Cheap wine is far from rare. You can buy Liebfraumilch, an own-label table wine, or even one carrying the supposedly exalted name Bordeaux for well under £3/$5 without any trouble at all.
What takes skill, and time, is identifying wines that are inexpensive and deliver seriously more than expected for the price. I have been snooping around the lower price points of Britain's wine retailers and have come up with some universal conclusions, as well as a number of specific great buys. The global grape glut has dramatically increased the range available at as little as £3 a bottle.
Americans, Australians and South Africans tend to source their cheapest bottlings from their own vineyards nearest them of course, but in general, international terms the most fertile hunting ground for bottom-end wine value is the south of France. After all the Languedoc and Roussillon together grow seven per cent of the world's vines and produce an embarrassing surplus of wine every year - which must translate into the odd bargain for the fastidious wine buyer.
Furthermore, southern French vineyards have been planted for some time with the sort of varieties sought internationally. So, for example, they have no shortage of fashionable white Rhône grapes whereas in most New World wine regions varieties such as Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are still relatively exotic novelties.
Thus it is that Marks & Spencer can sell the thoroughly creditable Domaine Mandeville Viognier 2002 Vin de Pays d'Oc, from vines with a fair bit of age on them, for £3.99 when a Chilean version such as Cono Sur's 2002 is over £5 even when sold on promotion at Majestic Wine Warehouses.
But that is a reflection of supply rather than retailer. Majestic can respond with a really exceptionally good value range of varietal vins de pays from the Languedoc under the name Grange du Midi (complete with drawing of said southern French barn) at £3.99, or £3.49 if at least two bottles are bought. This has been put together by LGI, a group specialising in southern French wine for next to nothing including Master of Wine Mark Linton who used to work for the Foncalieu coop near Carcassonne which is in a similar line of business.
Bottling near St Chinian, LGI has found a seriously appetising and representative Marsanne 2002, a full-bodied, perfumed Grenache Blanc 2002, a reasonable if quite tannic Grenache Noir 2002 and a really appetising, supple Merlot 2002 - all from a range of different southern French sources. These four could happily be used to illustrate the different characteristics of these grapes to wine students - and I preferred them to Majestic's slightly more expensive, and to my mind less expressive, Les Fontanelles range of southern French varietals from Foncalieu.
LGI also supplies Waitrose with one of their best-value red wines, Cuvée Chasseur 2002 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault at a mere £2.99 a bottle. This blend of Carignan, Grenache and Merlot was vinified by a Sancerre winemaker who has worked a couple of vintages in New Zealand and apparently just could not believe how good the fruit was here in the foothills of the Cevennes for the price asked. Like so many inexpensive reds, this one has been made more palatable by deliberately making it slightly sweeter than a great red made from low-yielding, concentrated grapes, but it is not nearly as sweet as the average inexpensive New World red.
For a whole pound per bottle more, £3.99, partly perhaps because it is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Waitrose offer La Cité Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Vin de Pays d'Oc from our old friends Foncalieu. There is even more residual sugar in this one, perhaps to compensate for Cabernet's fairly stiff tannins, but it again is a well-balanced lively wine from the western Languedoc (the best bit for Cabernet) which cost more to produce because the poor man's answer to oak barrels was used. This consists basically of dangling planks in a tank to give a little oak character to the wine without incurring the costs of making and maintaining barrels, topping up and so on.
Foncalieu is also the source of the fruity Réserve St Marc Sauvignon Blanc 2002 which until Thursday is reduced by Sainsbury's from £4.03 to £3.22. At the lower price it is a good buy in a fine package, as is Sainsbury's more modern-looking but very traditional-tasting Syrah 2002 Vin de Pays d'Oc at £3.03 from Vignerons Catalans which tastes more Roussillon than Languedoc.
Most of these bottlings are specific to the UK. When such a wine achieves international distribution such as Wild Pig 2002 Vins de Pays d'Oc Chardonnay and Syrah, they seem fair value at £3.99 in Morrisons and Sainsbury's in the UK, but once they have been imported into the US (by Commonwealth, MA) and have made their way through the multi-layered American distribution system they are hard to find under $8. Much less of a deal.
Most of the world's wine buyers however are waking up to the value available in southern Italy as well as southern France - and it seems as though some of the more upmarket retailers have worked harder than the supposed price-slashers at finding truly distinctive wine for a song.
I never thought I would be recommending a £2.99 Italian white from Marks & Spencer but am quite enamoured of Bianco Beneventano 2002 IGT Campania. It is made in the Neopolitan hinterland from a blend of two grapes probably dating from classical times, Falanghina and Fiano. There is a whiff of Falanghina's trademark scent of laurel (available in purer form for much more money from Feudi di San Gregorio) and Fiano is fast becoming one of Sicily's most fashionable imports. And the bottle does not look cheap.
Prize for the combination of best value with dowdiest label goes to Tesco Claret from Yvon Mau - perfectly fresh, recognisable red bordeaux for the surely truly mortifying (if you are Bordelais) price of £2.58, considerably cheaper than any of Tesco's Bulgarian Cabernets. Much easier on the eye, and just as good value, is Tesco's Simply Riesling 2002 at £2.99, a thoroughly modern, refreshing, off-dry Mosel from Moselland for drinking straight off the bottling line.
Portugal is (cruelly) expected to sell at low prices as a matter of routine - as witness Somerfield's Portuguese Red from J P Vinhos, as frank, tart and juicy an example of the national style as you could hope for at £3.29 a bottle.
When the New World can match this sort of value (as opposed to price) it is usually because of a special promotion. Until 6 July Morrisons are giving away for just £2.99 the smartly packaged Argentine red La Consulta Syrah 2002 Uco Valley which usually sells at £4.99. The Malbec is rather leaner, but young-vine Syrah has a very special, easy and obviously fruity appeal and this is a full, ripe expression of it from one of Mendoza's higher wine districts.