I’d recommend exercising a little patience and waiting for the deal before picking one up… that said, this wine is easily worth its full price tag of £9.99.


Boschendal Chardonnay ‘1685 cuvee’ 2012 – Coastal Region (Stellenbosch, Bottelary and Somerset West), South Africa [£9.99 full price]

Oak and Chardonnay haven't been the best of friends over the last few decades, but they seem to working through their issues as this wine shows.

Oak and Chardonnay haven’t been the best of friends over the last few decades, but they seem to working through their issues… as this wine shows.

Chardonnay is the Chameleon of grapes as it changes and reflects almost everything that happens to it; from the terrain it’s grown on, to the methods used in the winery, especially the materials used in fermenting and aging the wine.

So if oak is used… Chardonnay responds to it in a big way and can easily become too oaky.

The new world hasn’t always had the best record when it comes to this, and whether wines were massively over oaked or simple cheaply made and shipped over by the metric ton, the UK has seen a lot of nasty Chardonnay over the years. Most of which found it’s way to becoming the ‘house white’ in pubs/restaurants up and down the country, so not only were we subjected to it, we were charged a premium for our trouble.

To say that Chardonnay has a bad reputation in the UK is an understatement and I’ve met a lot of people who quote the adage to me: “ABC – Anything But Chardonnay!” Dig a little deeper though… and most of the ‘ABC’ crowd will admit to loving Chablis or White Burgundy, which are made with 100% Chardonnay.

The variety and potential of the grape is such that even if you hate one particular style of Chardonnay, you can easily find yourself falling in love with another.

Much of the new world, especially Australia and South Africa, have leant their lesson from the backlash to the 80’s boom in Heavily Oaked Chardonnay, and are now producing wines far closer to French in style (both oaked and un-oaked).

This Chardonnay from Boschendal is a good example of the newer wave of White Burgundy like wines coming out of South Africa.

It’s lemon gold in colour with tropical citrus and yeasty buttery aromas, with a sultry acidity and velvety textured medium body. Ripe rounded tropical fruit opens on the palette with citrus zest winding through its creamy buttery complexity. The oak is well tamed here and only the wake of it’s passing is noticeable in the creamy texture and colour of the wine.

It may seem odd to describe this wine as a new world interpretation of a ‘Pouilly Fuisse’, but that’s exactly what it is. The acidity might be lower and the tropical fruit riper and rounder, but the sum of its parts is identifiably ‘Pouilly-Fuisse’ in style.

It’s also at least a third cheaper if not half the price of its French inspiration and that’s a win in my book any day!

Thank you for reading my thoughts on M&S Vs. Waitrose, I hope it’s been helpful.

Please let me know when you think.

Next up I’m going to be looking at Budgens.

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