Although it is wines with silly prices that grab headlines (such as the $195,000, 12-litre bottle of Château Margaux 2009 recently put on the market in Dubai), we wine lovers are 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. In the column below are some of my favourite bottles currently selling for under £10, even in the UK, where taxes account for over 40 per cent of the 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 wealthy individuals who see wine as a desirable investment, and this phenomenon has pushed up the price of those wines that are just a little further 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 or dollars per 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 that was 59p a litre in the 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 past 10 years, while production costs have risen. Many producers in the lower ranks are finding life very 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, but the economic doldrums have put paid to that. And thanks to overenthusiastic planting and the resulting oversupply, 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.
And 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 Wine-searcher.com, the leading wine-price comparison site, based in New Zealand, claims that in the 10 years it has been in operation, prices have become significantly less variable in both the US and the UK. Wine-searcher’s analysis found that it was not uncommon in 2003 for US retailers to charge up to 50 per cent or even 100 per cent more than the middle price; now, thanks to greater transparency, this is virtually unheard of. According to Wine-searcher: “In the past it was relatively common for merchants to charge 25 per cent more than their competitors. Currently only 6.5 per cent of merchants in the US and 6.2 per cent in the UK try to charge 25 per cent or more over the median price whereas historically these percentages were 27.1 per cent and 12.7 per cent respectively.” (The sample size was quite respectable: 250,000 American wine prices and more than 74,000 British ones.)
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 and rival wine-price comparison sites such as Snooth.com or, for investment-standard wines, the specialist trading platform 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 US, where prices are frequently depressed by discounting and heavy competition. The relatively onerous duty of £2 plus 20 per cent 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.)
Wines are generally, as you’d expect, cheapest in their country of origin but this isn’t always the case. Australian wines are taxed at 29 per cent ad valorem, for example, and can often be found selling at lower prices in the US and UK than at home. Wine buyers today certainly cannot complain of a shortage of information.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Stockists from wine-searcher.com
Jancis’s picks under £10
• The Exquisite Collection, Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Bordeaux, £4.99, Aldi
• Domaine Vigné-Lourac, Cuvée Classique Blanc 2012 Comté Tolosan, £6.95, Great Western Wine
• Philippe Michel NV Crémant du Jura, £6.99, Aldi
• Domaine des Cassagnoles Gros Manseng 2012 Côtes de Gascogne, £7.91, Christopher Piper
• Domaine Cauhapé, Chant des Vignes 2012 Jurançon 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
• Château Tour Chapoux Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Entre-Deux-Mers, £9.99, 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
• Château Gillet 2012 Bordeaux Rouge, £6.99, M&S
• Cave St-Verny Pinot Noir 2011 Puy de Dôme, £7.50, The Wine Society
• Concha y Toro, Corte Ignacio Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Pirque, £7.95, The Wine Society
• Weinert, Carrascal 2008 Mendoza, £7.95, The Wine Society
• Paul Mas, Les Tannes Syrah, Tradition 2012 Pays d’Oc, £7.95, Jeroboams
• Telmo Rodriguez, Almuvedre 2012 Alicante, £8.95, Berry Bros