Talking to a Master of Wine (MW) a while back, I mentioned that recently I had tasted a wine that I could only describe as horrible. His retort still sticks with me – “There are no bad wines, just wines that you wouldn’t buy”. It’s actually quite a sound statement – a wine may not to be to my liking, but there will be merit in there somewhere, be it identifying that the producer has cut corners using oak chips, or they’ve picked the grapes too early. Good critique should be along these lines as opposed to a simple like/dislike.
With this in mind, I have been mulling over an article that was published last month in various media outlets (Google 75% Wine Based Drinks for a selection), exposing what essentially amounted to rogue wines being sold in supermarkets alongside normal wine. Cue a certain amount of shock/horror along with cries that someone somewhere (be it the supermarkets, the producers) were trying to get one over on us. The exposé originated from online supermarket sommelier wotwine? who are a team of wine experts (including several MWs) who taste through wines sold in supermarkets to give advice on what to buy. This is a good website, given the sheer volume of wine available in our combined supermarkets.
During their regular tastings some wines were noted as ‘lacking genuine character and dilute’. On closer inspection they noticed that some were actually subtlety described on the back label as being ‘wine based drinks’ (WBDs) – in other words, only 75% of the drink was actually wine, topped up with either grape juice or, more likely, water. And yet here they were, in similar shaped bottles, adorned by labels that made them look every inch like a wine, on the same shelves as all the other bottles. I definitely agree that it was a good call by wotwine? to bring these bottles up for debate, but find myself disagreeing, or certainly thinking that they were being unfair to these WBDs, and I’ll explain why.
Within a supermarket environment, strangely my whole attitude to wine changes. I watch food & wine matching sections on programmes like Saturday Kitchen and think “yes, this afternoon I’m going to rummage around my local store and pick up 6 really cool bottles” but when I get there, without fail I always slip in to supermarket mode. I become less the wine lover picking out select bottles and immediately flip to someone looking for bargains – weekday wines, being drawn (albeit consciously) to the little red labels that denote discounts or offers, looking at the bin-ends and maybe being a little daunted (or time conscious) by the aisles of wine available. Something about that supermarket environment just seems to focus my mentality to how I buy food or household goods, or how-much-other-stuff-could-I-buy-for-the-same-price logic, rather than the luxury, spontaneity, and indulgence in a merchant. I go there to buy supermarket wine, and my expectations are set accordingly.
The focus of concern in the article centred on two issues – firstly, that the wine shouldn’t be on the shelves with normal wine as it was a pale imitation, and secondly, that it generally tasted foul. Indeed wotwine? were quoted as saying they wouldn’t pay a penny for it. Regarding its placing on the shelf, I offer a similar example – supermarket own Cola. These cheaper products sit on the shelves alongside market leaders Pepsi and Coke, but there is no call to segregate these less intense products, even though the taste of own brand cola is streets away from them. It’s not that the own brands are not real cola or that they are bad (many people are happy with them). There’s just some cola you wouldn’t regularly buy.
Invariably it comes down to either brand and/or price, and that’s no different to these WBDs. Most supermarkets split wine sections in to red/white, and then in to country of origin. That’s it. When shopping (for example) in the Australian reds section, if you want something lighter in alcohol (unusual for Oz as the sun fully ripens the grapes), and are looking in the budget range of £4.50 per bottle (as these WBDs are), what’s the point in having them split away somewhere else? The customer makes the choice as to what they want.
To move on to the quality of the wine itself, there was no other way for me to decide other than to seek out a bottle for myself. I opted for the Australian ‘Copper’ red wine, 12.5% abv from Sainsbury’s. The pricing is a worry – £4.50 per bottle is entry level, but this was priced at £6.25 a bottle – only available for £4.50 when buying 2 for £9. At £6.25 we’re well in to my tried-and-trusted everyday wine drinking price bracket, and you can get more for your money.
In colour it looked no different to any other youthful red. On the nose it was sweet confectionate black cherry and sweet spices, some vanilla and, more worryingly, something that smelt like furniture polish. The palate hits straight away with upfront cherry, but dissipates fairly immediately, leaving a hollow middle. Any length is solely sustained by cloying sugars. In its favour it does have good acidity. My review generally concurs with wotwine? who list it as ‘sweet’ and ‘thin’, but it is still a wine (12.5% abv) albeit a little suspect at the recommended price point
I don’t agree though that the supermarkets are to blame for tricking customers in to buying it, or that it’s undrinkable. In the end the proof will of course be in the sales figures, but it was not a wine I would recommend to others, or buy again.