A Salute to Wine in the United Kingdom

Mel Jones, MW


As a UK journalist, and Master of Wine, I discuss, criticise and recommend not the fine wine, the great vintages, the en primeurs, but the everyday, the bargain, the high volume.  I taste thousands of wines each year of low, mediocre and good quality, and, within perhaps 80 or 90 tasted at one supermarket or off licence tasting, will find perhaps 10 that I think have some validity and, in some cases, some real excitement. These are often the more expensive wines, within the supermarket ranges, at £12 to £18, but my audience wants to know about the £4.49 ($6.81) Tesco Simply Chenin Blanc, about the Aldi Limoux Chardonnay £6.99 ($10.60) which tastes like a pretty good white Burgundy or Sainsbury’s Winemaker’s Selection Malbec at £4.75 ($7.20), which you can buy in for a party and everyone will love.

I do a Friday night drive time radio slot, recommending a couple of wines for the weekend and the hills of Gloucestershire echo with a collective intake of breath if the wines are over a tenner ($15.16).  I run www.QuaffersOffers.co.uk, which is a simple search for wine offers in supermarkets and off-licences – my audience likes a bargain.  In fact, the QO Forum is full of very involved wine lovers, spending a fair amount on their wine, but give them a voucher code or a three for two and they’re filling up their trolleys, grinning broadly. That’s the audience I’ve built for myself – I’m cheap.

The UK wine market is massively via supermarkets and off licences. Only around 10% of off trade sales are through other channels.  And special offers are a big driver for these sales.   Each month, the wine offers drop into my inbox and I convert them into searchable data.  My tasting notes pick out the worthy wines with a photo but I’m also happy to be amusingly vile about something that is embarrassingly below par.
There was a time when my wine friends (friends who love wine rather than wine writers who are friends) were interested in whether Hardy’s Crest was on offer.  We were all naïve, we thought offers were real, we thought the wine was “worth” the inflated price and we were getting a bargain.  Now we’re a little more savvy – a little more “yeh, right, half price”. Those of us who are bargain-obsessed (around a thousand people visit Quaffers Offers each week sniffing for wine bargains) still do have our favourites, which we watch out for and then pounce.
Of course, we have discounters - Aldi and Lidl. And, if the price of your wine is slightly more important than the complexity of flavours, pretty much all their wines are good value.  Only in the last couple of years have they revved up their wine offering, employing Masters of Wine to choose the wines and inviting the press to large tastings, so that we can judge for ourselves. I have a deep distrust of retailers whose wine buyer was buying frozen peas last year.  It isn’t just a case of negotiation and procurement, copying the lists of the competition and keeping stock in the stores.  A wine list needs to be designed and the wines need to be pushing at the door of innovation constantly.
It’s no longer acceptable to stock just big brand international varieties. In the UK, supermarket wine lists are expanding their geographical and varietal range.  Seven years ago, we were seeing the start of a surge in interest in Pinot Grigio – in my opinion, the wine for people who don’t really like wine – but other Italian whites barely made any appearance.  I’m embarrassed to report that Pinot Grigio is now the most popular wine varietal in the UK (WSTA Sept 2014). In the early 80s, when I started in this game neutrals like Frascati, Verdicchio and Soave were on every restaurant wine list, then they disappeared. Now, several of our supermarkets have Falanghina, Fiano, Greco di Tufo, some have Pecorino.
And, while your average Asda and Morrisons shopper is unlikely to be searching out any of the above, both stores do have online wine shops now, which give a little more choice for the discerning wine lover.  There is, of course, much more potential to inform and educate online.  On Asda’s wine blog there’s advice “If you like Sauvignon Blanc, why not try Rueda”. In their Wine Shop they offer three Pinots Grigio, one Fiano and one Pecorino.  Morrisons has Vidal Icewine at £33 per half bottle, which just wouldn’t have a chance in their budget-conscious stores. But there is a Fiano, alongside the five Pinots Grigio.
While we think we’re moving forward in the all-inclusive, non-snobby, it doesn’t matter which school you went to stakes, where we do our grocery shop is still firmly tied to our social class.  But there’s a recent coolness for the middle-class super mummy in buying everything from Waitrose and M&S but slipping into Lidl for slightly odd items or for the bonkersly cheap prices.  We have a cracking web-article called Overheard in Waitrose – the highest in the national supermarket pecking order.   Overheard in Wallingford Waitrose recently: a mum admonishing her two kids for asking for Fanta, declaring loudly: ‘You will have the San Pellegrino orange or nothing at all!’ or "Yes Darlings, I know you still have chicken pox. But mummy simply must have a Heston Christmas pudding or she'll be a laughing stock".
Of course, we aren’t laughing at Waitrose, but at ourselves.  Waitrose hosts the best press tasting.  Over 400 striking and interesting wines.  The list has been intelligently put together and if, during the tasting, you ask a tiny question a) your answer arrives in less than a minute and b) you feel as if the PR is probably being beaten to death out on Finchley Road for not including it in the tasting notes.  They are super, super professional. Nine Pinots Grigio, one Fiano, Pecorino, two Greco di Tufo and a Roero Arneis.
Have I invented a new way to judge the UK supermarkets?  The PG ratio?

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