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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 August 2006, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Grape expectations
Vineyard in China
New world wine?: A vineyard planted outside Beijing, China

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

The British buy their supermarket wines by price, says a leading industry executive, and £3.99 per bottle is the magic figure for those searching the supermarket aisles. But can you get anything decent at this price?

When you're buying a bottle of wine, what do you look at first? The picture on the label? Jaunty new world versus venerable European? Or let's be honest, do you look at the price?

Even though wine sales have soared in Britain, consumers are still not confident about making their preferences according to the type of wine or where it's made - instead they make their selection by price.

Jean-Manuel Spriet, the man behind Jacob's Creek in the UK - one of the biggest wine brands - has revealed the typical consumer goes looking for a bottle that costs about £3.99. There's resistance to paying more than this - and a suspicion of anything that's too much below. It's the sweet spot for sales.

So when you go into a supermarket, there will be walls of new world wine pitched around this price - with discounts and special deals often targeting this cash-conscious shopper.

But is it good value to buy wine at this supermarket price? And is there any assurance of quality?

'Taste-a-likes'

Today's mass-market wine is vastly superior to its equivalent a decade ago, says Tom Forrest, wine expert at Vinopolis, the wine centre and tourist attraction in London.

"The quality has shot up, the wine-making techniques are better - and if you look at the cheap wines we used to drink, they're nothing like as good as the £3.99 wine you're getting nowadays," he says.

Vineyard
New world wines have been able to mass-produce consistent quality

The prevalence of so much wine in this price bracket reflects the power of supermarkets, he says.

"People don't have loyalty to a brand, the loyalty is to the supermarket - the consumer is saying 'I bought a £3.99 bottle from them last week, it was good, I'll buy another one that's £3.99 this week.'"

But there are differences in quality within this narrow price range. Mr Forrester says that you're more likely to get a good deal from a new world wine, such as big Australian brands - which can provide consistent, reliable, mass-produced quality.

A glut of wine in Australia is currently helping to push down prices - with reports from Down Under that some wine is now cheaper than bottled water.

Wine critic Jamie Goode describes the low-cost new world brands in British supermarkets as the "taste-a-likes".

But he says wine producers have struggled to get sufficient numbers of consumers to "trade up" to more expensive wines, above this £4 price barrier.

More prestigious French vineyards, without the industrialised economies of scale and with a less predictable climate, would struggle to produce anything decent in this price range, says Mr Forrest.

"A £3.99 bottle of wine from Chile is likely to be streets ahead of a £3.99 Bordeaux," he says.

Taxing moments

But before cracking open a bottle of £3.99 to celebrate, there is a downside. The actual cost of the wine is only a small fraction of the checkout price tag - with much of the price of a cheap bottle going on more sobering costs such as tax.

"The more customers spend, the more they are paying for the actual wine inside the bottle. The costs of duty, labelling and transport are all going to be the same regardless of the price of the wine," says a spokesperson for Waitrose.

Bottles
The wine in the £2.99 bottle only costs about 50p

"So if you spend £2.99 on a bottle you are only actually spending about 30p to 50p on the wine, but if you spend £5 you are spending about £1.50 to £2 on the wine."

As the British warm to wine, we are also trying different varieties, moving beyond the stereotypes of office workers glugging buckets of chardonnay.

This summer's big sellers have been rosé and pinot grigio, says Waitrose, with globally-warmed English wines gaining in popularity.

Mr Forrest has also noted the surge in enthusiasm for rosé, which has shed its image of naffness and become a cool summer drink.

"People might say they're bored of chardonnay, although they still drink a lot of it. But it's pinot grigio and rosé which are really moving up this year. There's been a huge increase in rosé.

"It has some red wine flavours, but it's not as heavy as red wine, so you can drink it on a warm summer's afternoon."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Unless you really know what you are doing, £3.99 will generally buy you paint stripper, a sore head or, worse, Chenin Blanc, which if a film release would go straight to video, but as a 'wine' should go straight to spritzer. There is a transcendental leap in quality in the £6-7 range in white, rose or red especially from South Africa and the New World ex California. You would struggle to buy something bad in this price band from those countries. The £2-3 less than the cost of a pint saving you are making is false economy. Happy drinking - Paisley Yoda
Paisley Yoda, Scotland

