Drink: John Wilson's top tips to find the best value party wines

Crowd-pleasing wines can be found in both supermarkets and independent retailers, but beware the cheapest offerings; a euro or two more may be money well spent

Christmas is coming and the party season is getting into full swing. If you are working on a budget, holding a party, or catering for large numbers of friends and relations over Christmas, buying wine can be a real challenge.

Most of the time, I tend to avoid writing about the very least expensive wines in this column. Part of my job, as I see it, is to tempt you to try something a little different and hopefully more exciting than your usual weekly purchase.

Sadly most of these wines cost more to produce and are therefore always going to be more expensive. As was made very clear prior to the budget, we have the highest duty on wine of any EU country.

When you buy a bottle of wine selling for €6.99, you are handing €4.50 straight to the Government. That leaves around € 2.49 for the retailer and producer, once they have looked after warehousing, shipping and other incidentals. Little wonder that most taste so boring.


As outlined here before, it is now possible to make soft, vaguely fruity wines, usually with a healthy dose of residual sugar to hide any deficiencies. A few stand out as being better than the rest, and a few are completely undrinkable. But the vast majority fall somewhere in between.

I have been to tastings held by three of the five major supermarkets in recent weeks. I have tasted hundreds of wines. It seems the levels of residual sugar are on the increase, with some wines, including a few reds, distinctly sweet. I suspect these are aimed at a generation reared on sweet drinks. I find them undrinkable.

There has been a welcome move from some supermarkets to increase their range to include some more expensive wines. If you pay a few euro more, there are some good wines to be found. But much of the time, at a higher price level, you may be better off going to an off-licence or wine shop.

The multiples all offer the well-known names such as Sancerre, Marlborough Sauvignon and Chianti, usually at cheap prices. However, the best producers in classic regions can usually sell their wine at higher prices, so you are unlikely to get a bargain here.

If you are prepared to switch to a lesser-known name, a good independent wine retailer will have a range of superior wines at the same price. These offer far better value. Of the multiples, O’Briens and Marks & Spencer are the most adventurous, offering a range that goes beyond the well-known names. The same independents will usually offer a decent house wine.

Most of you will already have a favourite style of wine. I find the best options for white wines tend to be those that have not been oaked – good oak is expensive and most of these wines will have been flavoured with oak chips or planks rather than aged in a barrique, which can cost up to €1,000.

Look out for Sauvignon Blanc (from Chile, Bordeaux or the Loire valley are my preferred options); Semillon, and unoaked Chardonnay. I also find the white wines of south-west France and Sicily can offer the best value.

Spain is one of the few regions that can produce decent inexpensive red wines. I have recommended the Aldi Toro Loco Tempranillo 2013, but on this occasion I enjoyed their Ribera del Duero – see below. This is one of the poshest wine regions of Spain, where you would normally expect to pay at least twice the €8 price on this bottle. Tesco also has a very decent version, Mayor de Castilla, for €10.

Otherwise, the vast La Mancha region produces large quantities of very gluggable Tempranillo, usually at very competitive prices. Other than that, I find Merlot and Cabernet from Chile can offer very good value; some of the less expensive wines have less oak and a nice purity of fruit.

In the past I have recommended some inexpensive Côtes du Rhônes, however any that I have tasted recently were distinctly unimpressive.

This Christmas I would look to the Languedoc in the south of France, or the south of Italy. As with the white wines, I try to steer clear of red wines that have been aged in oak. Cheap oak is simply nasty, especially if you are serving the wine without food at a party.

I would also suggest buying wines with lower alcohol levels preferably 13-13.5 per cent.

John Wilson’s new book Wilson on Wine 2015, the wines to drink this year, published by Irish Times Books, is in bookshops now, priced €12.99