Corking good value

There is proportionately more tax on a less expensive wine so finding a drinkable but affordable red wine is all about knowing what to look for

 Tempranillo grown in La Mancha, Spain, makes good value wines

Tempranillo grown in La Mancha, Spain, makes good value wines


The price you pay for a bottle of wine is governed by many factors, not always related to the quality of the wine itself. As we are all painfully aware, in this country a large proportion goes straight to our Government.

Because excise duty is levied at the same level for all wines, you will pay proportionately more tax on less expensive wine.

The standard laws of supply and demand also play a large part in determining the end price for a bottle of wine. For example, the region of Burgundy is small. As the wines are always in great demand worldwide, prices will always be high. Even the bad wines are expensive.

In addition, most individual producers have minuscule holdings that are expensive to operate. So no cheap wine from Burgundy then, with the exception of Mâcon to the south.

Other parts of the wine-making globe work to very different economies of scale. If you can grow acre upon acre of vines in dry sunny climates, irrigate when necessary to keep yields high and make sure the work is done by machines or cheap labour, your production costs will be substantially lower.

An Italian wine consultant once told me his vineyard costs were 70 times higher in Tuscany than Argentina. This is the McDonalds end of the wine business, where words like originality and vintage variation are rarely mentioned. Producers are looking for large quantities of drinkable wines that will offend no one.

Who offers the best value cheap wine? White wines are more complicated than red. The warm regions tend to be too hot for good fresh white wine, although this can be covered up harvesting early, using special yeasts, or simply adding acidity.

In this country, we drink large quantities of inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from Chile. Italy offers Pinot Grigio or the wines of Sicily, although Soave and Custoza are often the best options. In France, the Languedoc produces some white, but the reds tend to be a better bet.

However, move northeastwards to the cooler region of Gascony and you will find some of the best inexpensive white wines. This region once supplied huge quantities of light crisp white wine to the local Armagnac industry. These days much more of it goes into the humble vin de pays of Côtes de Gascogne. Volumes are massive; one source quoted in excess of 100 million bottles a year. A blend of the two most popular varieties – Ugni Blanc and Columbard – can taste remarkably like Sauvignon Blanc at times.

For red wines, Chile again seems the obvious choice; the country produces large quantities of wine made from well-known grape varieties. But the southern Rhône, the Languedoc, Sicily, much of Spain, and parts of Australia are all potential contenders.

However, I would usually look to Spain for my bargain bottles. Two varieties, Garnacha and Tempranillo, can produce soft rounded easy-drinking wines at rock-bottom prices, usually from the vast hinterland of Spain. Much of it comes from La Mancha, the seemingly endless flat arid landscape covered in wheatfields, stubby vines and olive groves, but other regions can also produce inexpensive Tempranillo. This variety is revered as the prime if not the sole constituent of the great wines of Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro.

Tempranillo may not reach the same heights in La Mancha but you will find no shortage of medium-bodied wines with soft sweet raspberry fruits. Thanks to low production cost and hot dry weather, the larger companies (and there are some huge bodegas here) are usually able to churn out decent drinkable Tempranillo at very reasonable prices. Frequently I prefer their cheapest wines to the next level up, which are often heavily and clumsily oaked.

I tasted 12 Tempranillos from various parts of Spain all costing less than €10. All of the major supermarkets were represented. If price is your sole consideration, both the Lidl Rioja Joven and Aldi Toro Loco were perfectly drinkable, quite amazing given they sell for €5.99.

The Protocolo from O’Briens, a long-term favourite, is now sadly over €10 a bottle and therefore excluded from the final line-up.

Out the dozen or so wines, there was only one wine that I didn’t like and it was a blend of Tempranillo with other grapes; thereby hopefully proving my point that this variety is uniquely placed to deliver drinkable wine at a price we can all afford.

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