"You can find some terribly good wines for under £5 in the supermarkets, you know." This advice, given at a recent lunch for the chief executives of two world-famous companies, the producer of one of Australia's most expensive wines, a Sotheby's wine expert and me, came from an unexpected source: banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, 66th on last year's Sunday Times Rich List and a prominent member of the family who/which/that? owns Châteaux Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild.
I shall remember to cite him next time I am asked, as I often am, whether there are any decent cheap wines. I would agree that there are many excellent wines on sale in the UK at £4.99 (just within what from now on shall be known as Rothschild Range), roughly corresponding to under $10 in the US. This is hardly surprising when the supermarkets have such massive buying power that they can negotiate discounts out of reach for smaller retailers who have instead to depend on offering more interesting wines.
The downward pressure on wine prices has been intensified recently by the enthusiasm with which vines have been planted in places such as California, Chile and Australia, leading to a global glut of wine. Nor is this simply a New World phenomenon. The Bordelais have just admitted that they will have to downgrade millions of litres of wine from Appellation Bordeaux Contrôleé to Vin de Pays de l'Aquitaine, Meanwhile average ex-cellar prices for Italian wine, for example, are at their lowest for 10 years.
Wines currently retailing at £4.99 do not have the concentration, pedigree and ageing ability of wines four times the price, but the best of them can often taste as good as wines twice the price.
But what of wines even cheaper than this, wines retailing today at under £4, or $8 in the US? Has the world's wine surplus led to an increase in quality in this bottom segment of the market?
California, not long ago associated with overpriced wine, is now a major supplier of really, really cheap varietals, many of them shipped across the Atlantic in bulk to save crucial pennies. Tesco currently offers 47 wines under £3 a bottle, of which 40 per cent are bottled in the UK.
One particularly frequent cheap wine drawback - an excess of sweetness, added to compensate for the lack of flavour that is characteristic of high-yielding vines – is particularly common in California wines. Other faults, more common in European examples, include an excess of acidity because the grapes failed to ripen fully. And some cheap wine simply smells rank.
In my experience it is much easier to find drinkable red than white below £4 a bottle, only partly because white wines are more transparent and therefore show faults more clearly. There are quite simply more red wine vines planted than white wine vines – although both Sicily and South Africa are exceptions to the rule and can provide some white wine bargains, as can the vines originally planted for armagnac in South West France's Côtes de Gascogne. Eastern Europe used to be a reliable source of seriously inexpensive wine, but the rest of the world has, if not exactly caught up, flowed down to meet their price points.
Among specific UK retailers, Booths and Majestic seem to have worked particularly hard at the quality, if not in the case of Majestic the quantity, of their offerings under £4 a bottle. Corners tend to be cut on the packaging of wines at this level.
Corners tend to be cut on the packaging of wines at this level, but some discounted wines look far too smart for their price tag. Bargain hunters are advised to keep a keen eye on the major retailers' regular roster of special offers which routinely reduce prices on wines costing up to £7.99 below the £4 mark. The websites www.wineontheweb.co.uk and www.wine-encore.com suggest some of the best deals.
Here are my recommendations for the best buys at less than £4 a bottle in the UK this weekend. All should be drunk as soon as possible unless stated otherwise. They are really not bad at all, but by far and away the majority of them are labels specially cooked up for the retailer. Perhaps that prediction at Vinexpo (see Own-label wines to increase tenfold?) was right.
Island Vines Cyprus White 2004
The result of a project initiated in 1996 with SODAP co-op. Australian Nick Butler went in to revolutionise equipment and techniques. A blend of the island's own Xynisteri grapes with Ugni Blanc, Malvasia and Muscat which seems to dominate the nose. Very lightly oaked by dangling staves in a stainless steel tank. Very fresh fruit and interesting. Usually £3.99.
Muscadet La Régate 2004
Yes, this really does taste like Muscadet! You can smell the Atlantic and yearn for the holidays. Drink now.
Cuvée de Richard Blanc 2004 Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan
Light and tangy blend of Colombard and Ugni Blanc. Fresh and, as always with these wines from Gascony, the high acidity is counterbalanced by a little, generally imperceptible, sweetness.
The Naked Grape Riesling 2004 Pfalz
Erni Loosen's racy, fruity screwcapped essence of summer. Usually £5.99.
Leopard's Leap Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2004 Western Cape
An inspired blend, with the rich, heady perfume of Viognier on a substantial and lively base of much cheaper Chenin. Usually £6.99, in a handsome, screwcapped bottle.
Domaine de Planterieu 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne
Slightly peachy with notes of passion fruit and lots of acid. Machine harvested from Yves Grassa.
Sonoma Creek Chardonnay 2001 Sonoma County
Amazingly respectable for the price (if you buy two bottles), this distressed parcel usually sells for £7.99 a bottle. A past wine of the week
Vignale Pinot Grigio 2004 Veneto
Much better than a Hungarian version at the same price – though on a different planet from the likes of Lis Neris.
Louis Chatel Vin de Pays d'Oc
Light, non vintage-dated blend of Cabernet and Merlot, but well balanced and there is nothing wrong with it except perhaps an absence of hidden depths and a horrid, corkscrew-busting plastic pseudo-cork.
Les Deux Grenache-Syrah 2003 Vin de Pays de Vaucluse
Côtes du Ventoux with a dash of water from Boutinot with a screwcap. Very ripe flavours and, again, great balance and transparency. Quite a bit of chew, the way that dry-grown Grenache has. Absolutely not industrial.
Sainsbury's Premium Portuguese Red 2002 Alentejo
A well-made three year-old wine for less than £3? Yes, it must come from a country that is short-changed. The usual bite of a Portuguese red but no shortage of fruit and flavour, from JP Vinhos. Terrible label, as is Sainsbury's wont.
Tempranillo La Serrana 2003 Vino de la Tierra Castilla y Leon
Bursting with healthy fruit with a soft start and a slightly astringent finish. Definitely Tempranillo and definitely Spanish from the Cigales co-op. It looks more expensive.
Gran Tempranillo 2004 Cariñena
Full, rich, with lots of fruit and flavour. Persistent finish from northern Spain.
Pacific Bay Merlot 2002 California
Fetzer's most basic range – included here mainly for those who treasure alcohol (14 per cent) and because it is reduced from £4.99. A rather sweet Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio blend is also included in this promotion.
Three bottles for £10 Co-op
Ch Villerembert Moureau 2004 Minervois 2005-06
This robust blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan should still be going strong well into next year - unlike most of these wines. Very slightly reduced but a good mouthful of flavour. Long and ripe – a bit of tannin. Slightly sweet but very perisistent. Environmentally sustainable viticulture.
Isla Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Central Valley
Superior Chilean from the excellent Cono Sur reduced from £5.99.
L'Excellence de St-Laurent 2003 St Chinian
Cooler, tarter, higher altitude than the Minervois from the same retailer. Well-made by the St Chinian co-op. Some schist influence makes drinking this wine a bit more like sucking stones than glugging liquid. Very easy but quite evolved.
Monastier Cabernet Franc 2004 Vin de Pays d'Oc
This Languedoc wine provides an object lesson in the fresh, pencil shavings aroma of Cabernet Franc, a bit less brooding and concentrated than its progeny Cabernet Sauvignon. Another co-operative wine. Single bottles are £4.99; two have to be bought to bring the price below £4.