How good are own-label wines?

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London-based wine lover Simon Reilly of wineloon.com muses on whether own-label wines are good value and how independent wine retailers could do more to help themselves. 

I like to think I am not a wine snob. However, I have to confess that I have noticed a bit of wine snobbery rising to the surface lately. We had some friends over for Sunday lunch and they brought me a bottle of wine as a gift, Majestic’s new(ish) Definition Pouilly-Fumé. I smiled, thanked him, told him he shouldn’t have bothered and chucked it in the wine rack. I immediately started to think how I could offload it without actually drinking it myself. A bit snobby that… 

In my defence, wine is my hobby. I love reading and researching about wine, so every time I open a bottle I am excited to try it. As I open the bottle I think about the back story that I have discovered about the wine, the reason I bought it, the reason I am opening it now. That is why I don’t buy own brands. It takes all the fun out of the experience. The thrill of the chase isn’t there.

But that is me. Apart from the friends I have made through wine, none of my 'normal’ friends do this. Just like my Majestic mate. Although he enjoys drinking wine, he is not obsessed by it. He doesn’t read any wine magazines or websites. He is in the majority, not me. Most people, like him, know a few wines they like and buy them from the supermarket.

This was emphasised again when we visited my sister over Easter and I had a nosey through her wine rack. Every bottle in there was from Sainsbury’s supermarket Taste the Difference range. When I got back from the Easter break, a box of samples had arrived from the discount supermarket Aldi. The latest releases of their recently launched Lot series, another own brand. Both Aldi and Majestic have launched new, higher-end own-brand labels in the last year. To me that represents a trend, so what is driving it?

When I posed this question to Aldi, they told me; ‘the range was designed to tap into a growing trend for super premium and exclusive wines at great value and to cater for Aldi’s growing number of upmarket shoppers’. It seems to have been a success, so far anyway. All three of the initial wines launched in March 2015 sold out within a few months. Each release, priced at £9.99 a bottle, was a run of 25,000 to 30,000 bottles.They have released a further two tranches of different ‘lots’ since then with similar results.

This appears to be the supermarkets trying to offer their customers what the good independent merchants have always done: interesting, good-value wines that they have put effort into sourcing themselves. By producing limited runs of 25,000 to 30,000 bottles they seem to be trying to create the impression that these are exclusive, small-batch productions. The impressive packaging of Aldi’s Lot Series, with individually numbered bottles, supports this view.

However, rather than actually using small producers they appear to be using large-scale producers such as Jean-Claude Mas of Domaine Paul Mas , who have over 600 hectares of vines in the Languedoc. Not exactly a small-scale, garage wine producer. It feels to me a bit like the wine equivalent of the ‘artisan’ food fad where lots of supermarket food ranges are labelled artisanal to make them appear part of a cute, small-scale cottage industry while in reality production is on an industrial scale.

So what do the independent merchants think of this? Edward Hayward-Broomfield of Lea & Sandeman told me, ‘Large-scale production and artificial discounting will never allow small independents to win on price, but we nearly always win on quality; small boutique production and fair pricing have always been part of our formula’. A not unexpected response.

Majestic, the biggest bricks-and-mortar specialist wine retailer in the UK, is a bit in the middle of the two: not a supermarket, but not an independent merchant either. They say their first own-brand range ‘is intended to be both approachable to seasoned wine drinkers and appealing to new wine lovers who can interact with Definition and develop their understanding and confidence’. They appear to be focusing more on the well-known, established wine regions rather than the less well-known, potentially better-value areas in the Aldi Lot Series. I have to say as a ‘seasoned wine drinker’, to use Majestic’s terminology, an own-brand range of the world’s most famous wine regions doesn’t spark much interest. I think I’d be much more inclined to try the more interesting Aldi range. However, I can imagine that someone taking their first steps in wine may prefer to buy names they have heard of. So perhaps, despite the implied intent, the Majestic range is more targeted at beginners.

Having listened to the rhetoric from both camps, I decided there was only thing to do. I would carry out an own-brand challenge to find out if I was wasting my time with all this research. Was I better off buying own brands like many of my friends, or do the independents, where I tend to buy most of my wines, offer a better product?

I quickly cobbled together the rules of engagement. I would use the gifted bottle of Majestic’s Pouilly-Fumé, the samples of Aldi’s Lot Series and I’d pick up that Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Malbec I tried at my sister’s from my local supermarket. I’d then approach a couple of independent wine merchants and ask/beg them to give me a similar bottle from their range so I could do a comparative tasting. The concept being: if someone came into their shop and said they liked Pouilly-Fumé and had £15 to spend, what would they offer them? I’d then taste them blind, compare the relevant wines and pick out the winner from each round.

Here are the wines I used for the taste-off, along with the results of the blind tasting:

Own-brand wine Independent alternative Result
Definition 2014 Pouilly-Fumé (Majestic, £14.95)

Salty nose, refreshing flavours of lime, grapefruit and minerals. Slightly watery finish. Good typicality overall.

Domaine Sequin 2014 Pouilly-Fumé (Lea & Sandeman, £14.95)

Reticent nose, dry smoky gooseberry flavours. Bit too tart for me. I preferred the Majestic.

