An expert's guide to buying wine at the supermarket
The idea of British men drinking beer or drinking nothing is a thing of the past.
Whether it's down to health benefits, calorie counting or just personal taste, we've moved on from that.
We don't all want to restrict ourselves to paleo margaritas, though, and wine is fast becoming a tipple of choice.
It might have done so faster, though, if people weren't afraid of choosing badly and being made to look the fool.
Buying wine at a supermarket or your local off-licence can be a minefield. With shelves and shelves worth of bottles, many with labels in foreign languages and industry jargon, it's a lot easier to get things wrong than it is to get things right.
We know we're no experts ourselves, so we decided to speak to someone who knows exactly what she's talking about.
With that in mind, we caught up with wine buyer Frances Bentley to find out the answers to the questions you've always wanted to ask.
JOE: Is there a ‘cutoff’ price below which no supermarket wine is worth buying/above which it’s noticeably better?
Frances: Rule of thumb, spend at least a fiver. Have a look at this graph:
I get asked about the "value" of cheap wine a lot. This explains it more clearly. pic.twitter.com/bFEdGYk2Mi
— ⚡️ CASHMERE SCUMBAG ⚡️ (@awesommelier) December 18, 2014
Duty and overheads stay the same regardless of how much you pay, duty is NOT a percentage. It’s only when you start paying over a fiver that you are paying for the actual wine, and not duty, shipping, glass, etc. If you pay a fiver then because of the fact the fixed costs are the same, you will see the difference. If you then pay 8 or 9, you will actually see some attention to quality and not simply bulk produced juice.
Is it always better to buy a wine with a more expensive RRP that’s reduced, as opposed to one that comes in at the same price with no reduction (e.g. £8 with 25% off vs £6)?
Many of these deals are misleading. I commonly see Hardy’s wines shown at £10 reduced to £5 - these are wines never intended to be £10. Buy what you are prepared to pay and don’t be fooled by discounts unless it’s a bulk deal such as buy 6 get 20% off.
Are there some grapes where the quality drops off more for cheaper bottles? Similarly are there any which you should look out for in particular when buying supermarket wins?
Everything drops off when you start to get cheaper! You need to take into account that the cheaper the wine, the less the supermarket will have been prepared to pay the producer and therefore they will not be using their best grapes or best techniques to produce a quality wine. Some are worse than others though, cheap Pinot Grigio is usually cut with another lesser grape, but to 15% sometimes, and this can make the wine more dilute and uninteresting.
Are there any giveaways on labels as to whether a wine is good or bad?
If you find ‘mis en bouteille’ on a French label it means that the wine was made and bottled at the winery, and is less likely to be a bulk wine, shipped elsewhere for bottling.
Try to avoid being swayed by terms like ‘reserve’ on wines from the new world as they have no legal definition and just tend to be thrown on their to fool consumers into thinking they’ve got something special; - terms like this mean something in Spain, but not in Chile or Argentina.
What are the main things to take into account for old world vs new world? Are certain regions markedly better for certain grapes (or even for red vs white)?
It’s all down to personal taste. Some regions my colleagues love, I’m not so fussed about. It’s worth making notes of what you like and doing a bit of reading, as nerdy as it sounds it does help and it makes you pay more attention to what it is you are drinking!
Each grape is different and performs differently in each country due to climate, terroir (a French term that encapsulates soil, aspect, microclimate etc), but then all winemakers are different.
Pinot Noir tends to like cooler climates, but there are instances where it does well in slightly warmer areas. There are some rules with where to grow grapes, but there are plenty of winemakers prepared to break them.
How does British wine compare to some of your more traditional wine-producing countries? Is it improving?
It’s actually fairly traditional in terms of the sparkling wines - they are using the champagne method to produce champagne style wines. The still wines have more in common with German wines, with Dornfelder and Bacchus being grown. These aren’t exactly cutting edge, and I’m disappointed they aren’t a bit more ‘out there’, but because of the price of land, labour and the expectations on the winemakers I think they feel obliged to produce in quite a conservative manner. They are starting to achieve some incredibly good sparkling now, but still wines have a way to go.
What does Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) mean, and is it something you should look out for when buying your wine from a supermarket?
AOC is how the French control the origins of the wines produced in quality areas. For example in Burgundy it sets out the boundaries of the regions, controls which areas are of a higher quality (grand cru) and sets which grapes can be produced there.
This is not always a guarantee of quality and is more about making sure the label is set out correctly. All Burgundy on the shelves in a supermarket will be AOC Burgundy in order to allowed to use that term, so it’s nothing that you need to worry about when you are buying wine.
Does natural wine really give you less of a hangover, and if so why?
There’s a lot of speculation about natural wines, and personally I’m not convinced by them. Some people claim that they give you less of a hangover because they use minimal sulphites (the things added to stop the fermentation process), and often claim they’re allergic to sulphites, but there’s more sulphites in a handful of dried fruit than there are in even a normal bottle of wine.
If you’re getting a hangover from wine, maybe don’t open that third bottle!
How accurate are guidelines regarding which wine goes well with which food?
I might be spoiling it, but most wine goes with most food. Sommeliers don’t want you to know that, but what you do get is that there are some really good matches, and some really really bad ones. Most wine falls in the middle.
If you want to get a really good match you need to talk to someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s a topic I’ve taught a lot as I used to work as a sommelier and it’s still something I’m making new discoveries about, I love Fiona Beckett’s website and if you tweet her she can be really helpful!
Is there anything you can bring up in conversation to make your friends think you’re a wine expert, and is there anything that will mark your know-it-all mate out as a bullshitter when it comes to wine?
You can’t fake wine knowledge, but you can certainly avoid making common slip-ups. A few common ones are below:
- Screwcap wines are poor.
Wines under screwcap are just different, they stop cork taint from occurring and keep the wine clean and fresh. Wine also can age under screwcap, as the New Zealanders have proven in recent years.
- The thicker the ‘legs’ on the glass, the better the wine.
It might be more viscous but this is no indication of quality and just looks silly.
- Chardonnay is terrible.
I hear a lot of things like, ‘I hate Chardonnay, but love Chablis’ - Chablis is made from Chardonnay! One of the three grapes in Champagne is Chardonnay! It’s one of the most versatile and interesting grapes as it responds so well to a variety of soils and climates. If you’ve sworn off Chardonnay recently, try it from a different country or region and you may be surprised.
- The punt in the bottom of the bottle has nothing to do with the quality of the wine, it’s just a bottle! I have no idea where this myth came from but it’s a very strange one.
- DO NOT SNIFF THE CORK.
Oh my god this one annoys me, because I see wine professionals doing it too. Guess what, if you sniff cork you’ll smell CORK. You need to taste the wine to check for TCA (cork taint), you need to smell it and if you are still not sure you need to taste it. Sometimes if you sniff the cork you may get TCA from it, but it’s not guaranteed so this whole process is utterly useless.
Follow Frances on Twitter.