The UK is a nation of bargain hunters. There are more pound shops on Britain’s high streets than bookstores. When it comes to wine we’re no different; most of what we buy is on promotion. We may outwardly assert to the omniscient boffin on the Antiques Roadshow that of course we’d never sell great aunt Millie’s favourite elephant sculpture, it means far too much to us… but the cackling David Dickenson on our shoulder has already blown the proceeds on Bordeaux. And wouldn’t it taste even better if that claret was a jaw dropping, eye popping bargain?
Fat chance of that though; along with big name Champagne, top flight claret is rarely a steal. On promotion or not, most famous wine regions are generally best avoided if you’re looking for value. So what is the best way to get maximum bang for buck when shopping for wine? I asked a selection of professional wine buyers, the wine world’s equivalent of the Antiques Roadshow expert, for the inside track.
There are three strategies to bear in mind: explore undervalued or overperforming regions and styles; pay less; and make the wine taste better once you’ve bought it.
When quizzing the buyers on which areas to explore for excellent value wines, one country came up time and time again. “Spain is doing a cracking job” says Philippa Carr MW from Asda. Nick Room from Waitrose agrees, pointing towards Campo de Borja, Calatayud and Jumilla in particular, whereas Jason Millar from London independent Theatre of Wine praises “all that old vine Monastrell from the south… convincing wines that have an awful lot to offer for not much money.” Portugal is also singled out for praise by all three, variously citing Alentejo, Lisboa and Vinho Verde as regions or styles to watch.
Southern Italy, particularly Sicily, is suggested as a good hunting ground. Central and Eastern Europe are also put forward; Carr suggests Slovenia and Croatia, and Millar backs Bulgaria: “a country for us that is producing very good wines at very reasonable prices.” Others to add to the list are South America, Greece and Southern France. Simon Cairns at The Cooperative suggests a mixed bunch including the following: Picpoul de Pinet, Lirac, Barbaresco, Carmenère, Tasmanian sparkling and South American Cabernet Franc.
Susan McCraith MW who consults to Bargain Booze and Wine Rack advises a more general tactic. “Look for satellite areas of better known appellations,” she says, “if you like Sancerre, look for a Quincy.” Millar suggests revisiting regions that are currently unfashionable. Pierre Mansour at The Wine Society concurs, pointing at Sherry: “it’s ridiculous value… the complexity you get for the price.”
For good value in sparkling wine, Mansour recommends Cava over Prosecco. “It’s regarded as cheap and cheerful, but as a Champagne-style alternative, Cava is super value. Prosecco is an altogether simpler wine.” Looking for value further up the price range “it’s all those areas that don’t have a brand identity for fine wine” he says, suggesting Spain, South Africa, the Rhône and Australia: “once you start moving up above £15 a bottle in Australia, the fine wines you can buy at that price point are exceptionally good value… I think it’s a bit of a blind spot.” For sweet wines, Nick Room suggests looking to the New World rather than classic names such as Sauternes.
Millar sums up the overall strategy succinctly: “be bolder, be adventurous.” If you stick to reliable retailers, you should at least avoid poor quality – you may occasionally end up with something unusual, but that’s all part of the fun.
Another route to good value is simply to pay less money for the wine you buy. Most retailers, such as London independent Lea & Sandeman, offer discounts and free delivery on mixed cases. “If someone’s regularly coming in and ordering large volumes, we’re willing to talk to them [about discounts]… Pay cash and smile, and you never know, we may throw in another bottle” says director Charles Lea. It’s always worth haggling if you’re buying in bulk.
Don’t forget to use price comparison websites such as wine-searcher.com to ensure you’re getting the lowest prices, particularly with more expensive wines. Some independents offer the option of buying certain fine wines en primeur (i.e. paying up front before the wine is bottled and receiving your wine a year or two later), which can be cheaper than waiting to buy the wine in bottle (though not always, especially in the case of Bordeaux).
What about buying on promotion? Promotional deals can appear to be a short cut to value, but the public is catching on that some promotions are a con. It’s difficult to generalise, but as a rule it’s the ‘high/low’ supermarket promotions that should be avoided. If it’s too good to be true (50% off for example) it probably is i.e. the ‘discounted’ low price is the wine’s true value; the ‘original’ higher price is artificially inflated. Independent merchants and online specialists are less likely to play this game. Promotions remain an effective way of managing stocks however, so ‘bin end’ discounts and the like shouldn’t be passed over, and can offer genuine savings.