I have to disagree with the comment that the British buy their wines by price. My friends and I all buy our wines from specific producers which we have discovered produce quality wines - price is not an issue. Supermarkets are not places to buy quality wines from - as they buy in bulk, demonstrated by the "Jacob's Creek" label mentioned in your article (which a friend from Perth, WA says wouldn't ever grace his table, as it is considered to be "plonk" in Australia). Specialist outlets, wine clubs, and trips to the continent are the best way to get quality wines, in my opinion.
Patrick Parker, HULL United Kingdom

I can appreciate how the British choose new world wines over European ones (we certainly did when we lived in England) but £3.99 is nearly ¿6 and for that price you can buy excellent wine here. The tax in the UK is too high, an "every day" bottle of Bordeaux AC or Cote de Rhône AC costs 80p. We however, stick to Rosé in summer, which start around £1.10 and go up to £4 for a top class version
Martin Stead, Provence, south of France

I get better value by buying either en primeur through a good wine importer or better still bur direct from the grower or a village co-op in France. Eg superb 2003 Fleurie bought for 6.50 euros a bottle in the Beaujolais village....£4 ish a bottle with most of the value in the wine ie no duty or middle man. Great reds and whites on offer at 4.5o euros and you can taste and talk directly to the experts that grow the grapes and know their wine.
Phil, Warwickshire

People should go to their local independent wine merchant like we have in Lincoln, where they will be happy to guide the nervous buyer into becoming more adventurous and move away from the supermarket formulaic brands. And you don't have to break the bank - they have many fantastic wines at great prices!
Zoë, Lincoln, UK

The price of wine in this country is too expensive, perhaps because it is imported, I don't know. I have just returned from Brittany, the couple we were with came to an agreement, that throughout our stay we would not purchase a wine over 4 Euros. We would then score each wine between 1 and 5, and then bring lots of favourite wines back home. We ended up tasting wines that had won international awards for as little as £1:50. I brought back well over 60 bottles of wine I had rated 4 out of 5 upwards. Many of our friends who have tried it since have been very surprised how good they were. And even more amazed at the price. I believe you don't have to spend a lot these day to find a good wine.
Geoff Owen, Southport

I must admit I buy wine on price and not labels. But I do much prefer the wines form Chile Australia and California. These are so much better than European wines.
Carl Scaife, Newton Abbot England

Working in the wine industry, I see a lot of customers purchases wines around the £3.99 mark. However a tasting counter with wines open that are priced above £3.99, does help drive those sales to a higher bottle price. Supermarkets should really train their staff, so that they are more knowledgeable.
Pablo Brown, Swindon

A certain massive supermarket chain does a bottle of Corbieres for £2.96 - its bloody lovely!
Kate, Preston

At the end of the day you can get a nice tasting bottle of wine for around £3.99 - With more and more supermarkets having the "3 for £10" deal wine can only get more popular. I disagree that the only thing considered is price, although it is the main thing the consumer looks at when picking up a bottle typically the percentage of alcohol is also taken into consideration. If the percentage is right, as is the price, buy it. Very few bottles of wine lining supermarket aisles actually taste bad.
Joe Monroe, Liverpool

I have not purchased wine in the UK for several years, preferring a bi annual trip to France to stock up with decent wines from 2 Euros
Chris Wilcox, Bournemouth

We buy by price because of the tax. When in France it's easy to buy different types without the UK fear of spending a lot and buying some rubbish. If a "decent" wine, bought in France, doesn't come up to scratch we can use the rest in cooking. In the UK, a "decent" wine must be drunk and enjoyed, even if it's yuck, because I, for one, hate wasting money.
Zorba Eisenhower, UK

Definitely look for the price first on a bottle of wine (but then I am a student, after all). The point about tax making most of the cost reminds me of the very drinkable (if not brilliant) wine I had on holiday in Spain recently, 0.75 Euros a bottle!
Joanna, Southampton

I completely agree with this article. Most of the wine I drink costs £3.99 The question is, should the EU still be paying the French farmers such a large subsidy to produce expensive, overpriced, and often lower quality wine?
Nik, Norwich

"There's been a huge increase in rosé." Yes, amongst the giggling, 18-24 year old hipster wannabe crowd, who'll quite happily down the most sickening, vile syrup as long as it's called rosé and their friends can see just how hip they are. Then we get treated to the story of how their mum "used to drink Mattheus Rosé, and now it's cool again.... how mad is that?!?" Sigh
Dirty Idea, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

While true, personally I buy most of my wine from the little vitners one street down from the Eurostar end of La Gare du Nord. Cheers!
Pete Nightingale, Reading UK

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