Cheap doesn’t always mean bad but be prepared for a challenge

THE £5 bottle of wine has long been a staple in everyone’s shopping baskets but that’s changing. Today’s 20 per cent VAT and the general impact of inflation is quickly making it nothing more than a distant memory. With that in mind, accompanied by six City A.M. readers, I set on a quest to find out whether it’s still possible to buy a decent bottle of wine for under a fiver.

Of course, the short answer is no. After duty and tax, any £5 bottle quickly turns into a £2.25 bottle. Once you then take the retailer’s profits, transport and labelling into account, what you are actually paying for is 50p wine. So that’s 50p for the process of growing the vines, harvesting the grapes and the whole wine making process. The only way to do it is by applying manufacturing in bulk and using industrial techniques that would make a petrochemical engineer envious, which is why cheap wines don’t tend to fare so well.

Undeterred, though, I set out to discover whether it really is as impossible as it sounds now. To do so, I asked Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose to offer up the bets that they have to offer. Tesco never responded so I chose two of theirs off the shelf, along with a bottle from my local Majestic. As you would expect, the results were interesting.

In last place, by a wide margin, was Tesco’s Simple Soave at £4.79. “Bitter, sour, unpleasant,” was one of the kinder comments and sadly, Sainsbury’s did not fare much better. They offered up a Pinot Noir from Romania priced at £4.79. Despite the promising description on the bottle of “cherry and raspberry notes,” it didn’t deliver. “Nasty aftertaste” was the general consensus on the panel and it scored a rather sorry 18 points out of a possible 60. The Vinho Verde, on the other hand, fared much better, scoring 25.5.

Waitrose takes a different approach to its cheap wines. Rather than attributing them to a specific location, it offers anonymous blends instead: “Cuvee Pecheur” for the white and “Cuvee Chasseur” for the red. Of these, I thought the red was just drinkable, but still a good effort and the white actually came second in the voting.

But the leader, by a huge margin, was Majestic’s offering. I reckon that the 2010 Chateau Mont Milan (a Corbières) offers great value. It is domaine-bottled for a start, and is a full blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre grapes – so you are dealing with a proper wine here. We tasted it last to universal acclaim. One person went as far as calling it in “the knight in shining armour” of the bunch. The overall score was 41.5 points out of 60, a full 9.5 points ahead of its nearest rival. At £4.99, it is a bargain and you should seriously consider buying a few before it disappears.

So the long answer to the question is pretty much the same as the short one. Don’t buy cheap wine if you can possibly avoid it. Spend a pound or two more and you won’t be sorry. But every once in a while, something like the Mont Milan comes along and when it does, you should count yourself lucky.