When buying from supermarkets, a better option is to consider the top rung of their own-label ranges. Carr from Asda explains they are less likely to be promoted using such price mechanics, but instead by using medals won at competitions or quoting critics’ endorsements. Don’t forget to factor in the time and expense it takes to visit physical stores; if the experience isn’t a pleasure, buy online and get it delivered instead. If you’re happy shopping online, consider joining The Wine Society. Lifetime membership costs £40, but the prices tend to be lower than the competition thanks to their co-operative business model.
A number of buyers recommend spending more money per bottle to get better value… and they do have a point. The fixed costs made up of tax, packaging and transport mean that once you get to a certain price level, quality increases rapidly. At the national average of just over a fiver per bottle, very little of your money is actually going on wine. McCraith explains “because of duty, it’s worth spending and extra pound or two, and buying wines over £7 or £8 because you’re getting a lot more value for your money.” (This threshold would be lower if the UK’s levels of duty weren’t so out of whack with the rest of Europe; you can join the campaign to reduce them here: Call Time on Duty)
So you’ve bought some overperforming wines at the best possible price. But it doesn’t stop here: there’s more you can do to get optimum pleasure out of your bottle. Start by putting your reds in the fridge for 15 minutes before you drink them. It makes the flavours more defined, the alcohol less noticeable and the wine more refreshing. Conversely, whites are best brought out of the fridge 10 minutes before you drink them.
Another cost-free method that can make a huge difference to flavour is aeration; contact with air reanimates the aromas. Swirl it in the glass and suck air through the wine when it’s in your mouth. If it’s young or full-bodied, decant it for a couple of hours to wake it up before drinking.
There is a host of wine accessories on the market, but first and foremost invest in some decent glassware. Daniel Primack of wine accessories specialist Around Wine agrees “most of all, a wine glass of ideal shape and size will greatly enhance the flavour of the wine you’re drinking.” Riedel make over 100 different types of wine glass, but in my experience five types of glass cover most eventualities: two for reds (one for medium-bodied, aromatic reds; one for full-bodied, tannic reds); two for whites (one for fresh, aromatic whites; one for full, rich whites); and one for sparkling wines (not the classic Champagne flute – something wider is more effective).
Many of us buy wine to drink with food, in which case it makes sense to learn the basics of food and wine matching. Even if you bag a brilliant sweet Riesling for pennies, if you drink it with a chargrilled steak you won’t be getting the most out of it. And, if you can, share your wine with someone that cares as much about wine as you do, you’ll both enjoy it all the more.
Most wines are designed to be drunk young, but the more you spend over the £10 mark, the more likely it is that you can increase your drinking pleasure by pulling the cork at the right time in the wine’s life cycle. Lea’s somewhat impractical (yet nonetheless valid) advice is “buy a house with a cellar… it’s cheaper than getting it stored professionally.” All wines are different, but most reds, Champagnes and top-end whites will benefit from a few years in the bottle; for others a decade or two would be even better. Investing in a wine fridge, a cellar or an account with a wine storage facility might be an undertaking for the more dedicated winelover, but it repays with hugely increased drinking pleasure.
Sharpen your tongue
Any of these three strategies should help you get better value for money; exploring undervalued regions, getting the best possible price, and tweaking when and how you drink it. If you can combine all three, then so much the better.
There are a couple of other approaches that will help you get even more enjoyment from every bottle, and they cost nothing.
If there’s one mouthful of wine that is worth more than any other, surely it’s the first sip; you stop, pay attention and really listen to what it’s saying. As you work your way down the bottle, remember to stop every now and again and really taste like it’s the first mouthful again.
Finally, beware of expectations. Even if it’s an inexpensive wine, give it your full attention; search for the detail, and listen carefully. Plenty of wines that are famous now were cheap before the world caught on. Price does not always equate to quality, so taste every wine as if it’s Pétrus; you never know what you might find.
Ten great value wines
2011 Aldi ‘Minarete’ Ribera del Duero (Spain; 13.5%)
Dark brambly fruits and a touch of dark chocolate and some crème de mure. Some oaky, woody hints underneath. Full-bodied, rounded and fleshy, with a slick of ripe tannin that outstays its welcome just a touch on the finish. But otherwise well balanced and savoury, very drinkable. Not terribly easy to place as a Ribera, but nonetheless a well made wine. 87 points, very good value.
2012 Paseo White (Lisboa, Portugal; 12.5%)
A blend of Arinto, Fernão Pires, Chardonnay and Moscatel. Very pale, with a light attractive perfume. White flowers and a touch of apricot. Light to medium-bodied, fresh, clean. Light to start with, but then has good concentration of flavour, medium length, and quite a firm finish. Not terribly characterful, but harmonious, drinkable and enjoyable. Quaffable, refreshing and very well balanced. 87 points, very good value.
