Who are Britain's best wine retailers?

Oddbins is in trouble again, having called in the administrators after a terrible Christmas trading period. It’s sad news for those of us who retain a deep affection for the eclectic chain where they learned to love wine. All the more so since, in recent years under the supervision of master of wine Ana Sapungiu, the stores were once again full of a diverse range of interesting, well-priced wines.

The news isn’t all that surprising. The company has always seemed a bit rickety and never, under a succession of different owners, quite able to buck the long-term trend that has seen off its high street rivals, from Unwins to Victoria Wine, Threshers and Bottoms Up.

According to administrators Duff & Phelps, the latest incarnation’s problems were down to brutal market conditions for bricks and mortar retailers: stagnant wages and rising living costs meaning a big drop in consumer spending, plus escalating business rates and rents (an average rise of 17.8% across the Oddbins estate). On top of all that, in the past year, wine retailers have also had to try to cope with the latest inflationary duty rise and a weak pound putting up the price of their stock.

What makes this feel slightly different from previous Oddbins blowouts is that wine lovers have so many more alternatives. It’s not quite true to say that this is a golden age of wine retail in the UK, not when the big three supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda), which collectively account for almost half of wine sold in the UK’s off-trade, have arguably never been more dull. And Brexit could still change everything for a business so dependent on imports.

But there are plenty of bright spots. A putative Observer best supermarket gong would probably go to Waitrose, narrowly pipping Marks & Spencer thanks to the breadth of its range and an injection of excitement in the past couple of years with improvements in its South American, South African and Australian selections. For value, the Co-op edges Aldi: while the German discounter has the odd fabulous bargain, the caring sharing convenience giant is more consistently good for those looking for change from a tenner.

The best wine club, the Wine Society, has outstanding value and variety once you’ve paid your £40 lifetime membership fee. And then you get to the real excitement. According to trade magazine The Wine Merchant, the UK now has 913 specialist independent wine shops, a number which has grown hugely in the past 10 years. Hyper-local and personal by their very nature, it’s hard to single out just one for praise, so I’ve highlighted a few personal favourites in the wine recommendationsbelow. Collectively these are the places to look if you’re after the same kind of fun and originality so many of us loved in Oddbins.

Six of the best bottles

OFM March wine

Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Umbrele Syrah, Romania 2016 (from £7.50,;;
Independents don’t just deal in expensive kit: this superb value, succulent, spicy Romanian syrah is sold by three of my favourite small merchants: Cambridgshire’s Amps Fine Wines, Lewes’s Symposium and Hampton Hill’s Noble Green.

The Society’s Exhibition Limarí Chardonnay 2017 (£10.50,
The Wine Society’s non-profit mutual model translates into brilliant value and range, not least in its own-label wines, such as this wonderful new-wave cooler-climate Chilean with its star-bright acidity and freshness contrasting with luscious orchard fruit.

Domaine de l’ldylle Cuvée Orangerie, Savoie, France 2017 (£11.95,
An old favourite Alpine white wine, in typically pretty, genteel and graceful form this vintage. From an old favourite independent, Dorset’s Yapp Bros, which is celebrating 50 years of selling brilliant off-the-beaten track French wines.

Remy Ferbras Ventoux, Rhône, France 2016 (£6.99, reduced from £8.79 until 19 March, 2019, Waitrose)
The bigger Waitrose and M&S stores are the only supermarkets I’d choose to go to solely for wine. This is one of the best value bottles in the Waitrose line-up: a bright but savoury red blend that handles stews and sausages beautifully.

Cullen Amber Wine, Margaret River, Australia 2017 (£31,
From one of Western Australia’s best producers, this is an immaculate take on orange wine, with a nervy clarity, tanginess and floral prettiness. It’s one of many delicious curiosities sold by the superb London indie mini-chain, Bottle Apostle.

Cop de Ma Priorat, Spain 2017 (£13, the Co-op)
The Co-op has some real gems in its range. You won’t find all of them in all 7,000 stores (some of which can be a bit disappointing wine-wise), so it’s worth hunting around for this gem of a deep plummy, gamey-savoury Catalan red.

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