The many virtues of Majestic wine

Date:10-05-2014 07:58:06 read:0

The many virtues of Majestic wine

A business wobble in March shouldn’t blind us to Majestic’s strengths: knowledge, enthusiasm – and some sweet deals

La France profonde: Majestic boxes above its weight in the UK market for French wines, selling 12.5% of the bordeaux, and 47% of the Provençal wine, bought in British shops. The picture above shows vineyards below Mont Ste Victoire near Aix-en-Provence, beloved of Paul Cezanne  Photo: Alamy

My dad was on the telephone within days of the new Majestic Wine store opening in Ilkley, his nearest town. He had been in to stock up on wines from my List, plus The Ned sauvignon blanc with which my parents have an almost unhealthy obsession.

“They told me,” said Dad triumphantly, “not to buy The Ned because it’s going on a better offer next week. So I’ll go back in, save a bit of money.”

Whoever served him had made a friend for life. I mentioned this to Steve Lewis, Majestic’s chief executive, as we chatted at the end of a tasting. “Oh yes,” he said. “We encourage our staff to do that.”

I was surprised; usually shops are keener to tell their customers when a promotion is about to end – a classic “deadline” persuasion tactic that encourages emergency stocking-up – than to discourage them from paying a higher price. But then Majestic, which now also owns fine wine merchant Lay & Wheeler, has always operated differently from anyone else, in so many ways, from its minimum six-bottle purchase to its emphasis on letting customers get to know the wines through tastings.

That doesn’t mean it is immune from the gloom afflicting so many of the big high street players. Majestic shares slid by almost 20 per cent in March after a profit warning was announced: “Immediately Christmas finished the consumer went very quiet. February was much quieter than we expected,” Lewis said at the time.

Still, its 200 stores (as of November, and counting; it’s pressing to have 330 by 2022 — Yorkshire folk will get another one, in Skipton, this summer) remain excellent places in which to buy wine. In terms of quality and choice, no one does the £6-£10 bottle better.

One of the elements I most look forward to in a Majestic tasting is the bordeaux section (we are typically shown about 140 wines, a fraction of the range but as many as I can manage in a day — some would say more than I can manage, even spitting). It’s not always good but it does always offer an, “Oooh, what have they got now?” frisson. This is because Majestic likes to buy mature bordeaux in parcels and the buyers are good at it. They go around the negociants in Bordeaux, tasting stock from unheralded vintages (2002 and 2007 often come up) that no one wanted to buy en primeur, find wines that work at a certain price and stick them on the shelf.

It makes for an exciting range. These might not be perfect wines but they have more to offer than boring box-tickers. For instance, Chateau Tour du Haut-Moulin 2007, Cru Bourgeois, which I am sure Steve Lewis will not mind me telling you will be £9.99 down from £14.99 when you buy two bottles in June (I will remind you again nearer the time). Note that 2007 ain’t a great year. Its wines are usually much more mature and developed than surrounding vintages and with this bottle that works in your favour – you get the gorgeous cigar box and cedar imprint of mature claret, for less than a tenner. So nice.

If Majestic punches above its weight (with 12.5 per cent of the market share against 4.2 per cent in general) with bordeaux, it does so even more when it comes to Provence, selling 47 per cent of all the Provençal wine bought in shops in this country.

The reason for this is that they went big on pale pink a few years ago. And I mean big in every way, with a broad range and also big bottles, the first of which was the popular Aix rosé in magnum.

“Chris [Hardy, one of Majestic’s buyers] loves to bring this up,” says Lewis, rolling his eyes at Hardy, who is standing with us. “Because it’s famous as the wine I didn’t want to list. He brought it to a meeting, and put it on the table right at the end. I said, 'We’re not selling that,’ and a howl went up, 'No, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.’ ”

The wine sold out almost immediately. They bought 36,000 magnums last year and it ran out in June. “We even sold some methusalehs,” chips in Hardy.

This year they’ve ordered 45,000 magnums and added three new pink magnums. One comes in an ugly square bottle that is hard to pour and isn’t worth the hassle. The other is the curvy M de Minuty 2013 (see right); the third is the very good Brangelina rosé, Miraval.

One area I wish they would buck up on is Italy – there are some good wines but I want them to feel more Italian, more bittersweet, more operatic, more edgy, to make me want to cook pasta and vitello tonnato.

But no one’s perfect. And the other thing Majestic does well – not least because of its drink or return policy – is wines for events: weddings, parties and all those PTA meetings and dos. I’ve put PTA in there because apparently there’s a primary school in Hertfordshire that gets its wine from Tesco, even though one of the parents is a buyer at Majestic. Chris Hardy might have mentioned that, although he’s far too nice to elbow his way forward.

Majestic wines I've enjoyed recently

Domaine des Garrigues Lirac 2012 France (13.5%, £8.49 down from £9.99 when you buy two, Majestic)

Garrigue is the name given to the rough, herb-covered, wild scrubland of the south of France and I’m sure it’s not just the sight of the word on the bottle that leads me to find similar fragrances in this red. An unoaked blend of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, it tastes black, soft and rich, like blueberries and brambles. Delicious.

M de Minuty Rosé 2013 Côtes de Provence, France (13%, 75cl: £9.99 down from £14.99 when you buy two before June 2. 150cl: £25, Majestic)

Pale pink and whispering of sandalwood, Château Minuty is made on the St Tropez peninsula and that is where I first tasted it. It is classic holiday wine, but holiday wine that brings the scent of the Côte d’Azur into your kitchen rather than falling flat at home. Comes in magnums, which look like a giant version of something you might hang in your car. So kitsch it’s great.

Peter Lehmann Riesling 2013 Eden Valley, Australia (11%, £8.92 if you buy two, or £10.49, Majestic)

This searingly bright white says “dry” on the label but it’s not quite. There is just a tiny, succulent peck of sherbetty sweetness (the number, geeks, is 5.7g/litre of residual sugar) here. All bright lime and a touch of lilac, it’s lively, direct and, blissfully, relatively low in alcohol.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013