A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
My eye was caught recently by a friend's answers to one of those newspaper questionnaires. He seemed proud of the fact that his suits are made to measure by Paul Smith, his chairs by Ron Arad, yet he also seemed rather proud of his reluctance to spend more than £25 on a bottle of wine. I can only assume he relaxes this rule when eating at his favourite restaurant, London's River Café, but it encouraged me to think about which wines to recommend to those who refuse to or cannot splurge on what goes in to their wine glass.
I had already been sniffing around for bargains on behalf of a young friend who is getting married this summer and was orphaned at 13, so has no friendly bank of either mum or dad to help out. He is Scottish, getting married in Scotland, so drink will be taken, in fair quantity.
I was determined not simply to head for the cheapest wine available but to recommend something that would satisfy the palate as well as the pocket. In the UK, we all know that the sort of quantities ordered by the big supermarket chains tend to result in the lowest prices, if rarely the best value, and presumably at great cost to producers. There was a time when the wine departments of them all vied with each other for who could assemble the best range of wines. But those days are long gone and most of them seem to be buying on price alone. There is far too little wine with real character available in the British mass market.
Thanks to successive duty increases and the weakness of sterling, the minimum retail price of a bottle of wine even from a supermarket shelf in the UK has increased rapidly recently so that £6 seems quite a bargain nowadays.
I was surprised therefore when I recently went to a showing of wines from Marks & Spencer, whose buying team seems to be more interested in intrinsic wine quality than most, by how many wines they were offering at £5. They claim to have put in quite a bit of work recently on these, their cheapest wines.
I chose a handful of my favourites, as well as a couple of keenly priced sparkling wines (see below), and suggested the happy couple buy a bottle of each off the shelf and try them. They were then able to take advantage of M&S's recent offer of 25% off orders of a dozen bottles or more, bringing the price of the still wines down to just £3.75 a bottle. Most UK supermarkets make these sort of offers every now and then, but are understandably reluctant to publicise them in advance. It was a fair bet, however, that at least some of them would time a special offer to coincide with the recent royal wedding and its opportunities for screen-side libation. The August bank holiday weekend may see similar offers.
Of course none of my Scottish selections is going to make the heart of a serious connoisseur beat faster, but it always pays to buy in quantity – whether it's six assorted bottles to secure the uninflated price per bottle at Majestic (who have dropped their 12-bottle minimum purchase requirement) or buying a mixed dozen at a superior independent retailer such as Lea & Sandeman to benefit from a seriously worthwhile discount on the per-bottle price.
But there is one retailer I always recommend to UK residents with a real interest in wine; unlike M&S, their wines should be quite easy to find outside the UK too. The great advantage of The Wine Society is that it is a (venerable) wine buying co-operative whose shareholders are fellow wine enthusiasts, so there is no inexorable drive to maximise profits. There is an entry price, however, of £40 for a lifetime's share (of which £20 can be redeemed on the first order).
They boast that their 1,500-strong range starts at £5.75 a bottle - and their own bottling of The Society's Southern Spanish Red 2016 Jumilla 2016 from Juan Gil at this very price won a gold medal in this year's Decanter World Wine Awards. At a recent tasting of 36 of their summer wares, I found myself marking 13 of them either GV for 'good value' or VGV for 'very good value'. That's a very much higher proportion than at most tastings I go to – although I managed to find 12 GVs from the 57 wines I tasted at M&S recently, which is a pretty good ratio for a high-street retailer. The only problem with M&S is its merchandising. It's not always easy to find what you're looking for on the shelf and it can be more convenient to order online, usually by the case of six unmixed bottles. It's worth pointing out too that Wine Society tastings are some of the most popular among members of the JancisRobinson.com team because the buying team really do seem to work hard at ferreting out interesting wines at all price levels.
My blanket recommendations for sources of value have been South Africa and Muscadet for whites, and Chile and Beaujolais for reds. But four of the bargains I picked out from this recent Wine Society tasting were from the Loire, two whites and two reds and none of them Muscadet. There was a super-fresh, Loire-ish young Chardonnay from the Pays des Mauges (a new one on me, between Muscadet country and Saumur) made by someone unforgettably named Réthoré Davy. It might be a bit light to drink with hearty food but would make a lovely aperitif.
