WRITTEN BY: ANDREW HALLIWELL
When I first started posting that I was going to write about cheap wine, it was suggested that I use the term ‘inexpensive wine’ instead (thanks @juanicultura). Cheap sounds well, cheap whereas inexpensive is just as understandable but doesn’t come with the same connotations. Why write about inexpensive wine? Because nobody ever does. Yes, there are newspaper columns where experts find high street gems for not much cash but there’s rarely a story, just a sentence or two of information, a score and a price. Fair enough. Quite useful in fact. But that’s it.
What about social media? There are thousands of rising stars, writers and plain old enthusiasts out there and a million carefully composed bottle shots but no ode to inexpensive wine, at least not with the people I follow. One day I looked at the first ten wines in my Twitter feed. The average price was £66 and the median price around £38.
Ok, people on wine Twitter and Instagram are interested in wine and will spend more than the average consumer. Maybe you have a good job and can afford to buy top Burgundies and grower Champagne and that is great, because the industry needs you. But the irony is that most jobs in the wine and hospitality industry don’t pay well. You might love wine, you might be surrounded by wine, you might get the chance to try interesting wines at work but you quite probably can’t afford to buy much yourself. Yet all the time people around you appear to have that bottle on a Tuesday night and you’re wondering how.
Inexpensive wine isn’t just not talked about, it’s also looked down upon.
Wine lovers all claim we hate wine snobbery and want to remove it from wine but it’s still with us. The average bottle price in the UK is just over six pounds, in Spain it’s just over three euros. Spend more than that and by one definition you’re buying expensive wine, yet it doesn’t feel like it.
Most wine enthusiasts share the thrill of brilliant bottles and want more people to enjoy them too, hopefully getting their friends into wine or coaxing their parents to spend a couple of extra quid. This is great news and again what the wine industry needs. But maybe it’s gone beyond that. Do endless posts about top bottles that are made in tiny quantities and impossible to find / afford do more harm than good? Does this maintain wine as an elitist product that newbies probably can’t afford, possibly feel they wouldn’t appreciate and so might as well stick to easily accessible craft beer or un-snobby spirits? Perhaps, I’m not sure. Personally, I enjoy reading about wine’s complexities but I also enjoy drinking it and for me wine does not have to be expensive to be good.
I live in Spain and I own a Seat Ibiza. It’s a very normal car and that’s why I bought it. I didn’t want it to stand out, I wanted something reliable, easy to fix and something that would fit into tiny parking spaces and down narrow streets. Would I like to drive an Aston Martin or a Bugatti? Maybe on a track on a Saturday, but own one? No way. A silly parallel? Probably. But my point is that I often enjoy straightforward things and a simple glass of Rueda with friends at the start of the night or a reliable Chilean Cab on a dreary evening can be just the ticket. Wine doesn’t have to be the star of the show to be enjoyable.
Few people talk about these wines but volume wise they make up the bulk of the industry. As a winemaker I’ve worked around the world for both large and small firms. At all the big places I’ve worked we really cared about quality and had the resources and economies of scale to make delicious wines at affordable prices. Yet big business is usually looked down upon by wine commentators and the quality or value of these wines is often doubted. These so-called “industrial” wines are always perceived as soulless frankenwines with no concept of terroir and pumped full of toxic additives by dubious chemical engineers with only profit and market share in mind.
Really? I worked a harvest for the firm that makes Jacob’s Creek. About 80 million litres all in. There was a team of eight or 10 winemakers on site and a tank farm so big that when you requested a sample they went out on a quad bike to get it. One of my jobs was to taste all the juice that came in by truck (the grapes having been picked at night and processed nearer to their source). Each truck being less than 1% of a finished blend. I also had to taste every barrel before it was racked, looking for faults. Hundreds of them. And that was just me. We had everything from two tonne fermenters that were plunged by hand to state of the art equipment and a huge team of experts in the field. At the end of harvest the whole winegrowing team assembled and maybe 30 or 40 people tasted wines for seven days in the initial pre-blending. A lot of stained teeth and a lot of fun. I have particularly fond memories of all those inky Cabernet Sauvignons, though the 8:30am start time was a challenge.
Why is this bad? And why should these wines not turn out to be fruity, well-made and delicious, given all that attention and expertise? We had five tiers within the firm and “Reserve” level was tier two, with tier one being the best. I last bought Jacob’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay for seven pounds in the UK, three years ago. Probably it’s gone up a bit since then but even so the value is astounding. All that knowledge, experience and effort for so little money. And this will be the same at Concha y Toro, Villa Maria, M. Chapoutier or any other large firm.
But industry commentators rarely talk about these wines. Why is that? Because they’re always the same and so not worth talking about? But are they? Styles and fashions change all the time in wine and these large firms tend to be on top of them. Look at the shift in style and origin of Australian Chardonnay, the affordable orange wine from Cramele Recaş, Brown Brothers’ work with new varieties or the exciting new (and re-discovered) production areas in Chile.
Social media is a crowded and sometimes prickly space and unfortunately there’s a lot of one-uppersonship. It seems that there are way more people blogging about Jura, Mount Etna, Tenerife than good old Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Côtes du Rhône or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Why? Perhaps if you’re trying to get established it implies you know more if you talk about the latest buzz areas. Perhaps I am being too cynical. There’s no one size fits all on social media and I like to think people post about what interests them. But one thing is clear, economies of scale do make things cheaper and so surely can result in better value and in some cases better wine than, say, the idealist who quit the city to work three hectares in the Languedoc. Yet this is heresy.
