Super supermarketing

Supermarkets  – especially the massively powerful chains in Europe – have a relationship with wine that is, to say the least, ambiguous. Their effect on all aspects of food and drink supply is, of course, fundamental to everyone in the pleasurable toils of a First World lifestyle (undoubtedly including the customers at Woolworths, of which more below). Supermarkets are praised for democratising wine and excoriated for homegenising its character. Further, their lust for lower prices coupled with their power mean that it’s vineyard workers who increasingly pay for customers’ “good value”.

You can guess, though, the irritation wine can be for supermarkets, from the disproportionate shelf-space they must give to the blessed liquid. Most commodities are brutally reduced to a handful of big brands, which is how supermarkets basically like it, but wine alone has not succumbed. On the other hand, margins are higher on wine than for most food items.

Upmarket Woolworths has done a clever branding thing, however. Most of the wines they stock carry (often discreetly, but ever-reassuringly) the Woolies logo alongside that of the winefarm. Moreover, the wines are unique to the supermarket, with its team selecting the barrels for their shelves, and often coaxing a specific blend for themselves. Over many years, Allan Mullins and Ivan Oertle have worked on the selection with skill and success and it must be said that the range is sometimes exciting, generally reliable, and attractively priced.

A good example of the Woolworths-producer nexus is the small range made for the chain by the first-rate Paul Cluver estate in Elgin. The current releases were shown to journalists last week, accompanied by some grand food prepared by Harald Bresselschmidt – I vaguely wondered why the wines weren’t shown alongside Woolies prepared meals but didn’t complain.

Star of the line-up and a bargain to gladden the heart of any Constantia or Rosebank matron (women are the important wine customers these days) is the Cabernet Franc 2009 at R79. Pure-fruited, rich and pleasingly dry, it has some of that intriguing leafiness of aroma and flavour that tends to distinguish Franc from its better-known descendant, Cab Sauvignon. Forget it in a cool dark cupboard for a year or three and it’ll be even better.

Paul Cluver doesn’t make its own version of this – the only red under its own label these days is pinot noir, and they also make one for Woolworths. At R99 it’s nicely in the middle of the supermarket’s small pinot range, and you’re unlikely to find a better-value version of this fashionable and usually pricy grape variety.It’s not profound, but it’s varietally true, sensitively made, and rather delicious.

Also represented are two aromatic whites. The rosepetally Gewürztraminer (R59) is pretty similar to the Cluver’s own version – that is, subtler than many, fresh and taut, with not enough sugar to render it noticeably too sweet for anyone, surely, but the right amount to make it a charming treat, for happy sipping or with (especially) spicy food.

Serving similar functions is Ferricrete Riesling (R70; the name refers to the vineyard soil but sounds to me unfortunately like builder’s supplies). Rather sweeter than the Gewürztraminer, it approximates to some of the great German off-dry rieslings, without their thrilling acid tension. I prefer the drier, finer-balanced version available under Cluver’s own label, but the Woolworths one offers unquestionably easy gratification.


From Mail & Guardian, 23-29 Novemebr 2012

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