Fine flavours for under £5
Is the £5 bottle of wine an endangered species? You might think so, but you'd be wide of the mark. The average price we pay per bottle in the shops is still only a few pence above a fiver. Putting it another way, half the wine we drink at home has cost us £5 or less.
Wine itself is cheaper today, in real terms, than it has ever been. But there's a catch. In Britain, it is heavily taxed. The greater part of the retail price of a £5 bottle of still wine is tax: £2 excise duty plus 80p in VAT. Out of the £2.20 remaining has to come the cost of the wine, all its packaging and transport and the profit for the retailer, distributor and, lest we forget, the producer.
The upshot is that a lot of wine at or under £5 isn't very good. Most of the bad stuff, to my way of thinking, is accounted for by discounted brands from Australia, South Africa and the USA, much of it shipped in bulk and bottled here in the UK.
New World plonk far outsells anything from Europe. Big marketing budgets – which include the substantial costs of funding discounts in the supermarkets – have won Australia and the US first and second place as suppliers to Britain, substantially ahead of France, Italy and Spain.
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I am mystified by this, because the Continental wine nations do produce plenty of excellent wines at the budget end of the market. They win hands down on quality and diversity, and certainly have price advantages over competitors who must ship their wine, in bulk or bottle, from the far side of the world.
Tasting hundreds of wines priced at around a fiver for the new edition of my annual guide, The Best Wines in the Supermarkets, I have found dozens of true bargains from Europe, and very, very few decent buys from farther afield. The message is, if you're the average shopper paying the average price, do seek out wines that are above average for taste and quality.
Here are some £4 to £5 supermarket favourites from the new book. You might notice that two of the chains feature more strongly than the rest for true bargains. It seems striking to me that they are Asda and Waitrose.
Asda Wine Selection Côtes du Rhône 2012, £4. Sunny southern French red delivers pure, convincing joy. By Cellier des Dauphins, it's pale but not wan in colour, has a proper berry-pepper nose and cheery, healthy, spicy-fresh authentic fruit.
Asda Wine Selection Corbières 2012, £5. This is fantastically good, from a Mediterranean AC not always known for excellence. Will improve for a year or two.
Three Houses GSM Spanish Red, Morrisons, £4.49. GSM stands for constituent grapes grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, all used to good effect in this purple, spicy-sweet, briary and balanced non-vintage cheapie from Valencia. Great value.
Sainsbury's Winemakers' Selection Portuguese Red, £4.99. This relishably typical Portuguese non-vintage red is brightly fruity with brambly ripeness and spicy suggestions of clove and cinnamon; a natural match for sardines or other oily fish as well as poultry.
Tesco Beaujolais, £4.79. The brilliant 2011 vintage of this own-label classic has been replaced with this non-vintage blend which presumably includes wine from the difficult 2012 harvest. Juicy red refresher best enjoyed cool, and terrific value.
Tesco Valpolicella 2012, £4.99. The once-chic wine of Verona is back, and even at the budget end of the market, looking good. Cherry-perfumed, plum-fresh red with wholesome nutty sweetness, crisp finish; 11% alcohol.
Waitrose Soft and Juicy Chilean Red,£4.99. This is my favourite from Waitrose's new bargain own-label range, delivering genuine sunshine flavours from merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes, elegantly balanced, with easy weight but comfortably concentrated, satisfying and clean-finishing.
Cuvée Chasseur 2012 ,Waitrose, £4.99. Crafty Carcassonne blend of perpetual wonder is juicy and briary with a note of regional spicy-herbaceous "garrigue" and plump ripeness besides; from legendary local winemaker Alain Grignon. Outstanding value.
Asda Wine Selection Marsanne 2012, £4.50. This alluringly coloured lovely fruit-salad ensemble from the Foncalieu co-operative in France's Languedoc region balances fresh, tangy zest with glorious orchard-exotic white fruits to miraculous effect at a ridiculously low price.
Asda Wine Selection South African Chenin Blanc 2012, £5. This Cape dry white has fresh green appeal and a trace of lushness; really well made. South African chenin blanc is a wine to watch.
Tesco Simply Soave Classico 2012, £4.79. An eager, zesty nose on a softer-than-expected ripely orchardy example of this classic white wine of Verona is followed up with a lick of blanched-almond richness; charming, and cheap.
Cuvée Pêcheur 2012, Waitrose, £4.95. A summer wine from ugni blanc grapes grown in Gascony, southwest France, where much of the harvest goes into distilling for Armagnac brandy. This one is brassica-brisk with crisp white-fruit freshness and an urgent tanginess. It stands out from the crowd, especially at the price. Just 11.5% alcohol.
Waitrose Aromatic and Citrus Spanish Dry White 2012, £4.99. A cumbersome name maybe, but a simply delicious brisk and breezy wine from a cunning blend of airen and verdejo grapes; the effect is electric, a proper exciting Atlantic-fresh style at a giveaway price.