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How much will sound wine be this winter?

Increasingly, I mutter words like “disappointing” after the latest of the tasting exercises needed to populate this site and my newspaper column.

Is my trusty selection process obsolete, I wonder – despite it serving me well while writing wine columns in each of the last three decades.

Normally, I secure samples of three “candidates for potential stardom” and usually conclude that one is mediocre, one broadly acceptable and one is the stand-out choice.

This year I have frequently rejected all three.

However, the reason is actually not hard to find – anyone now selling entry point wine has the stark choice of either increasing prices or allowing quality to fall.

Since reducing quality helps no one, where this is heading – gentle reader – must be pretty clear by now.

Although I will continue to seek out £5 or £6 wines where I can, we must nevertheless expect to start paying a little more for even modest level wines.

Why are prices rising?

Lest anyone suspects racketeering is at work, let’s look at reasons why costs (and hence prices) are going up.

  • The pound has taken another hit against both the dollar and the euro – two important currencies to the wine trade.
  • Inflation generally is expected to reach 4% by the year-end.
  • Although Australia and South Africa did well, New Zealand yields are down with shortages of sauvignon blanc forecast.
  • Late frosts in particular will significantly reduce 2021 vintage sizes in many parts of Europe; reduced supply with static demand inevitably means increased prices.
  • Wages in both transport and hospitality industries are rising because of labour shortages – these increased costs will inevitably be reflected in prices.
  • I suspect that transporting wine is especially unpopular with HGV drivers (and, consequently, commands premium rates) as it can mean more time away from home and, potentially, long waiting times at borders.
  • Import and export documentation is labour intensive and very time consuming and will remain so until streamlined processes are devised.

On that last point, the M&S chairman revealed that, for some exports to Ireland “each wagon typically has about eight documents, 720 pages per truck, that’s three large books!”.

So what to do about it

One “cost neutral” – but not necessarily popular – response is to drink a little less.

Doing so, however, does accord with what we know – modest amounts of alcohol are life-enhancing, while excesses can be life-threatening.

If you choose to steer even further away from the excess end of that spectrum, here are four handy hints.

  • An old boss of mine used to say “What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done” so acquire a set of pub measures and control how much goes in the glass – hide them away when visitors come though, to avoid looking cheapskate.
  • Recent health advice suggested “dropping a glass size” because the bigger the glass the more we put in it – so, even consider using a flute for wine as, psychologically, it makes the content look much more.
  • On a table setting, put the water glass between plate and wine glass because a thirsty diner will grab the most accessible liquid – never slake a thirst with alcohol anyway.
  • Watch aperitifs and digestifs (sherry, vermouth, gin and tonic all have higher alcohol levels than wine); use dry white for an aperitif if you need one and a sweet wine for after dinner drinking.

The shape of things to come perhaps!

Here then are two excellent New Zealand wines that cost roughly what we can now expect to pay if we are to maintain quality at its current level.

First a red

While never quite matching versions from Central Otago or the depth of classic Burgundy, pinot noir from New Zealand’s Marlborough region offers many of those signature pinot attributes often at lower prices than apply in other regions.

Light in both colour and texture, 2020 New Zealand Marlborough Pinot Noir (£7.99 at Aldi and 13%) delivers perfumed raspberry and cassis flavours supported by mild tannin but good acidity and touches of chocolate and allspice.

Staying in that region

All the gloomy news about sauvignon volumes in Marlborough is often suffixed with the apparent lifeline “but the quality is excellent”.

If you thought that was just a marketing palliative, a bottle of this will instantly change your mind – delightfully, it is legitimately and splendidly £9 or £10 wine so grab some while you can.   

Aromatic with appealing sweet edges, 2021 Yealands Sauvignon Blanc (£8 at Sainsbury’s but check the vintage carefully – and 13%) brings us soft pineapple, gooseberry and white peach flavours in partnership with lively lime and grapefruit acidity that leads into a long, clean, mandarin orange influenced finish.

So, those tidings about quality offer a least a glimmer of cheering news to help lift the price-centred despondency that dominates much of today’s post!

Call in again on Monday when I reveal my latest Top Tips and outline the current promotions in major retailers.