This is the key point. I love wine and I love the passion that drives somebody to quit their job and have a go. Somebody who cares so deeply about wine and old, lost vines that they take a leap and dedicate their lives to it. This is fantastic, something to be admired and supported. Without a doubt, these wines are always going to be interesting to a wine lover, because all wine is interesting and limited editions from some romantic windswept hilltop doubly so. But let’s also give big wine a break. Dedicated professionals spending sleepless months trying to get things just right and making wines in volumes that mean that ordinary people can find them and crucially, afford them.
But isn’t big wine damaging the environment?
I think there’s little doubt that mono-cultures that nuke the environment are bad. But do large firms have to operate that way? I’d argue not. In fact, I’d argue the reverse in that large firms can help set the agenda. Look at Torres, re-establishing forgotten varieties in Catalunya, Banrock Station’s wetlands, Yealands carbon neutrality, and Cono Sur’s integrated vineyard management. Of course there are also bad players, but when large firms get behind these objectives it makes a big difference, makes others see what’s possible, starts to create market demand, and then forces the rest to comply. A few big players doing things right could make more difference than a lot of small ones and the advent of bulk shipping and bottling in the target market can help tip the per bottle carbon emissions balance further in their favour.
Whilst I would like to see wine commentators cutting larger firms a bit more slack, I do see a problem when economies of scale go too far. Spain’s possibly the best example of this. The average price of bulk (unbottled) wine here is 0.44€ / litre. That’s the average price. Other countries make cheap wine but Spain also operates a quality system based on Denominaciones de Origen (DOs) that in theory are supposed to guarantee a certain standard and typicity for wines going out with their approval. DOs can become more important than brands so that in many establishments you just need any Rioja, Cava, Rueda – meaning that the cheapest will do. This can create a race to the bottom and a hollowing out of the middle tiers. When this happens it’s hard to get out of the trap. If Cava is always cheap, why would anyone pay more? So then growers get further squeezed, they can’t afford to tend their vines properly, the quality goes down and so does the image and the price in an endless spiral.
To update my ideas on what inexpensive wines are like, I tried fifteen wines from local supermarkets. I didn’t look at the very cheapest wines available but limited myself to wines in bottle from DOs (with one exception) and with a maximum price of 3€. It’s hard to draw direct comparisons to UK pricing but I suppose we would be in the £5-£7 range. Some were better than others, some I tipped away, some I finished the bottle. Here are a few:
Puigesser Brut DO Cava
I quite liked this. Green apples and a hint of pears with some nice yeasty notes and good balance. Refreshing. It didn’t taste cheap and neither did the packaging seem it.
Abadía Mantrús Verdejo 2020 DO Rueda
Gave a good idea of what Rueda has to offer; clean and crisp with some tropical fruit and lemons though with a slightly clumsy finish.
Cata Rosa 2019 DO Navarra
Nice upfront red fruits nose that seemed to go more blackcurrant on day two. Palate had some nice crunchy fruit but not very concentrated.
Borsao Barrica 2018 DO Campo de Borja
Good bright ripe fruit and some obvious but pleasant oak notes. Great nose actually. Palate quite blackcurranty, not super concentrated and finishes a little firm. A genuine bargain.
The Guv’nor NV Spain
Presumably trying to copy the success of generous, sweetened reds doing well in the USA. I thought I might like it but I didn’t. The marketing says the firm decided to allow their winemakers to make a wine that they would choose to drink at home. I doubt it. I found a biggish blueberry and raisin nose with pretty obvious Old Spice-type oak. The palate was short on fruit and what there was seemed to be drying out. A wine-like beverage with no heart. When I posted about this I found quite a few supporters, but I think the UK version is a different wine. It would be interested to know how well this sells in Spain, particularly with the anglo-packaging. Comes in a heavy bottle too, just to twist the knife.
I could go on but the aim of this article is not to be a buying guide. Most of the wines weren’t bad, some tasted of what you’d expect and there was a fairly clear relationship between price and quality. In terms of value some of the wines were excellent and in a country where a lot of people don’t have much spare cash it is hard to find fault with this.
Whilst several of the wines had great packaging, what did disappoint me was the cynical marketing and tricks I also found at these lower prices. Two “different” Riojas from the same producer to give the illusion of choice. Crianzas that only cost 0.14€ more than the normal red. Dubious brands like “Reservado”, numerous castles and marqueses lying about their origins and a 2012 Gran Reserva for 2.50€. The lowest prices dressed up to seem like the very best, with crude flavours in some cases aiming to mimic the most obvious flavour components of their muses.
I see wine as a sliding scale, not a them and us. Some customers are struggling to make ends meet and who could deny them a reasonable wine at a price they can afford? Away from the very bottom there are some pretty good wines for just a few euros. Good enough for me, anyway. These wines don’t have to be bad for the environment and are made by professionals who care about what they are doing. If ordinary consumers drink these wines and are happy then that’s great. If they get the wine bug and start exploring, even better.
The internet has brought new voices and opinions to the table, yet the largest sector of the industry is the most ignored. Whilst people can of course post about what they like, I’d like to see less demonisation of large companies and blanket dismissals of all large-scale wines, that in many cases their critics haven’t even tried, assuming they don’t need to. Surely this is wine snobbery at its worst. Could it also be that by only ever posting about niche or expensive wines, well-intentioned bloggers unwittingly maintain wine’s elitist status? Meanwhile the wine industry struggles to bring wine to a wider audience. Promoting top-end wine’s diversity and quality cannot be the only route to increasing the diversity of wine’s consumers.