2011 Asda ‘Extra Special’ Dão (Portugal; 13%)
Bright and spicy nose with crispy bacon and blackberry fruits. Medium-bodied, good acidity, balanced alcohol and lots of clean juicy berry fruit flavour. Medium length, nicely balanced, thirst quenching stuff. Authentic and satisfying. 88 points, very good value.
2013 La Guardiense ‘Janare’ Falanghina del Sannio (Campania, Italy; 13.5% ABV)
£6.95, The Wine Society
Fairly quiet peach and ripe apricot nose, with some almond and fennel too. Full-bodied for a white, good concentration, full, firm, grippy finish with a touch of tannin – powerful stuff for something so fruity and fresh. Quite oily in texture. Nectarines on the finish. Very drinkable, well balanced, medium length. 88 points, very good value.
NV Gonzalez Byass ‘Leonor’ 12 year old Palo Cortado Sherry NV (Spain; 20% ABV)
£11.45, The Whisky Exchange
Pale sandy brown. Dates, figs, sultanas and currants. A touch of furniture polish, honeycomb and treacle. It has a really complex nose. Dry, savoury, and intensely flavoursome. Long, nicely balanced and fresh. A touch of caramel and toffee on the finish. Medium to full-bodied, very concentrated, deliciously drinkable. Incredibly complex for a wine priced at this level. We’re surely living in the golden age of absurdly cheap Sherry, it deserves to be twice the quoted price of £11.45. 92 points, very good value.
2009 Château Pech La Calévie Monbazillac (France; 14.5% ABV)
£11.95, The Wine Society
Gold coloured sweet wine with powerful aromatics of noble rot, bananas and ripe honeydew melon. Add to that fresh mushrooms, dried mango, apricot and turmeric. Full-bodied but balanced by precise acidity and intense concentration of flavour. Luscious, thick texture, honeyed sweetness but with a fresh, zingy finish. Utterly delicious, concentrated, long and balanced – punches well above its weight. 91 points, very good value.
2012 Concha y Toro ‘Marques de Casa Concha’ Chardonnay (Limarí, Chile; 14% ABV)
Intense, lively, rich and fruity nose (pineapple). Medium-bodied, fresh, very pure. Lovely acidity and lift with a long, fruity, powerful, intensely mineral finish. Balanced use of oak, very long, well balanced. Impressive stuff. Limarí is one of the most exciting and underpriced regions for Chardonnay in the world and Concha y Toro is leading the pack. 93 points, very good value.
NV Nautilus ‘Cuvée Marlborough’ Brut (New Zealand; 12.0% ABV)
70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, bottle fermented. Apple, apricot and sweet pastry on the nose. Slightly nutty (almonds). Mouth-filling soft fizz. Juicy acidity. Good length, tangy finish. Clearly a touch warmer in climate than Champagne. Long, spicy, honeyed, toasty finish. Fruity, rich and delicious. Really makes an impression – fairly quiet on the nose, but bags of flavour, good balance and real complexity. Every sip is rewarding. The best sparkling I’ve tasted from New Zealand in a long time. 93 points, very good value.
2012 Vincent Paris ‘La Geynale’ Cornas (Rhône, France; 14% ABV)
Saturated dark purple colour. Like some kind of olfactory black hole, it seems to be sucking smell in rather than giving it out. Some perceptible plum, damson, and blackberry fruits can be coaxed out, and some shoe polish aromas. Enormous and unforgiving in the mouth. It seems to move your mouth rather than the other way round. Extremely intense, packed with ripe tannin, dark matter and flavour. Hard to believe it’s made of grapes. All balanced though and savoury, with no excess sweetness, alcohol or oak. This is something else. Buy, then wait. The best value red in my 2012 Rhône Report. 96 points, very good value.
1968 D’Oliveras Boal Madeira (Portugal; 20% ABV)
£110, Fortnum & Mason
Brown like a dried date in the middle, with a yellowy-green edge. Incredibly complex nose of soy, plum sauce, walnuts, brown bread, old wood and leather-bound books. Medium sweet, incredibly intense but light, bright and dynamic in the mouth. Rolling waves of flavour carried along by a beam of acidity. Juicy and succulent like a plump sultana. Incredibly long, perfectly balanced, clear, focussed and majestic. The added value bonus of Madeira is that once opened it doesn’t go off like normal wine, you can keep it corked and take occasional sips, like a whisky. I asked the importer Geoff Bovey if Madeira got much better: “the ’22 Boal is in another league, another universe!” Hard to imagine: I’m saving up already. 98 points, very good value.