Wine has replaced beer as the common man and woman's drink. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Wine bores have a lot to answer for. Partly thanks to their arcane and often off-puttingly self-satisfied musings, the myth that wine is an elitist drink persists.
But it is a myth – certainly in the UK. A YouGov poll last year of 2,000 representative consumers asked respondents to name their favourite alcoholic drink. A full 28% chose wine whereas only 23% chose beer and 20% chose spirits. (Presumably the rest were teetotallers, or cider drinkers.) Revealingly, almost half of those polled said they assumed that Britain’s favourite alcoholic drink was beer.
Politicians still tend to think of beer as the vote-catching drink – even in France, as witness President Jacques Chirac’s insistence on beer when drinking in public. Successive British Chancellors of the Exchequer have – for similar reasons, I suspect – levied much more modest duty increases on beer in their annual budgets while penalising the supposed toffs who drink wine. But they are way out of date.
I vividly remember the first time I saw wine being poured without comment in an episode of the popular soap Coronation Street (Audrey pours Gail a glass of wine above). It was way back in the last century. Ever since the 1970s, when Brits started regularly to take cheap package holidays abroad and could pull wine bottles off a supermarket shelf without having to go into a special shop and pronounce all those foreign names, fermented grape juice has become part of everyday – or at least every-week – life for more than 33 million British drinkers.
One indicator of just how far down the socio-economic ladder wine has penetrated is the average retail price of wine in the UK. For all the words wine professionals like me expend on bottles that cost £20 or even £100, and the reputation the UK has as a fine-wine trading hub, the national average for bottles actually bought off a shelf rather than pontificated about is £6.22. (It was £5.73 just two years ago but the sliding pound and rising duty have taken the average price of this largely imported product over £6 for the first time ever.) Of the £6.22, £2.23 is duty and a further £1.04 is VAT, leaving a grand total of just £2.95 for the packaging, transport, retailer’s margin and the wine itself.
Perhaps it would actually be a vote winner if the UK government treated wine drinkers rather more leniently, instead of their record of increasing taxes on wine by 39% in the last 10 years when taxes on beer and spirits have risen only 16% and 27% respectively?*
According to the specialist research company Wine Intelligence, 72% of British adults in the £20,000–£30,000 annual income group drink wine at least once a week.
In a survey they conducted in July this year of 2,000 randomly chosen Americans who regard themselves as regular wine drinkers, a total of 24% of these regular wine drinkers earned under $40,000 a year.
Wine is now a blue-collar workers’ drink.
But it’s not just policy-makers who are out of date. I’d submit that many members of the wine trade are too. Those selling wine tend to be pretty keen on what they sell. Many get themselves a wine qualification or two, and generally educate themselves to a level way above that of the average wine consumer, thereby putting themselves out of touch with how the majority – especially younger people – view wine. I suspect most people are far more interested in being told how a wine will make them feel than in how it was made.
For someone who sells wine for a living, it’s no great sweat to have a corkscrew in the home. But do wine merchants ever stop to think about the craziness of selling something that needs a special instrument to access? Or even the dubious merit of having inexpensive wine routinely shipped around the world in such a heavy, fragile, carbon-emitting and space-guzzling package as a glass bottle? (See Glass dismissed.)
There does seem to me to be great merit in encouraging alternative, less precious ways of presenting wine. Cans have become hugely popular in the US. Why not elsewhere? Cartons, pouches and pouches in cartons (bag-in-box) all seem to me to make perfect sense for the sort of wine that makes up the vast majority of all wine sold.
We wine writers are in a bit of bind when it comes to what we euphemistically call everyday wine. Supermarkets tend to have the lowest prices because they wield such buying power. But it is our natural inclination to champion instead the independent retailers who struggle to compete with these behemoths, because the indies can offer so much better service and tend to have higher-quality wine overall – even if, admittedly, higher prices.
I’m probably not the only commentator to wonder, before recommending what looks like a wine bargain, whether the supermarket has really treated the supplier of it fairly. Clearly, I am not party to the negotiations that resulted in what look like exceptionally good prices for the supermarket wines I recommend below. Port and, particularly, sherry producers have long granted ridiculously low prices to supermarket buyers on the basis that they do at least move stock. I would wholeheartedly recommend Waitrose’s own-label sherries in particular.
I feel a bit more confident about recommending inexpensive wines from The Wine Society because this is a historic British wine-buying co-operative whose mission is explicitly not to maximise profits (though customers do admittedly have to spend £40 on a share before they can buy from them, with £20 off the first order if it’s placed immediately on joining).
Note too that this is a particularly clever time to be buying wine from eastern Europe, where so much money has been invested this century in an attempt to restore its vineyards and cellars from the havoc wreaked on them by Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol drive in the 1980s. Prices of many of the resulting wines are attractively keen for now.
Despite reports that alcohol consumption at home has risen as a result of pandemic-inspired restrictions, and online wine sales have increased dramatically, there are many, many wine producers around the world who have been left with surplus stock, not least because their restaurant sales have evaporated, and because of the 25% import tariffs imposed by President Trump last October. Expect wine prices all the way up the scale to soften.
Recommended wines under £10
Those asterisked won a medal in this year's (socially distanced) Decanter World Wine Awards.
Whites and a rosé
Marques del Norte Brut 2018 Cava*
£6 Asda 13%
Drouet Frères, La Marinière 2019 Muscadet
£6.49 Waitrose 12%
Terra Madre Catarrato 2019 Sicily*
£6.50 The Co-op 13%
Via Vinera, Heritage Misket 2019 Bulgaria
£6.95 The Wine Society 13%
Quai de la Lune Sauvignon Blanc 2019 Bordeaux
£6.99 Waitrose until 3 November (overpriced at usual price of £9.39) 13%
Mitravelas, White on Grey Moschofilero 2019 Greece
£7.95 The Wine Society 12%
Poderi dal Nespoli 1929 Famoso 2019 Emilia-Romagna
£8 Marks & Spencer 12%
Ch L’Oiselinière de la Ramée su Lie 2018 Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine
£8.50 The Wine Society 12%
M&S Classics, Mineralstein Riesling 2019 Germany*
£9.50 Marks & Spencer 12%
Paniza, Terrenal Garnacha 2019 Spain
£6 Marks & Spencer 14.5%
Trivento, Reserve Malbec 2019 Mendoza*
£8 Tesco 13.5%
Ch du Rival 2018 Bordeaux
£8.50 Stone, Vine & Sun 14%
Via Vinera, Heritage Mavrud 2017 Bulgaria
£8.50 The Wine Society 13.5%
Les Pierres Dorées, Cuvée Louis Dépagneux 2018 Beaujolais
£8.50 The Wine Society 12.5%
Alovini, Le Ralle Aglianico del Vulture 2017 Basilicata
£8.95 The Wine Society 13%
Stobi Vranec 2018 North Macedonia
£8.95 Tanners 15%
Armenia Wine Company, Yerevan Winemaker’s Blend 2016 Armenia
£9.95 Tanners 12.5%
Some other stockists on Wine-Searcher.com
* Should you, as a UK wine drinker, wish to make your views on alcohol taxes known to our government before they decide how to organise things now that we are no longer in the EU, see here. Deadline for feedback is 29 November 2020.