Wine Society buyers have sourced two of their Loire bargains from co-ops, a wise move if the co-ops are well run. The Vouvray co-op has supplied them with an absolutely delicious wine that qualifies for the beautifully named sec tendre category, an off dry wine that counterbalances the naturally high acidity of Loire Chenin Blanc grapes with lightly toasty richness, but has no more than 7 g/l residual sugar (not much at all). This wine made from clearly very healthy, ripe grapes is not dirt cheap at £11.50 but it is extremely good value.
Of the reds, the St-Pourçain co-op has supplied a much cheaper Loire version of the increasingly modish Bourgogne Passetoutgrains (two parts Gamay to one part Pinot Noir) that would make a great, thirst-quenching summer aperitif for those who cannot or will not drink white wine. A more serious Loire red is Clos des Cordeliers 2015 Saumur-Champigny, also £11.50, that shares the heady fragrance of Cabernet Franc with full, satisfying ripeness. The 2015 vintage really was something quite special, certainly in the Loire and in much of Europe.
But the country that supplied the Wine Society's greatest bargains is Portugal, source of many a wine with a massive character-per-penny ratio, whoever sells it. (And they tend to look good too – see picture top right of the red sold by The Wine Society for just £6.25 a bottle.) Portugal may export some poor quality wine but it is delightfully difficult to find.
MARKS & SPENCER BARGAINS
Salton, Rio Carnival Sparkling Glera NV Serra Gaúcha, Brazil £9.50
Yalumba, Craft 3 Sparkling Brut NV South Australia £12
Murviedro, Las Falleras Blanco 2017 Valencia, Spain £5
Lourdes, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Central Valley £5
Indómita, Tierra y Hombre Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Casablanca, Chile £7
Pérez Barquero, Fresquito Vino Nuevo de Tinaja 2017 Montilla-Moriles, Spain £9
Darting, Dürkheimer Riesling 2017 Pfalz, Germany £10.50
Villiera, Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2017 Stellenbosch, South Africa £12
La Chablisienne 2014 Chablis £12.50
Qualia Shiraz 2017 South Eastern Australia £5
Cave de Puilacher, Le Fleuve Bleu 2017 Vin de France £6
Indómita, Tierra y Hombre Pinot Noir 2017 Casablanca, Chile £7
Zorzal, ZZ Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec 2017 Tupungato, Argentina £9.50
See my tasting notes on these and all 57 M&S wines tasted recently.
WINE SOCIETY BARGAINS
Quinta da Bacalhôa, JP Azeitão 2017 Setúbal, Portugal £6.50 (does not arrive until 13 July)
Réthoré Davy, Les Parcelles Chardonnay 2017 IGP Val de Loire £7.75
Thymiopoulos, Atma Malagousia/Xynomavro 2017 Náoussa, Greece £8.50
Schloss Maissau, Pepp Riesling 2017 Weinviertel, Austria £8.95
Bedrock Wine Co, Shebang! Cuvée IV 2011 North Coast, California £10.95
Cave des Producteurs de Vouvray, Rosnay Sec 2015 Vouvray £11.50
Almeida Garrett, Entre Serras 2015 Beira Interior, Portugal £6.25
Union des Vignerons de St-Pourçain, Réserve Spéciale 2016 St-Pourçain £7.75
Kanonkop, Kadette 2015 Stellenbosch, South Africa £19 per magnum (150 cl)
Clos des Cordeliers, Cuvée Tradition 2015 Saumur-Champigny £11.50
Tomàs Cusiné, Vilosell 2015 Costers del Segre, Spain £11.50
Classica, El Pacto Crianza 2015 Rioja, Spain £11.50
Dom Jean-Marc Burgaud, Côte du Py 2016 Morgon, Beaujolais £14.95
See my tasting notes on these and all 36 Wine Society wines tasted recently.