The Costco Canberra wine offer

The liquor section occupies just one aisle of the vast Costco warehouse. You weave your way to it past pre-fab gazebos, kayaks, pallets of flat screen televisions, groceries, small goods, dairy products and more, dodging truck-sized trolleys loaded with everything – including the kitchen sink (double tub).

Yes, the kitchen sink distracts us as we arrive at the long gondola of waist-to-chest-high open wooden boxes crammed with wines. The gondola-end screams for attention with tissue-wrapped Penfolds reds, including Grange 2006 ($479.99) and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($149.99).

Fittingly, they’re in company with blue chips from France’s Bordeaux region – first growth, Chateau Margaux 2008, cheaper than Grange at $399.99 (and probably not as good in this vintage) and second growth, Chateau Pichon-Lalande 2008 at $124.99.

We wander around the two-sided gondola discovering an eclectic mix of Australian and imported wines, with perhaps a greater weight to imports than we’d see in the average local liquor store. This probably reflects Costco’s American origins – Americans tend to drink a greater proportion of imports than Australians do – and formidable international buying power.

There’s a strong focus on Champagne at very keen prices, starting with the house brand, Kirkland Signature Brut NV at $33.99. It’s sourced from an address in Verzenay (a village in the Champagne region) and shipped via Louisiana, USA. I’ve not tried it yet, but the price is good for the real thing, so it’s worth a try.

If you’re not willing to chance your money on the house brand, a big stack of the delicious Bollinger Brut NV at $58.99 may prove tempting – though it’s close to Dan Murphy’s $59.85 and 1st Choice’s $62-odd. Competition may bring them all back to the same level. We note Cosco’s stock doesn’t bear the import sticker of the Australian agent, Fine Wine Partners. So it’s probably a direct import.

A big floor stack of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut NV at 51.99 offers great value, too, though not dramatically below Dan Murphy’s $52.85 each (in six-packs). But Moet et Chandon Brut Imperial NV at $48.99 trims a bit over $10 off the Dan Murphy price. Likewise Moet’s deluxe blend, Dom Perignon 2002 at $187.99 makes Dan Murphy look expensive at $214.95 each in six-packs.

A couple of potential bargains catch our eye among these wooden crates – 2009 vintage Chablis from Domaine William Fevre ($18.99), one of the region’s most highly regarded producers, and Michel Bouchard ($14.99). We can’t resist, so watch for the reviews in a few weeks. While we’re in chardonnay mode we grab a bottle, too, of Puligny-Montrachet 2008 ($42.99) from negociant Louis Latour. We’ll throw that in the same tasting.

Nearby we spot the beautiful De Bortoli Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2010 (reviewed today) at $21.10 – towards the bottom end of its price range.

We notice a mix of Australian wines from big and small makers, including Grant Burge, Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Tyrrell’s, McWilliams, Evans and Tate, Brokenwood (especially Beechworth Pinot Gris at $11.99), Seville Estate, Freycinet, Meerea, Tarrawarra, Yarra Yering, Ross Hill, Tamar Ridge, De Bortoli, Knappstein, Fonty’s Pool and Petaluma.

The Australian selection continues on pallet racks near the wooden-case displays, dominated by cut cases of Yellow Tail 1.5 litre bottles at $11.99. On an adjacent rack we find the only two wine casks on offer – four-litre De Bortoli Colombard Chardonnay and Cabernet Merlot.

Back at the wooden cases we poke around among the imports, including Chateau Tour St Bonnet 2006, a cru bourgeois from the Medoc, Bordeaux at $19.99 – worth a chance, for sure at that price. Nearby we see a small selection from Spain’s Rioja region, ranging from $14.99 to $29.99 for Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2003. We have no idea how good these might be, but we’ll taste and review them over time. Likewise we’ll try Flori Barolo 2006 at $16.99 and Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2005 at $35.99.

From Beaujolais in France we see Fleurie 2009 (Chateau du Chenas) at $14.99 and from Burgundy, Savigny-Les-Beaune 2008 (Michel Bouchard) at $15.99 and Nuits-St-George 2008 (Bouchard Pere et Fils) at $38.98. We don’t expect any excitement here, but these are good prices for Burgundy and the wines just might be OK. We’ll let the wines do the talking.

Our pulses race when we see a couple of wines from Taylors, one of Portugal’s great Port houses – and the prices seem sharp: $37.99 for Taylors Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port 2001 and $16.98 for Late Bottled Vintage Port 2004. These are unique, undervalued fortified wines, far removed the styles we produce in Australia. We notice Morris of Rutherglen muscat and tokay among the tiny range of fortifieds.

Nearby we see a couple of whites from Alsace and a potentially good German wine, Urziger Wurztgarten Riesling Spaetlese 2008 (Christoffel) at $14.99.

From New Zealand we see wines from Cloudy Bay and Villa Maria – but not like the acres of sauvignon blanc lined up in most liquor stores. Oh, yes, we spot a French sauvignon blanc, too, from Sancerre in the Loire Valley.

Clearly Costco are not attempting to be all things to all people. It’s a small selection and while the prices seem good, there’s nothing here that the big retailers won’t be able to match. Indeed their focus on known Australian brands will certainly increase competition in the region. Smaller retailers, however, may feel the pinch as they lack the buying power of these big groups.

Whether or not Costco can hold our interest is another matter. If the range on offer changes over time then there’ll be reason to return. But if it’s a static offering, then it won’t take long to work through the range – which is so much smaller than offered by the big retailers and independent operators in our region.

On the other hand, a narrower choice may appeal to many wine drinkers confused by the colossal range on offer in some outlets. And by including so many affordable imports in the mix, Costco may tempt drinkers outside their comfort zones.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 3 August 2011 in The Canberra Times