|Wine: from port to Pinot Noir, Waitrose caters to every shade of middle-class taste
Like cyclists, hunt-followers and Wagnerians, wine merchants share an inscrutable solidarity and a defiance of the surrounding culture.
Their competition is genial; they meet at tastings around the world; they sense the encroachment from every side of the health fascists and the puritans; and they are subliminally aware of their shared mission, as priests of a religion that might at any moment be declared heretical. They are the last flourishing example of the small and local merchant, dealing in a small and local product, for the benefit of small and local people like you and me.
Nevertheless, like you and me, they are anachronisms. The world designed by Lords Sainsbury and Haskins is one where nothing is local and nothing is small. The supermarket-agribusiness machine will go on enjoying its subsidies, its privileges, its stream of knighthoods, peerages and quangocratic rewards, until only two classes remain: those who control our food supply and those who depend on it. We winos will have to make the best of it, by discovering the supermarket that will serve our need. I propose, therefore, to visit those palaces of iniquity from time to time and study the only part of their grim interiors where the eye can rest with pleasure.
I began a few weeks ago with Waitrose, the supermarket of the affluent classes, and am still trying to digest the astonishing range of its wine list, suggesting whole committees of eager drunks, combing the world for bargains. Catering for every shade of middle-class taste from the green to the gross, Waitrose has successfully dug up mature vintage port, properly aged Madeira and vintage sparkling wine from Sussex. It suffers from the main disease of the supermarket economy, which is rapid turnover, so that few things on the shelf have reached their best. However, there is no doubt that they have been expertly chosen. The ordinary red Burgundy from 2001 is a case in point: a fruity, forward Pinot Noir that would make the perfect dinner-party wine, with none of the thinness and acidity that can ruin Burgundy at the bottom of the scale.
The knowledge that matters in the wine trade is not that which enables Robert Parker to pour ghastly prose over a [pounds sterling]200 bottle of Chambertin, but that which leads you to the Chambertin experience at a tenth of the price. All I can say is that Waitrose's Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2000 from the Domaine Heresztyn is a wine that fully justifies the [pounds sterling]20 price tag, with all the subtle perfumes that will generate, in a few years' time, the real grand cru aroma. It was a blow to discover Sophie serving it to the neighbours, but I consoled myself with Waitrose's wonderful Pomerol from la Providence, and with the thought that supermarkets are the main enemy of our neighbours.