This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Although it is wines with silly prices such as the $195,000 12-litre bottle of Château Margaux 2009 recently put on the market in Dubai of all places that grab headlines, we wine lovers are extremely lucky compared with our friends who choose to spend their money on art, opera, sailing or golf. The great majority of wines demand no great financial outlay. Below is a list of some of my favourite bottles currently selling for well under £10 a bottle even in the UK, where taxes account for over, often well over, 40% of the selling price.
In the rarefied atmosphere of the first growths and grands crus, inflation has of course been rampant, fuelled by the vastly increased number of HNW (high net worth) individuals who see wine as a desirable investment, and this phenomenon has filtered down to push up the price of wines just a little lower down the pecking order quite frighteningly. Classed-growth bordeaux is now incontrovertibly a luxury whereas in the 1970s it was still being sold off by high street chains such as Augustus Barnett in the UK and some of the more agile American retailers at very few pounds a bottle.
But at the bottom end of the wine market, thanks to grape surpluses and retail competition, prices have remained remarkably stable. I started out drinking Hirondelle rosé (always good for a laugh in a wine lecture) that was at 59p a litre in the very early 1970s. This is the equivalent of £7.87 today, which works out at £5.90 for a standard 75cl bottle. In fact the same sort of basic branded wine today, 40 years later, would probably cost only £4.99 for a 75cl bottle - even though in general, mainly thanks to annual increases in UK excise duty on wine since the turn of the century, we have seen supermarket base prices for wine rise recently. This suggests that, in real terms, everyday wine has become cheaper.
Ex-cellar prices in local currencies in many regions have certainly fallen relative to inflation over the last 10 years while production costs have risen. Many producers in the lower ranks are finding life extremely tough. Wines that have fallen in price at the cellar door, or stagnated for some time, include Côtes du Rhône, Beaujolais, much of the Loire (Muscadet prices recently rose a little simply to keep growers in business), Bordeaux below classed-growth level, typical Languedoc-Roussillon wines, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, most Italian whites and some Piemontese reds, virtually all Portuguese wines, sherry and many Spanish wines, particularly Rioja. Prices of top wines in both Portugal and Spain may have risen dizzyingly at the end of the last century thanks to local enthusiasm for highly rated fine wines and the development of wine guides and a wine culture there, but the economic doldrums have put paid to that. And thanks to over-enthusiastic planting and the resulting over-supply, prices of Australian and New Zealand wine in local currencies fell in recent years - even though the strength of the Australian dollar has played its part in maintaining retail prices in Europe. Exchange rates also boosted prices of South African wines on export markets for a while, but fundamentally Cape wine is underpriced relative to the competition in my view.
If exchange rates and excess ambition don't get you, a short crop will. Lovers of European wines should brace themselves for price increases for the 2013 vintage, which has been extremely challenging. A poor flowering, hail and badly timed rain have all played their part in reducing the amount of healthy grapes that have just been picked.
But what of the extent to which different retailers charge different prices for the same wine? I remember massive discrepancies in my early days as a wine drinker, but the leading wine price comparison site, Wine-searcher.com based in New Zealand, claims that in the last 10 years, while it has been in operation, wine prices have become significantly less variable in both the US and the UK, the two countries where the site is most consulted. (About 40% of what it claims are its 2.3 million unique visitors each month are based in the US and 10% are from the UK.)
Wine-searcher's statistician found that it was not uncommon in 2003 for US retailers to charge up to 50% or even 100% more than the middle price but that this is now, thanks to greater transparency, virtually unheard of. 'In the past it was relatively common for merchants to charge 25% more than their competitors. Currently only 6.5% of merchants in the US and 6.2% in the UK try to charge 25% or more over the median price whereas historically these percentages were 27.1% and 12.7% respectively', according to a study commissioned by Wine-searcher, which, needless to say, takes credit for this consumer-friendly development. (The sample size was quite respectable: 250,000 American wine prices and more than 74,000 British ones were analysed. Wine-searcher's data on other countries is generally more recent.)
So, there is less gouging today than there used to be. And it is certainly reassuring to have a reference for retail prices on Wine-searcher.com, its rival wine price comparison sites such as Snooth.com and, for fine, investment-standard wines, the specialist trading platform of Liv-ex.com. I only wish all those who are unsuspectingly cold-called by unscrupulous pedlars of overpriced wine 'investments' knew about their existence. Please spread the word to the vulnerable.
But British retailers must curse Wine-searcher's tendency to show just how much cheaper their wines can be bought in mainland Europe and, often, in the United States, where prices are often depressed by discounting and heavy competition. The relatively onerous duty of £2 plus 20% VAT on every bottle of wine sold in the UK is a major factor but it certainly doesn't always explain the price differential. No wonder buying wine, and especially champagne, at source has become such a popular activity for Brits, for whom duty is waived at British ports if the wine is for personal consumption. UK retailers The Wine Society and Majestic both have well-patronised branches just south of the English Channel to cater for those prepared to make a buying trip to France.
Wines are generally, as one would expect, cheapest in their country of origin but this is not always the case. Australian wines are taxed at 29% ad valorem, for example, and can often be found selling at lower prices in the US and UK than in Australia. Wine buyers today certainly cannot complain of a shortage of information.
SOME FAVOURITES UNDER £10
The Exquisite Collection, Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Bordeaux £4.99 Aldi
Dom Vigné-Lourac, Cuvée Classique Blanc 2012 Comté Tolosan £6.95 Great Western Wine
Philippe Michel NV Crémant du Jura £6.99 Aldi
Dom des Cassagnoles Gros Manseng 2012 Côtes de Gascogne £7.91 Christopher Piper
Dom Cauhapé, Chant des Vignes 2012 Jurancon Sec £8.75 The Wine Society
Pedro's Almacenista Selection Fino £8.99 Majestic
Librandi, Asylia Melissa 2012 Greco Bianco £8.99 Waitrose
Lustau, Solera Jerezana Palo Cortado £9.75 Waitrose
A Fistful of Schist 2012 Coastal Region £6.50 The Wine Society
Fabrice Durou, Exception Malbec 2011 £6.75 Lea & Sandeman
Cavit 2011 Teroldego Rotaliano £6.95 The Wine Society
Ch Gillet 2012 Bordeaux Rouge £6.99 M&S
Cave St-Verny Pinot Noir 2011 Puy de Dôme £7.50 The Wine Society
Telmo Rodriguez, Al Muvedre 2012 Alicante £7.79 Adnams
Concha y Toro, Corte Ignacio Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Pirque £7.95 The Wine Society
Ribeiro Santo 2010 Dão £7.95 The Wine Society
Weinert, Carrascal 2008 Mendoza £7.95 The Wine Society
Paul Mas, Les Tannes Tradition Syrah 2012 Pays d'Oc £7.95 Jeroboams
The image of the Hirondelle button was kindly supplied by andysretrospace.blogspot