As oxymorons go, they may not be as absurd as “French resistance”, “amicable divorce” and “camping holiday”, but there’s still something fundamentally silly about Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Spaghetti Bolognese, Asda Extra Special Lemon Curd and Tesco’s Finest Mug. Is nothing to be spared the “premiumisation” treatment? Dog Food? Bleach? Light bulbs?
Up-market own labels are big business in the wine aisles too. Call something Finest, Extra Special, Taste the Difference or Pretty Damned Good and you can charge more for it. Our three biggest supermarkets sell these “affordable” vinous luxuries at an average premium of £2, which is impressive when you consider that most consumers are extremely reluctant to spend more than £5. Exclude Champagne and only 10% of the wine we buy costs more than a fiver.
Two of these own-label brands are currently celebrating their tenth anniversaries. Cue a cake and candles for Finest and Taste the Difference (known as Classic Selection until 2005). Extra Special was also launched in 2000, but didn’t include wine until 2007. Too much lemon curd to sell, presumably.
Blended together, the three “treat” lines add up to 200 wines (100 at Tesco and 50 each at Asda and Sainsbury’s). Given the fact that they generally retail above £6, the odd two for £10 deal notwithstanding, they represent a sizeable chunk of the premium wine sold in the UK. Without them, the supermarkets would be a wine wasteland.
How good are the respective ranges? The best by far is Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference, which consistently delivers good examples of popular wine styles. To name only a handful, the Beaujolais Villages, Chablis, Gavi, Vintage Cava, Muscadet Sur Lie, Pouilly-Fumé, Douro, Barossa Shiraz, Barolo, Alsace Gewürztraminer and Amarone are all really well selected wines at fair prices.
The most mixed is Asda’s Extra Special. If irony died, as the satirist Tom Lehrer claimed, on the day that Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, then it has been resuscitated by Asda’s Extra Special Corbières, Crozes-Hermitage, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. But even at Asda, there are some excellent own-label wines, most notably the Extra Special Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand Pinot Noir, Chablis, Clare Valley Riesling, Primitivo and Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tesco’s line up is the most ambitious, but it’s also the one with the most padding. Do wine drinkers really need a Finest Argentinean Chardonnay, a Tautavel, a Stellenbosch Shiraz and a Limestone Coast Merlot? What do bog-standard examples of these wines taste like? I suspect most punters wouldn’t have a clue. The Finest range could be pruned by a third and conspicuously improved.
And yet there are some delicious things here, too, especially among the small parcels of Limited Edition 2000 Vintage wines, most notably from Bordeaux and Rioja. Those aside, my top six are the Finest Barolo, Pinotage, Vacqueyras, Tingleup Riesling, Denman Vineyard Semillon and Pouilly-Fumé. At its best, Finest lifts the Tesco selection out of the bargain basement that has become its discount-obsessed home over the last two years.
The idea behind these premium ranges is to offer something that tastes “discernibly better”, in the words of one supermarket executive. When they succeed, they are a boon for consumers; when they fail, you’d be better off drinking tea – from a Finest Mug, of course.
2009 Taste the difference Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie (£6.29, 12%, Sainsbury’s)
A delicious, fermentation lees-aged Muscadet from the best sub-region of this under-valued appellation. Bone dry, zesty and seafood-friendly, this has real concentration.
2007 Taste the Difference Vintage Cava Rosé Brut (£6.99, 11.5%, Sainsbury’s)
Unusually for cava, this is made from the champagne grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay rather than local Spanish varieties. Balanced and creamy with lovely sweet-sour raspberry fruit.
2009 Asda Extra Special Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (£6.38, 13.5%)
Sourced from the Pacific-cooled Casablanca Valley, this is a bright, gooseberry, lime and elderflower-scented sauvignon with refreshing zip. Mid-way between the Loire and New Zealand in style.
2008 Tesco Finest Beyers Truter Pinotage (£7.99, 14.5%)
A textbook example of South Africa’s curious local grape, this is rich, smooth and stylishly oaked with liquorice, raspberry and a hint of wood smoke.
2008 Asda Extra Special New Zealand Pinot Noir (£9.20, 13.5%)
A delightfully up-front, ready-to-drink pinot from Wither Hills, with soft, summer pudding fruit, a hint of mint and subtle, toasty oak.
2005 Tesco Finest Barolo (£15.49, 13.6%)
Matteo Ascheri supplies the UK with some of the best value Barolos on the market. This is truffly, leafy and mature, with savoury tannins and firm, pasta-seeking tannins.
Originally published in The Times