Jonathan Didier Pabiot 2013 Pouilly-Fumé (Uncorked, £16.95)
£2 more than the others and it showed. The standout by far. Rich, sweet passion fruit sorbet flavours with a minerally saline finish.

Bit unfair as it was two against one, but Majestic won one and lost one, so I’ll say

DRAW

Lot 15 Gres de Montpellier 2014 Languedoc

(Aldi, £9.99)
Sweet perfumed nose of raspberry and almond, followed by sweet fruity mouthful. Far too sweet. Couldn’t drink more than half a glass.

Dom des Trinités, Le Peche Mege 2013 Pezenas (Lea & Sandeman, £10.95)

Powerful nose of polish and dark cherry with flavours of blackberry and spice. Grippy, sour finish. Not much fun.

Neither wine very good but Indy sneaks it

1-0 INDY

Lot 11 Metairie du Bois 2012 Corbières

(Aldi, £9.99)

Sweet, musky frangipane nose, smells South African to me! Very dry, Barolo-esque drying tannins make your mouth pucker. Too much like hard work.

Dom La Croix Belle Le Champ du Coq 2013 Côtes de Thongue (Lea & Sandeman, £8.95)

Tart redcurrant, herby nose. Energetic and edgy mouthful with a tart, peppery finish. Very fresh.

Slam dunk

2-0 INDY

Lot 14 2014 Minervois La Livinière (Aldi, £9.99)

Fruity spice on the nose, then a bit of fizz on the tongue. Vanilla and red fruit flavours. Firm, chewy tannins and a refreshing finish. Good energy.

Dom Ste-Eugenie, Le Clos 2014 Minervois (Lea & Sandeman, £8.95)

Sweet plummy flavours, this is a very easy going and quaffable wine. Excellent stuff.

Best of the Aldi wines I tried, but also the best Indy wine I tried

3-0 INDY

Taste the Difference Argentinian Malbec 2015 Mendoza (Sainsbury’s, £8)

Sweet, dark fruit. Quite plummy. A bit heavy on the palate with a short finish. Perfectly drinkable but a bit dull.

Tanguero Malbec 2015 Mendoza (Lea & Sandeman, £7.95)

Flavours of black cherries and spice, with a herby, peppery finish. Finishes very fresh, making if very moreish.

Comfortable victory

4-0 INDY

So the independent wines performed better than the own brands, pretty much across the board. My taste-off has not convinced me to give up on my hobby and start buying own brands, but the numbers don’t lie. Majestic sold £3 million bottles of the Definition series in the first six months. Each of Aldi’s Lot series wines has sold out within a few months of release. Yet, we regularly hear reports of independent merchants struggling to compete and going out of business. Why is this so, if pound for pound they provide a better product? The common complaint is that they can’t compete with the buying power of the large supermarkets, but this test suggests that they can buy better wine at the same price, so this may not be the whole story.

I used some of my non-wine obsessed friends to test this conundrum. Some of those I asked said that they felt uncomfortable going into wine merchants. Some felt they seemed old fashioned and stuffy compared with the likes of Majestic. Someone also said they didn’t know where to start as the range of wines was often so large. Based on this, it seems that the independents do have some work to do to win the custom of my non-wine-obsessed friends.

Now, I am no expert in wine retail, but as a supportive customer of independent merchants, I would offer the following five suggestions which I think would help independent merchants attract more new customers, and retain the old ones:

    1. Make things easy – life is difficult enough. Buying wine should be easy. Make it easy for people to buy wine. Display a small number of recommended wines up front. Package the wine in a way that is easy for people to understand and buy into on a regular basis. A good example of this is Stone, Vine & Sun’s Doorstep Dozen, a specially-selected case you can subscribe to with whichever frequency you like.
    2. Utilise the wine press – especially newspapers, so that non-wine obsessed people might recognise the critic. If someone says something good about wine you are selling, use it in your marketing. There is nothing like an independent thumbs up to close out a sale.
    3. Differentiate – it’s a competitive market, why should customers go to you rather than your competitor? You need a USP. Howard Ripley is a good example. They specialise, almost exclusively, in wines from Burgundy and Germany. When I need to stock up on Saar Riesling (which is often) or red burgundy, I automatically revert to them.
    4. Stay current – like any other business, innovation is key to success. Keep pushing the boundaries and changing your offering. Les Caves de Pyrène have used trendy natural wine bars (like ToastED in East Dulwich and Terroirs in Charing Cross) and their Real Wine Fair to expand their business and encourage new wine fans into their wine portfolio. But they really should sort out their website; I don’t want to have to phone someone to buy wine.
    5. Communicate – I may just be a wine merchant’s wet dream, but I would say that more than 50% of the wine I buy is stimulated by an email from a wine merchant, highlighting the wine. Some merchants send me regular emails, others don’t. I buy most wine from those who do.

    Here are the independent wine merchants I use most regularly, who generally practise most, if not all, of these five things already:

    • Stone, Vine & Sun, Winchester (www.stonevine.co.uk)
    • Uncorked, London (www.uncorked.co.uk)
    • Lea & Sandeman, London (www.leaandsandeman.co.uk)
    • Howard Ripley, London (www.howardripley.com)
    • Noel Young, Cambridge (www.nywines.co.uk)
    • Exel Wines, Perth (www.exelwines.co.uk)