The cheaper stuff

You can find wine that won't break the bank, but an extra euro or two may be money well spent, writes JOHN WILSON

You can find wine that won't break the bank, but an extra euro or two may be money well spent, writes JOHN WILSON

Nobody likes being ripped off; that horrible feeling somebody has fleeced you by adding an obscene margin on to whatever you want to buy. With wine, it can sometimes be difficult to know. Better-known areas, simply because of their fame, are able to command a higher price for their wines.

Sometimes it is justified, sometimes not. But frequently the extra qualities, when they exist, are not recognised by the wine drinker.

The answer? If you cannot taste a discernable improvement in a more expensive wine, stick to the cheaper stuff.


There are people who enjoy playing “How low can you go?” essentially trying to find the cheapest possible drinkable wine, the drinkable part being fairly flexible. Such games are easier these days as the overall quality of wine has got so much better.

I am old enough to remember being offered some of the most sulphuric, tart, ulcer-inducing, fruit-free wines known to man – and that was just the red wines.

These days, I taste dozens of inexpensive wines at trade tastings. The whites have slightly sweet, confected tropical fruit, the reds a sort of soft bland fruitiness. Both frequently have a few grams of residual sugar to take any rough edges away. The majority are drinkable but completely forgettable.

We each have a point at which price meets quality in an acceptable form. There is a law of diminishing returns that applies at both ends of the price spectrum. The duty and shipping on wine are roughly the same no matter what the quality. The price you have to pay for the bottle, label, closure and cardboard box vary, but with the exception of luxury wines, the difference is not huge. VAT is 23 per cent of the final price. So you will notice improvement once you trade up to the €10-€15 price range.

Some areas are better placed to offer cheap wine. Chile would be the first choice of many for value. My own favourite would be inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that excels here. But so do Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

In Spain, the vast vineyards of La Mancha and surrounding areas are filled with Tempranillo and Garnacha. Prices generally are as low as anything in the world, so you can access very drinkable ripe, fruity wines. This being a warm country, they are generally soft and easy to drink. At tastings, I frequently find myself preferring the less expensive wines from a producer.

Few can avoid the temptation to tart a wine up with new oak in an effort to get a better price; it never works. The oak problem is most obvious in Spain and Chile – usually it means oak chips or worse, oak essence, has been lobbed into some wine that wasn’t great in the first place.

The result is a fruitless wine that tastes of sawdust. The cheaper wines are less extracted, less oaky, and less alcoholic, all positives in my book.

Generally the news is not good for those buying cheap wine. According to the OIV (The International Organisation of Vine and Wine), world output of wine in 2011 fell from 264.2 million hectolitres to 248.2 million hectolitres as a result of several poor harvests in both hemispheres.

That may seem like a small drop, but it means a shortage of 1.3 billion bottles. Supply shortages can only lead to price increases as producer countries no longer have supplies of bulk wine to offload. Depending on how the 2013 turns out, really cheap wine may be a thing of the past.

In this country, we seem to have an inbuilt anti-snobbery against wine. I have come across many successful businessmen, clad in designer suits, driving a spanking new BMW, and with a mansion in a salubrious suburb, who refuse to spend more than €10 on a bottle – for home consumption at any rate.

Some people like to spend their hard-earned cash on smart cars, others on designer clothes. Those who know me can vouch that I indulge in neither. However, most of the time I do like a really nice glass of wine as opposed to something merely drinkable, and I am quite happy to part with a few bob extra for the pleasure.


Piemonte Chardonnay 2011, Piemonte, Italy 12.5% €8.79

A very attractive crisp dry Chardonnay, with clean green apple and pear fruits. A great all-rounder with or without food.

Stockist: M S

St Chinian Excellence 2010, Spéciale Réserve, France 14% €7 (reduced from €14)

Rounded and warming with light smooth fruits, this would be a great mid-week wine with any red meats.

Stockist: SuperValu

Classic Côtes du Rhône, 2011 France 14.5% €7

A great wine and cracking value, medium to full-bodied with concentrated rounded dark plum fruits. Great with any red or white meat dishes.

Stockist: Superquinn

Santa Rita 120 Cabernet Sauvignon , Central Valley, Chile 13.5% €8-10

The 120 has very attractive blackcurrant fruits, and soft tannins on the finish. Stockists: Widely available including Tesco, O'Briens