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Comments

24 Comments

Richard Wyndham

It is easy to open a bottle and think “We will drink half and stopper the rest (vacu-vin) for another day” …. Often the conversation flows, the wine is good, and there is not much left for tomorrow! Certainly having water readily available helps.
But following a busy period with exciting Zoom tastings, (thanks for introducing us to Diana at the excellent Wine Events Scotland) we have developed an approach that works well for us. I have a selection of half and quarter bottles, and when opening a bottle I decant into a half bottle, and with screw caps just fill to the brim. This leaves a half bottle to drink. Quite often I decant a further quantity into a quarter bottle (the mini bottles all supermarkets sell). Then one has options!
A straight half a bottle of a single wine with dinner; A quarter bottle to give a small glass each; Or frequently we have 2 quarter bottles of different wines and enjoy having a mini wine matching with dinner; and other combinations.
So we are drinking wine frequently, with great variations, but keeping consumption at a reasonable level.
We also often have a quick blind taste before the meal. One of us pours a small amount of 2 wines into glasses, ties red and yellow ribbons onto each bottle and the corresponding glass. And the other blind tastes. Can I actually identify the Chardonnay from the Riesling? Do I prefer the more fancy SB from the inexpensive Lidl one? Is their a style difference between SA and NZ Pinot Noirs?
One does need to keep track of what the unlabelled bottles are. I simply write on small notepad squares, fold, cut a V out, and slip over the neck. Nothing worse than having a quick blind taste, and losing track of which wine was which!

Brian Elliott

That’s an immensely helpful response Richard – thank you so much. What you describe is a great plan for limiting quantities and for knowing your wines better. A couple of extra wrinkles I have found useful. “Party Wine Glass Markers” are an alternative to your ribbons; they can mark the bottle and the glass – but wash off the latter in a dishwasher. Secondly, I use 89mm x 36mm self-adhesive address labels for notes on wines – they seem less likely to become detached.

Paul Davies

The elephant in the wine room is Brexit which has made European wines more expensive for us on the UK.

Brian Elliott

There seems a confluence of causes, Paul – climate change, Covid, shipping costs as well as the changes resulting from leaving the customs union you mention.

David Cronin

Nicely put Brian, I agree it’s increasingly harder to find good quality cheaper wine, I find a lot of the entry-level options are often either too sweet and confected, maybe to appeal to the masses which seems to be a growing trend now or just artificial and devoid of anything resembling the fruit it’s supposed to represent. A lot of the better so called entry-level wines from respected producers have certainly increased in price over the last few years, sometimes by £2 -£3, drinking some of those wines now I often think ‘that cost me £7 a little while back now it’s over £10’ but the quality isn’t in my view worthy of £10 bottle, a trend that’s not going to change, unfortunately. The good news is sites like this will still attempt to steer us in the direction of getting the best value wines for our money but like you say it is becoming harder.
Richard made some good points, we tend to open a bottle with dinner and a lot of the time we finish it off the next day ( to be honest sometimes the wine tastes better 24hrs later).
Keep up the good work!

Brian Elliott

I am with you all the way on that analysis Dave. So many “bargain basement” wines lack texture, complexity and anything to counterbalance the overt sweetness you mention. I will indeed keep trying to unearth great value wines but finding them under £7 is a mounting challenge.

Derrik Smith

Obvious point but if you have space, and cash, buying in bulk can keep the cost down.
You can keep the wine for a few years & enjoy in the knowledge that it was paid for years ago, at a decent price.
Good call on that Co-Op Syrah @£6.25. Very much our ‘go to’ everyday wine (especially in Winter).

Brian Elliott

Good point and a sound plan – especially if “25% when you buy six” discounts continue. Bear in mind though that many straightforward wines are not built to last these days so do be selective about what you store.
Glad you like that syrah – do try the sister mourvedre if you have yet to do so.

Mark

Great point about built to last wines

Often I have purchased a nicer bottle in the £8-12 range for a special occasion, only to not have opened it for some reason.

Returning to it a few months on, clearly the potential quality has dropped and I struggle to unpick what it should taste like.

For me value, in a rising cost market, will mean buying in the deal periods (Christmas, 25% off 6 etc) to put away for 5, 6, 7 months or more. So the risk trade off becomes not an immediate one, but a much longer term consideration

Really great article too Brian, more considerations like this please!

