Waitrose have launched their revamped wine ordering service "Waitrose Cellar" and they invited me to meet their wine experts and sample their favourite wines at the London Canal Museum. Being something of a wine adventurer, I was keen to discover what was going on.
Waitrose have spent a year redesigning not just the website, but the whole basis of the service. Wine is a daunting and huge subject. Everyone comes to it at a different level with very varying interests. Whether it is food and wine matching, wanting to buy a gift for a wine buff, discovering fine wines or just wanting something good but inexpensive, different customers have different needs and approaches. The hope is that they will all receive the help and service they need. Revamped and some brand new tasting videos, articles, testing guides and "how-to" guides are all part of the assistance provided.
I met with two of Waitrose's "Learned friends", their wine experts. Xenia, Waitrose Cellar's wine buyer enthused about how joyful her job is - she just seems to live and breathe wine. Xenia told us of her recent trip to Bordeaux where she literally tried hundreds of wines, which made for an enjoyable but "long and exhausting journey".
My guide to the wines on this tasting was Stephane. He is one of the resident Wine Experts at Waitrose Cellar, meaning that prospective customers ringing up or emailing will receive bespoke advice from either Stephane or one of his colleagues. Stephane was a mine of fascinating information and was happy to advise us on what to serve for special occasions and with pairings with food.
As our barge at the London Canal Museum chugged into life and along the canal, the wine voyage began!
Waitrose Blanc de Noirs Brut NV £21.99
A genuine Pinot Noir Champagne from the Champagne region of France, and winner of the IWSC Gold medal. This is a great value Champers given its sheer quality. If you compare it to the other supermarket Champagnes available at the £20-25 mark, this exceeds them considerable, including some of the "names". This was my favourite of all the wines we tried by a country mile!
Stephane told us about how the French love their Champagne: "If you have a bottle of Champagne in the fridge, you find any occasion as an excuse to drink it. Hey! We just finished work! Let's open the Champagne!" It made me want to pack it all in and move immediately!
Waitrose Prosecco £8.99
Prosecco has really captured the imagination of UK buyers and appears to be the current favourite fizzy wine of choice. This own-label Prosecco is an award winner, having gained an IWSC silver medal. I found this to be a very fine example of a Prosecco and at a competitive price for the quality. The bubbles were light, it was smooth and fruity, and a perfect wine for the coming Summer days. Perhaps not suitable for citrus fruits, this wine would be a good aperitif or wine to have with peach or apple based desserts.
Cave de Lugny Sparking Burgundy Blanc de Blancs NV
This fizzy wine, available by the bottle or in the Waitrose Cellar "Foodie Case" (wines selected for their suitability for food matching) is half the price of champagne at £13.99 a bottle. Made with 100% Chardonnay grapes, I found this to be a highly enjoyable bubbly which would go down extremely well at a dinner party as an aperitif. Burgundy sparkling wines can be erratic, Stephane advised us, because if growers cannot get their grapes bought by a prestigious producer, they tend to sell the grapes for use in sparking wines. But there was no need to worry with this wine, it was dry but floral and suited for seafood, particularly lobster.
Vasse Felix Semillion/Sauvignon Blanc £13.99
This wine is a Western Australian white made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. If you want to investigate this wine, it is in the Waitrose Cellar "Foodie Case". I particularly enjoyed this wine, and think it would be brilliant match for light seafood and white fish. Just seared scallops, perhaps marinaded in light soy sauce, red chili and sesame oil would be lovely.
Le Grande Ballon Sauvignon Blanc £8.49
A Loire Valley French white wine which delivers much of the smooth gooseberry fruit and balance of its far more expensive cousin, the Sancerre. The producer, Thierry Delaunay uses contemporary techniques to create a wine which competes superbly against one of the most treasured and traditional appellations.
Dr Loosen 2012 Weinger Wurzgarten Reisling Kabinett £15.99
Stephane described this wine as "my guilty pleasure with Thai food". But why guilty? Sure, it is sweeter than is currently fashionable, but to hell with fashion! This wine is to the medium sweet side, and there is no way of describing it as off-dry. However, it is perfect with any spicy, chilli driven food. It particularly works with lemongrass, it drops the heat of chillis because the acidity cuts through the heat. It would would with an Indian curry, with its layered and often complex spicing (I would particularly suggest a south Indian style fish curry with chilli and grated coconut), but would equally go with Malaysian or Thai food.
Vigneti Massa Sentieri Barbera £11.99
This is usually a very heavy red; gutsy and full. One which gives great enjoyment in the drinking but may give a headache the next day if taken in excess. This particular Barbera was lighter, it was plump and juicy in character. It would suit meat, and lamb in particular. I don't care about food snobbery, good food is good food. Full stop. So I would suggest this as a wonderful wine to go with kebabs. I'm personally thinking of shish or kofte, but if you prefer (lamb) doner, then go for it!
Waitrose Chianti Classico Barone Ricasoli £11.99
This wine has been made in partnership with Barone Ricasole, the oldest winery in Italy, and has won a bronze medal at the Decanter wine awards. Made with Sangiovese grapes and quite tannic, this would be good wine to cook with because of its balanced flavour and suitable level of alcohol. Stephane suggested a slow cooked brisket, as you would need some fat in the meat to balance the tannins. Another option would be Quattro Formaggio Pizza as it would complement the fatty cheeses, tomato topping and sunshine.
Stonier Pinot Noir £14.99
Another wine in the "Foodie case", this light red wine from Mornington Peninsula, Australia has a smoothness you can expect from the better Pinot Noir wines. If you are sceptical about Pinot Noir because you've had a bad experience with some of the cheaper and harsher offerings made from this grape, please put your prejudices aside.
Catera Malbec £12.99
This was a very gusty and bold red wine from Mendoza in Argentina. I enjoyed the intense, brambly fruit. It had good body and deep tannins. This wine would be one I would have with Ragu Bolognese or steak.
Chateau Segonzac Oak Aged £10.49
An award winning oak aged "Cru Bourgeois" wine made from a blend of grapes from Premieres Cotes de Blaye in Bordeaux. Waitrose's experts help select the blend for this wine, so they work hard to get the balance right each year. Perfect for Sunday lunch with roast beef or lamb.
Waitrose Reserve Shiraz, St Hallet £11.99
This Barossa Shiraz red is made in partnership with St Hallet winery in Australia and is exclusive to Waitrose. I found it to be very full flavoured. It has a fairly high alcohol content and so is not suitable for cooking with. As we come into the Summer, I would suggest this a Barbeque wine, suitable for the grillmaster or guest alike to have while the meat is sizzling and once the BBQ goodies are served up!
If you would like to check out the new Waitrose Cellar website, you will find it here: http://www.waitrosecellar.com/
Thank you to Waitrose Cellar for inviting me to the wine tasting, which I attended as their guest.