This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See tasting notes on more than 200 wines under £10 a bottle.
Only once have I been criticised for the subject matter of my regular columns for the Financial Times. Some years ago a member of the traditional British wine trade ticked me off for stooping to mention some of the bargains then available at mass-market retailers. At the risk of riling him, I propose to spend this weekend examining relatively inexpensive wine – partly in response to a request from many of the 1,500+ respondents to our recent survey that we cover some less expensive wines. After all, the prevailing mood worldwide is one of austerity. And even those who don't need to save pennies must feel at times that they should.
I have been quizzing those who buy large quantities of mass-market wine professionally and have enjoyed the euphemisms. 'Value wine' is a popular one for wines at the bottom end of the price range. (For the record, I firmly believe there is value at just about every price level apart from the stratospheric.)
All are agreed that it is much easier to find – oh, let's be brave – cheap wine that is red than its white counterpart. For a start, white wine is much more transparent. Any winemaking faults or slight taints tend to be all too obvious, and the main ones in cheap white, apart from the classic old-fashioned faults of oxidation and too much sulphur, are an excess of acidity from underripe grapes, a lack of flavour from excessive yields and, nowadays, occasionally heavy handed use of oak chips that leaves whites (and some reds) tasting oily and of macerated matchsticks. As Marks & Spencer's wine buyer Belinda Kleinig admits, they have to look at far more possible lots of white wine than of red wine when buying or blending.
And even after the disastrously short 2012 harvest in so many wine regions outside North America, there is much greater availability of cheap red wine than of cheap white. In general, prices are keener in Iberia than almost anywhere else and Spanish bodegas are still awash with bargain Garnacha and Tempranillo, which, as Laura Jewell, Tesco's in-house Master of Wine, puts it, 'with more character than their equivalent, high-yield Airen white counterparts'. After all, the Garnacha that is still Spain's most planted grape variety and of which there is no shortage of old bushvines delivering really concentrated flavours in a well-matched warm climate, is the highly respected Grenache of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, hardly a workhorse. But in most Spanish wine regions, other than sherry country and the plains of La Mancha, which have long been planted with the characterless Airen grape whose produce was historically destined for distillation into brandy, pale-skinned grapes were always in a minority. Only the far, damp north west is serious white wine country, and production costs there are too high to be of interest to a supermarket buyer looking for basic white.
France has always been a red-wine producer too – and old-vine Grenache in Languedoc and especially Roussillon can also offer some of the best red-wine value in wines carrying such names as Côtes Catalanes and Pays d'Oc. There was a brief period when the Languedoc's white Picpoul de Pinet looked pretty good value but popularity and the shrunken yields of 2012 have put paid to that.
Although it has now been joined by tragically underpriced Muscadet, by far the most important hunting ground for seriously inexpensive white French wine – albeit with fairly high acidity thanks to the armagnac grapes traditionally planted there – has been Gascony, but even here prices have risen over the last couple of years. There was a time not so long ago when wines labelled Gers or Côtes de Gascogne were retailing for under £4. But that general supermarket base price, for wines of all colours, seems rapidly to have risen to closer to £7, thanks partly to routine increases in UK duty on wine incorporated into, but never trumpeted during, successive budgets from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Initially these Gascon wines, typically based on Colombard and/or Ugni Blanc (called Trebbiano in Italy) were piercingly tart and thin but quality has risen considerable recently. I found Gascon wines the best value of all in a recent tasting of whites under £10 that Tesco has to offer, with a St-Mont blend of local, recently revived indigenous Gros Manseng, Arrufiac and Petit Courbu varieties particularly appealing to the ampelographic archivist in me, but the newish blend of Gros Manseng with the Sauvignon Blanc of Bordeaux also works well.
I have been trying to find the best white-wine value available currently in the UK. This generally but by no means exclusively means hunting on supermarket shelves. Even the specialist importer of natural and nearly-natural wines Les Caves de Pyrène, who specialise in supplying restaurants but will sell to consumers from their base in Artington, Surrey, have some bargains to offer, as you can see from my tasting notes. Ditto adventurous independent importing retailers such as Lea & Sandeman. In France, the Loire is generally underpriced and it is even possible to find the odd bargain white from Alsace co-ops.
Italy is rather different from France and Spain. It has long grown oceans of Trebbiano and Sicilian white wine grapes such as Catarratto but, since the worldwide craze for Chardonnay transmogrified into one for Pinot Grigio, it has more recently and mysteriously had oceans of Pinot Grigio available, much of it tasting very cheap indeed. Alas the 2012 harvest has provided an excuse to raise Pinot Grigio prices considerably. M&S buyers (called 'winemakers') have put a lot of work recently into revamping their Italian range and I was particularly impressed by the whites, which seemed free of the vaguely dull and industrial character that can dog cheap white. Each was genuinely distinctive and so full of fresh fruit that I had to check these were commercial samples ready for the shelf rather than pre-shipping, untreated tank samples.
Buying at this level can be as much about currency as about quality, which is partly why Australia and largely why South America does not feature here. But South Africa with its extensive plantings of white grapes, especially Chenin Blanc and now Sauvignon Blanc, can be fertile hunting ground for those seeking 'value' whites – not least because South Africans themselves have long undervalued their whites.
SOME WHITE WINE BARGAINS
Boekenhoutskloof, Porcupine Ridge Viognier/Grenache Blanc 2012 Western Cape, reduced from £8.99 to £6.99 Majestic
Producteurs Plaimont, Tesco Finest 2011 St-Mont £6.99 Tesco
Ackerman, Les Jardiniers Sauvignon Blanc 2012 IGP Val de Loire £6.99 Sainsbury's
Dom de la Fruitière, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Sur Lie 2012 Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine £6.99 Sainsbury's
Vignerons du Pallet, Tesco Finest Ch Palatio Sur Lie 2012 Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine £6.99 Tesco
Grecanico 2012 IGT Terre Siciliane £6.99 M&S
Tapada de Villar 2012 Vinho Verde 201 £6.99 M&S
Calvet Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Bordeaux £6.79 Waitrose
Boekenhoutskloof, Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Western Cape, reduced from £7.99 to £5.99 Waitrose
Zalze Bush Vines Chenin Blanc 2012 Coastal Region, reduced from £7.99 to £6.39 Waitrose
Toscana Bianco 2012 £5.99 M&S
La Vieille Ferme 2012 Luberon, reduced from £7.99 to £5.99 Waitrose
Guy Anderson Wines, Winemakers' Selection El Pozo Bueno 2012 Rueda £5.49 Sainsbury's
Gruppo Italiano Vini, Winemakers' Selection NV IGT Sicilia £4.79 Sainsbury's
Sogrape, Winemakers' Selection NV Vinho Verde £4.59 Sainsbury's
See tasting notes on more than 200 wines under £10 a bottle