Tesco offer walks a fine line

09 July, 2010

Tesco Finest, or rather Finest*, wine range is celebrating its 10th birthday at the moment, complete with a press tasting, some corporate chest beating and a Finest Limited Edition 2000 Vintage selection. The range includes specially chosen wines from Barón de Ley in Rioja, the Symingtons in the Douro Valley, Seppeltsfield in South Australia and Bordeaux’s Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte.

The “F” word started out as a brand focused on chilled ready meals in 1998, spreading into other food lines before it reached the wine aisles in 2000. The line-up currently runs to 90 wines and will increase to 100 in October this year.

It might be a slight exaggeration to say, as BWS category director Dan Jago does, that “Finest is at the heart of our business”, but it’s certainly an increasingly important part of Tesco’s wine offering, accounting for around 7% of sales (12 million bottles last year) and 10% of its total SKUs.

More significantly still, the average shelf price of the Finest range is £9.14. Even if this is closer to £7.50 when deals and promotional offers are taken into account, it remains an impressive figure.

As someone who has berated Tesco for its lack of ambition recently, it’s a pleasure to see the multiple grocer pushing its more expensive lines, inspiring consumers to trade up and take a few risks, rather than shouting about its position as “Britain’s biggest discounter” and scrapping for market share with the likes of Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl.

What is the rationale behind Finest? Jago says it represents “the best in our own-label range”, offering Tesco shoppers a series of “textbook classics” as well as introducing them to “unfamiliar varieties”. It’s hard to find fault with any of that.

You may not agree that, say, the lacklustre Finest Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne 2009 “demonstrates the passion we have for our products”, but there is no denying that the wine aisles would be less interesting without the Finest category.

Do customers distinguish between Finest and the Fine Wine range? The semantic difference is slight, but they are very different ranges, according to Jago.

The former, as we’ve heard, needs to be a “textbook” example from a recognised producer, variety or region and available in sufficient volume to satisfy demand. The latter, meanwhile, is made up of small parcels, often of very limited availability, sold at “premium” prices and frequently offered online at tesco.com.

Fair enough, but I still have a slight problem with the term “Finest”, just as I do with “The Best” at Morrisons and “Extra Special” at Asda. “I’ll be the judge of that,” I want to reply.

All three ranges include good, bad and mediocre wines. When the stuff in the bottle is enjoyable, I’m happy to applaud, but when bog-standard plonk comes wreathed in hyperbole, surely it undermines consumer confidence in the whole brand? The range as a whole is only as good as its weakest link, or links.

To take only one example, the Finest St Emilion 2007 is the sort of negociant blend that does a disservice to a famous appellation. To many consumers, St Emilion is a recognisable name, facilitating the step up from, for example, a basic claret to something more prestigious. Confronted with something like this thin, tannic blend from Yvon Mau, I suspect many consumers would be put off St Emilion for life.

At its best, Finest gives punters the confidence to try new things. In fact, one of the biggest plus points is the increasing breadth of the range. New listings include a Vermentino, a Grenache from the Côtes Catalanes and an Aussie blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

Put these alongside existing wines such as South African Pinotage and Chenin Blanc, Argentinian Malbec, Aussie Semillon, Vacqueyras, Nero d’Avola and Albariño, all of which are outside the mainstream, and Finest deserves praise for introducing its customers to new things.

A handful of the Finest wines are genuinely outstanding at the price. The Crémant d’Alsace Riesling 2005, the Chablis Premier Cru 2008, the Pouilly-Fumé 2008, the Gavi 2009, the Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 2009, the Awatere Pinot Grigio 2009, the Denman Vineyard Semillon 2006, the Tingleup Riesling 2009, the Vacqueyras 2008, the Viña Mara Rioja Reserva 2005, the Portuguese Touriga Nacional 2008, the Barolo 2005, the Argentinian Malbec 2008, the Barossa Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, the Finest Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and the Vintage Port 1994 are all extremely well chosen wines.

So are several of the Limited Edition range, most notably the claret, the Hunter Semillon, the Gran Reserva Rioja and a magnificent Grand Muscat Tawny from Australia. When those go on sale in mid-July expect them to sell out within hours.

For all its occasional failings, the Finest range is moving in the right direction. More to the point, it seems to be taking consumers with it.

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