There has never been so much choice when it comes to buying wine: supermarkets for price and convenience; specialized wine merchants for expert advice; and on-line merchants to shop around. Buying at auction can fulfil a sense of adventure, as well as make a potential investment.
Supermarkets are a reliable, if not especially adventurous, source of wine. All the major chains in Britain now have good ranges, although they tend not to stock obscure styles or wine from small producers. What they lack in breadth they make up for in special offers and value for money. Their own brand ranges can be particularly good value. Two of the best supermarkets for wine are Booths in the north, and Waitrose in the centre and south. Both sell quality wines and champion smaller producers.
These range from large off-licence chains such as Threshers, Victoria Wine, and Haddows (all owned by the same company: www.threshergroup.com), through to national wine specialists such as Oddbins (www.oddbins.com), and more local outfits, such as London-based Berry Brothers & Rudd (www.bbr.com) and Philglas & Spiggot (www.philglas-spiggot.com).
Off-licences have been improving, but their main advantage is still one of convenience. Specialist wine merchants remain the destination of choice for wine lovers. They have much to offer in terms of advice, range, and wines from small, high-quality producers. Owners and staff have often tasted most of the wines and are happy to share their knowledge. Take time to discuss your requirements and preferences: price, styles of wines you enjoy, food with which you plan to drink the wine.
A considerable volume of wine is bought by mail order from companies or clubs, such as The Sunday Times Wine Club (www.sundaytimeswineclub.co.uk) and The Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com). These offer discounts and exclusive wines sourced directly from producers, as well as regular mailings and tasting events. The quality of the wines, however, can be variable. Many specialist wine merchants also offer a mail order service.
Auctions and Exchanges
It is not without risk, but buying at an auction or internet exchange can be an excellent way of acquiring cases of wine, particularly older, rarer vintages. Major auction houses such as Christie’s (www.christies.com) and Sotheby’s (www.sothebys.com) hold regular wine sales, as do smaller, local houses. Be aware of commission charges (10 to 15 per cent on top of the hammer price plus VAT) and learn as much as possible about the condition and provenance of lots before bidding. Companies like Uvine (www.uvine.com) conduct their business over the internet. Sellers place an offer price for a wine on the site, and if a buyer accepts the price, the wine is traded. Uvine inspects the condition of the wine, and charges an additional fee of 10 per cent plus delivery and VAT.
Direct from Producers
Wine almost always tastes better at its source, and gives you a chance to meet the people who created it. It is customary to buy at least a couple of bottles when you have enjoyed the hospitality of an estate. However, there will not necessarily be any great savings on the standard retail price.
On the Web
Most supermarkets, wine merchants, and mail order companies also sell on the internet. In addition, there are a number of web-only companies. Virgin Wines (www.virginwines.com) is one of the most successful. Everywine (www.everywine.co.uk) also has an extensive selection of wines, but the sheer choice can be bewildering and many are only available by the case.