Don’t tell anyone, but the other day I paid a visit to my local Lidl. I must be the first person to go there and spend more than I expected. There’s been a lot of hype about Lidl’s recently launched Wine Cellar collection.
Still, I was sceptical, expecting to find wines that were cheap but decidedly not cheerful. I was pleasantly surprised. Lidl has launched an all-out assault on the purses and palates of discerning wine drinkers. Yes, there’s cheap wine – as little as £3.49 a bottle – but cheap wine is easy to find: Tesco alone has more than 120 bottles for under a fiver and much of it would strip your stomach lining.
The real surprises come further up the price ladder. My eyes fell on a 2011 Barolo for £10. A tenner! Most Barolo starts at twice that. And very nice it was, too – not a classic, but with all the tar and vanilla I’d expect from the Nebbiolo grape. At this price, Barolo is transformed from a rare treat to a Friday evening snifter.
Next up was a St Emilion Grand Cru 2012, again for a tenner. And again, it was a very elegant wine that I’d be happy to share with friends, knowing that it would have cost 50 per cent more anywhere else.
The delights kept coming: a range of red and white Burgundies; a red Santenay; a white Rully and a Chablis. There was even a very fine 500ml bottle of Sauternes from Chateau Guiraud, the Premier Cru estate. I loaded up the car quickly and drove off before they changed their minds.
So how do they do it? I asked Ben Hulme, head of Lidl UK wines and spirits: “There’s really no smoke and mirrors. We just look around for the best value in the wine world and stock it.”
Last year Lidl recruited the respected Master of Wine Richard Bampfylde to advise them and taste the wine. If he gives anything less than 80 points, it doesn’t get into stores.
The wines are the same across Europe, and British drinkers are doubtless reaping the benefits of the taste and buying power of more discerning continental customers (English is only the sixth language on some of the labels). It also buys direct and has caused a stir by going straight to some chateaux in Bordeaux, cutting out the merchants. It keeps its range small, with only 60 listed wines in its main offer, including, happily, the Barolo. It then buys and sells tactically, with another 48 wines that change regularly. This autumn the focus is on France, hence the rock bottom Burgundies.
The most impressive thing about this tactical approach is that the chain is able to take risks and be adventurous. This Christmas it’s stocking not one but two Canadian wines. Worth a try if you like something new.
It’s not all good news: the store is engaged in a bit of vinous cradle snatching. Many of the wines were from 2014 and really too young to be decorked just yet. But if you have a cellar or a space under the stairs you’ll be even better served in a couple of years. There’s also a distinct lack of information on the labels, rarely giving any indication of the chateau or negociant (perhaps they want to remain anonymous).
The flip-side is that Lidl’s name hardly ever appears on the label either, so you can turn up to that dinner party and not reveal your discount supermarket shopping habits, unless the host is secretly shopping at Lidl, too, of course. And there’s a real chance they are. Lidl’s wine sales have grown 38 per cent in the past year and it already has four per cent of the UK wine market: the secret is out. So if you ever see me in there hastily stuffing my trolley with wine, please look the other way.