When a bottle is better than a case

Image of Jancis Robinson

The UK is acknowledged around the world as a sophisticated market for wine. So how come it short-changes sophisticated wine consumers in one important respect?

I refer to the relative difficulty of buying fine wine by the single bottle. In general, British wine lovers are expected to buy their smart wine by the case: usually a box of a dozen, or half-dozen, bottles. If in the UK you want something grander than a typical supermarket wine, you are expected to place an order by phone or online with a traditional merchant or fine wine trader and then either keep it in a specialist warehouse (usually bonded, so to extract it there is yet another layer of paperwork) or wait patiently until the vendor is ready to deliver the case to your door. And in both this instance and the rare cases when British wine stores do stock serious wines by the bottle, the wines in question are usually far too young to drink.

But now that so much en primeur bordeaux and top burgundy costs a four-figure sum per case, there is surely even more of a market for single bottles. And what about spontaneity? What does the wine lover about town do if on impulse they want to drink, or give, a single special bottle? In most countries, it is a given that wine stores are well stocked with wines at all price levels, right up to first growth level, all available by the single bottle and at varying degrees of maturity. Potential buyers can pick up and inspect bottles before putting them in their shopping baskets.

But this is relatively rare in the UK. The number of specialist wine shops has fallen sharply because of competition from supermarkets, where more than 70 per cent of wine in Britain is sold, as well as high rents and the recent growth in selling wine online. Oddbins soldiers on under new management, having been sold to the son of one of the original management team by Castel of Bordeaux, which continues to use the Nicolas chain in the UK and in France as a useful outlet for its own wines. The only large specialist wine retailer in the UK that seems to be flourishing is Majestic, and it imposes a minimum six-bottle purchase.

So British consumers in search of a single superior bottle of wine will find relatively few retailers able to help them. They may be able to choose from scores of dreary “special offers” of basic wines at the supermarket – although here continual duty increases have applied downward pressure to margins and wine quality. And, thanks to the enthusiasm of the new wave of independents, they can choose from a wide range of more interesting, hand-picked wines in the £6 to £20 range, but these relatively new companies rarely carry much stock of mature fine wine.

An exception to this, and to most generalities in the UK wine scene, is The Sampler, a small store in Islington, north London, which is soon to sprout a second outlet in South Kensington. Here customers can buy scores of wines chosen by a true wine lover rather than by an accounts department. Of the 1,500 different wines on sale by the single bottle, almost half could be described as “fine and mature” and they sell even faster than The Sampler’s cheaper wines – precisely “because they are unavailable elsewhere”, according to founder Jamie Hutchinson.

Philglas & Swiggot is a similar, rather older operation with three stores in greater London but its focus is on New World wines. The most obvious small group of wine shops with a hand-picked, slightly more classic range is Lea & Sandeman, which reckons that about 200 of its 900 wines fall into my, admittedly arbitrary, category of “fine and mature”.

The single large Roberson store in Kensington High Street may well have London’s best collection of seriously smart wine available by the single bottle. More convenient for wine lovers based in the City of London is the enterprising retailer Uncorked, which claims to have as many as 600 smart wines in store and available by the single bottle. Jeroboams, Handford, and Huntsworth Wine are also very useful.

Strangely, few of the traditional fine wine merchants on whose trade the UK’s fine wine reputation was once based have serious retail outlets. The exception in London is Berry Bros, with whom the FT runs its Fine Wine Plan, which claims to have as many as 2,500 different wines, all available by the single bottle at its shop near St James’s Palace.

Most of the UK’s best places to buy expensive wine are in London, where the people and the money are. The department stores Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason offer fancy bottles – at a price. It could be a long overdue sign of Manchester’s ascendancy that this northern city now has a fine wine store in Hanging Ditch, even though many northerners still make the trek to the cavernous, and particularly keenly priced, D Byrne & Co in the small town of Clitheroe, north Lancashire.

One traditional country wine merchant with a particularly wide range of single bottles for sale is Tanners, a family firm that dominates the wine trade in the Welsh borders. In the east of England, Adnams of Southwold has one of the most attractive wine shops in the country but Noel Young of Trumpington, outside Cambridge, is the most obvious place to find fine, mature wines by the single bottle. Based in Northern Ireland but supplying wine lovers throughout the British Isles, James Nicholson offers an exemplary range of fine wines by the single bottle.

But this list is just about it – in a country of 33.4m wine drinkers.


More columns at www.ft.com/robinson

Exceptional wine shops

The Sampler, www.thesampler.co.uk

Philglas & Swiggot, www.philglas-swiggot.com

Lea & Sandeman, www.leaandsandeman.co.uk

Roberson Wine, www.robersonwinemerchant.co.uk

Uncorked, www.uncorked.co.uk

Jeroboams, www.jeroboams.co.uk

Handford, www.handford.net

Huntsworth Wine, www.huntsworthwine.co.uk

Berry Bros & Rudd, www.bbr.com

Hanging Ditch, www.hangingditch.com

D Byrne & Co, www.dbyrne-finewines.co.uk

Tanners, www.tanners-wines.co.uk

Adnams Wine Shop, www.adnams.co.uk

Noel Young Wines, www.nywines.co.uk

James Nicholson, www.jnwine.com

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