Brian Elliott

Hi Mark – thanks for the sentiments that end your comment; always pleased to know when something hits the spot especially if (like this) it is a bit off-piste.
I sense that the move away from tannin and, sometimes, texture has encouraged producers to shift forward the “drinking window” of some wines – earlier to be ready but quicker to decline. Reducing the use of sulphites (a frequently used preservative) to avoid its reported side effects may also be a factor. With everyday wines it may be down to trial and error – beyond perhaps avoiding wines that are “Sulphite free” or say nothing about tannin on the label. For more expensive wines, I suggest you rely on some of the more prestigious retailers (Wine Society or Berry bros) for guidance on the best drinking window. Once you know it, incidentally, write in on the label or you will have forgotten several months later.

Fred Chrystal

I agree prices are going to go up and if one wishes to retain the quality expected then one has to follow.
That said, I am continuing to find “bargains” in and around the £7-£8 mark in most supermarkets, especially given their reductions and for Tesco Clubcard members.
a recent example was Villa Maria SB (one of my favourites) normal price £10/£11 was selling in Asda for £8.
So they are about if you have the time to seek out. How long that will continue? I just hope supermarket clout will prevail.

Brian Elliott

Agree; there remains a reasonable supply of dependable wines around the £7- £8 mark but much less so below that price point. Rest assured, though, I will keep trying to hunt them down. How long discounts such as the example you mention will apply to – especially New Zealand – wines remains to be seen.

Jerry W

I’m sure you are right about the trend Brian, but so long as wines like the excellent Feteasca Regala you mentioned a few weeks ago are available for £4.49 at Aldi, I’m not panicking.. there are still some bargains to be had.

Brian Elliott

Bargains are indeed still around and I will certainly tell you about good quality ones I find. Locating them, however, is increasingly difficult – and seems set to get harder.

Jerry W

It’s what we have you for 🙂

Brian Elliott

I am indeed here to serve!

Chris Scott

So reading between the lines here Brian, it started with Toilet Roll, then was Petrol and now it’s Wine??
Better fill some space in the cellar then…….

Brian Elliott

Not a cue for panic buying Chris (prices not shortages are the potential issue) and I fancy that prices will be changing in many walks of life. It just seems to me that wine is especially vulnerable at the moment to a large number of the things that may impact on prices.

Fred Chrystal

Following on from Richard Wynham’s comments on “restrained” drinking, my Achilles Heel is that I do like a tipple as I’m cooking dinner. This usually results in only a half bottle going to the table and it’s usually gone before we finish our meal. And guess what happens next!
I’m always reminded of the brilliant Keith Floyd, but I certainly don’t want to go the way he did, bless him.

Brian Elliott

If you fancy limiting consumption a bit, Fred., try this. (1) Pour about 175ml into a champagne flute, close the bottle and put it out of sight, (2) Don’t start the glass (which your mind has been foxed into thinking is quite big) until you actually begin cooking (3) Discipline yourself not to refill the glass, (4) Share the rest of the bottle between diners on a WIGIG basis (5) Once a week, use sparkling water instead of wine and see whether you sleep better that night. Experimentation is almost always useful and can be fun.

Fred Chrystal

Thanks Brian. Yes, it’s the routine one gets into that is the problem. And on the odd occasion that I substitute a non-alcoholic drink for wine at my meal, I just automatically drink and enjoy it.
But self control can be a difficult thing to master!

Incidentally, I have just been to our new Aldi store in Haddington and the wine selection is much improved on our old store.
Lots of wines under £7 and many unknown to me and same goes for my local Tesco. So choice is a bit of a lottery and of course that’s where you come in Brian. Looking forward to you weekly recommendations as always.

Brian Elliott

Thanks Fred. The feature on 21 October is a review of some of those Aldi newcomers so do look out for that.

Dave Harrell

Hi Brian,
I love Chablis but it’s generally a bit expensive for midweek drinking. In your opinion, which brands offer the best value for money in terms of quality?
Currently sampling a rather good Sainsburys number – la terrese – it’s lovely!
Any different dry white wines remotely near the quality of Chablis?
I still follow your recommendations, thank you!
Best regards
Dave

Brian Elliott

Hi Dave – great to hear from you. Possibly a bit early to be too dogmatic about Chablis at the moment – vintage changes are under way. However, I get good reports of Famille Brocard Organic Chablis (£15 at M&S) and, for alternatives, try these two from Majestic. Definition Macon Villages (£10) – crisp and, like Chablis, with little if any oak – or Robert Oatley Signature Chardonnay (£13) with more tropical fruit and some oak to see whether your taste buds can also accomodate that style.


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