Wine Rack: Back to the Future

Unwins; deceased. Threshers; defunct. Victoria Wine; departed. The era of the off-licence chain is over. Like Crocs, they died out in the Noughties. And since the Threshers insulting ‘3 for 2’ non-deal of their final years, few of us have looked back. Caught between the low prices of the supermarkets and the good ranges of the independent merchants, they had little to offer. So how come Wine Rack are back with 21 stores, with their eye on doubling that?

Wine Rack was one of the numerous off-licence brands owned by the First Quench empire. When they went bust in 2009, an independent drinks wholesaler called Venus snapped up the brand and the top performing 14 Wine Rack stores.

Since then, over the past two years, they have been quietly opening more stores and improving their range. They are all located in the south of England, from Bristol to Kent. They plan to have three more open by Christmas. With “75% of stores doing well” they must be doing something right.

So what has changed? On the surface… not much. Though their range is better than I remember, many of the mass market branded wines remain. Though looking fine in the Loire, much of their French selection still needs attention. Portugal and Germany are practically ignored, and their range from the USA is a bit sorry. Most other countries are represented by some reliable producers (Cape Mentelle, St Hallett and Wynns in Australia; Errazuriz, Montes and Casa Silva in Chile; Invivo, Villa Maria and Mudhouse in New Zealand; Vergelegen and Meerlust in South Africa; CVNE, Riscal and Murrieta in Spain).

Two areas in which they excel are spirits and beer. Their spirits range, though not terribly exciting, is at least broad enough to cover everything you could ever need. It is huge, and contains around 250 different products. Their beer and cider range is also extensive, with around 130 lines. Both of these are tucked away at the back of their price list, but they are real strengths. I wonder why they don’t make more of them.

They seem to be trying to inhabit that precarious ground between the supermarkets and the independent merchants that has proved so treacherous in the past. Their range of drinks is wider and better than the average supermarket, though not quite so cheap. There is a lot of choice at the cheaper end compared to your typical independent merchant, and on some items their prices are quite reasonable. If I was on my way to a friend’s house for dinner, I would go to a Wine Rack before a convenience-sized supermarket any day.

It’s not clear what lessons have been learnt, and therefore what changes have been made, since its last incarnation. Perhaps the lesson is that there is nothing inherently unworkable about off-licence chains after all, as long as they select their sites carefully and don’t grow too large. But how large is too large? I hope for their sake there’s more than one way to find out.


Some highlights:




Crémant de Bourgogne Brut, Simonnet-Febvre, 2007
100% Chardonnay grape from Burgundy, France
£15.99 available at Wine Rack

Attractive nose with apple, pear and oyster shell. Full, soft fizz and cleansing acidity. Medium length, nicely balanced. 89 points, good value.




Côtes-du-Rhône, Chantespan, 2009
A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault grapes from Rhône Valley, France
£6.99, down to £6.00 if you buy 2 bottles from 14th November 2011 to 8th January 2012, available at Wine Rack

Simple red fruit aromas, strawberry and raspberry, with some hints of spice. Nicely balanced, medium to full-bodied, with succulent, fresh fruit flavours and a touch of vanilla. Savoury earthy finish. 88 points, good value.

Meerlust ‘Red’ 2009
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes from Stellenbosch, South Africa
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Intense blackcurrant bush, burnt spices and roasted meat aromas. Full-bodied and smoky, this is far from subtle, with big tannins and loads of acidity. A powerful, unmistakably South African red. 88 points, good value.

Chianti Classico Riserva, Poggio al Mandorli, 2007
A blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes from Tuscany, Italy
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Bright cherry, licorice and dried herbs. Quite old-fashioned, with powerful acidity and assertive tannins. Attractive aromatics, but I wouldn’t drink this without food. 88 points, good value. (NB I would avoid their Sangiovese IGT 2007, whose tannins are aggressively high.)

Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Vergelegen, 2005
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes from Stellenbosch, South Africa
£15.99 available at Wine Rack

The cassis, cedar and cigar box nose point at first to a Bordeaux (Pauillac), but something about the intensity of fruit flavours on the palate suggest a warmer climate. Medium-bodied, with velour tannins and good length. Very elegant, very good. Highly recommended. 92 points, good value.




Riesling, St Hallett, 2009
100% Riesling grape from Eden Valley, Australia
£9.99 available at Wine Rack

Lime skin, apricot, and a bit of that ‘rubber bands’ smell you get in a lot of Aussie Riesling. Dry, with medium body and firm acidity. Fruity finish. 89 points, fair value.

Sauvignon Blanc, Invivo, 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Marlborough, New Zealand
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Classic Marlborough Sauvignon, with gooseberry, asparagus and freshly cut grass. Fruity, not too herbal or vegetal. Balanced and dry with good acidity. 90 points, good value.

Montagny 1er Cru ‘La Grande Roche’, Louis Latour, 2009
100% Chardonnay grape from Burgundy, France
£14.99 available at Wine Rack

Pretty, floral nose (hawthorn blossom). Very dry and lean, but with a touch of honey and some richness of texture on the palate. Medium length, with good acidity and a mineral finish. This is a winning example of what can sometimes be an austere and unloveable appellation. 89 points, fair value.

Sancerre ‘Monts Damnés’, Fournier, 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc grape from Loire, France
£19.99 available at Wine Rack

Pronounced grassy and attractively herbal nose. Lean, medium-bodied, with a spicy acidity. Very dry and still quite tightly wound but this is very good and will continue to improve in the short-term. 91 points, fair value.


Anything to avoid?


There were a good number of wines out of the 75 I tasted that, if I had bought blind, would have been a bit disappointing. Their ‘house’ Champagne, Autreau, was not great (non vintage 86 points, rosé non vintage 85 points) and neither great value. And:


Chardonnay, Septimo Dia, 2008
100% Chardonnay grape from Mendoza, Argentina
£10.99 available at Wine Rack

Burnt pie crust on the nose. Pineapple and coconut, with lots of dark caramel on the finish. Not that bad really, but very heavy on the oak. 85 points, not great value.

Pinotage ‘The Owl Post’, Neethlingshof 2010
100% Pinotage grape from Stellebosch, South Africa
£14.99 available at Wine Rack

To rename this ‘The Fowlmost’ might be a little harsh, but there was definitely a hint of that ‘fag ash and blood’ thing that Pinotage can exhibit when it’s in a sulk. Not entirely unenjoyable, but compared to the Vergelegen at almost the same price, I know where my money would go. 86 points, not great value.

Château d’Anglès ‘Rouge Classique’ 2008
A blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 20% Mourvèdre grapes from La Clape, France
£11.99 available at Wine Rack, reduced to £9.99 from 14th November 2011 to 8th January 2012

Full-bodied. Damson, plum and cooked strawberry fruit. A bit sweaty and dirty. Noticeable, unbalanced level of alcohol. 85 points, not great value. (NB the alcohol level on their Blanc Classique 09 also seemed unbalanced.)