It was only a few decades ago that wine first appeared on supermarket shelves, bringing a revolution in the way it was sold. Previously, wine -- sole preserve of the professional or middle classes -- was only found in specialist merchants. In those days wine was a club which you were allowed to enter only if you had the jargon and a little inside track. The hoi-polloi were kept out of it by their own inhibitions. Wine's presence on supermarket shelves, next to the cereal packets and tins of baked beans democratised it.
Most of today's wine drinkers probably purchased their first few bottles of wine through the supermarket and continue to use supermarkets as the main source, attracted by low prices, special offers, and familiar labels. Convenience is the main reason why wine drinkers use supermarkets. Most get their groceries there so why not throw a couple of bottles in the trolley at the same time?
Plus, there are bargains to be had. Wine buyers for supermarkets are, in the main, savvy people. The way they operate is to hammer the winery on price, in return for a promise of volume sales. The savings are passed on to the customer. Most of the wines stocked are popular brands, wines made from 'international' grape varieties -- Chardonnay, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and latterly Pinot Grigio.
Supermarket buyers have to buy conservatively, as they are judged primarily on turnover. No one wants the sort of 'egg-on-face' caused by stocking shelves full of wine made from off-piste grape varieties that can't be shifted. There are exceptions and sometimes I'm surprised and delighted at an esoteric find -- the lovely Tesco Finest Picpoul de Pinet (€10.99) being a case in point.
However, a word about 'bargains'. Frequently, you see the likes of '€7 off! €13.99 reduced to €8.99'. Now this may well be kosher. I wouldn't point the finger by suggesting the supermarket has rigged the original price, dear me no. But all too frequently the wine in question doesn't drink like a €13.99 wine. Sometimes (but not too often) it won't even drink like an €8.99 wine. How will you know? I'm afraid you won't, at least until you've tried it. Best advice I can give is follow the wine writers -- the ones with a track record -- and if you read the likes of John Wilson, Tomas Clancy, Raymond Blake, Martin Moran or yours truly raving about a wine, then give it a go. It might not be to your taste, but at least it won't be rubbish.
Using your loyalty card or taking advantage of 'cheaper by the case' offers allows you to get even better value. But be careful with the latter. Owning 11 bottles of something you've tried and hated is not a pleasant experience.
In support of my argument and to test my theories I took a wander through four of our major supermarkets. The wines recommended here are all under a tenner, with a couple of exceptions where, to get exceptional value, I'd stretched the budget to €10.99. Some of these prices may be offers for a limited period of time but most, I'd say, will be around until mid-September.
Dunnes Stores: The Beau Rivage Bordeaux Superior 2009, €7.99, reduced from €14.99 reinforces what I said earlier. This is reliable drinking for the €7.99 asking price. On the other hand it is emphatically not a €14.99 wine in terms of the drinking quality on offer. So, good value at the reduced price but you will not be getting 'the bargain of the century'. However, buy the €8.99 Peter Lehman 'Clancy' red 2008 and you are getting greatly enhanced drinking quality for only a euro more. As a bargain basement wine the Pacheco 2009 Monastrell/Syrah from Jumilla, an unfashionable Spanish region €5.99 is absolutely as good as it gets. Organic, too.
Among the whites, I like the Macon Villages from reputable Burgundy producer Pierre Ponnelle, €9.59 and the Laurent Miquel Chardonnay/Viognier €6.99, as good an easy-drinking white as you'll get for the price.
marks & spencer: M&S's forte wouldn't quite be in this price bracket. Nevertheless, they have the excellent Aresti range of Chileans, a cut above most for the money at €8.99. Campo Viejo Reserva 2006 at €9.99 is also good value. The Vina Albali Gran Reserva 2001, €9.99 is worth taking a punt on if you like oak-laden, well-aged Tempranillo.
superquinn: A Superquinn star is the Dandelion Hills range from South Australia, currently at €10.99 and all punching well above their weight. The Masthead MacLaren Vale Syrah, with just a smidge of Riesling for added fragrance, is my favourite. Domaine Cristia 2009 Grenache Syrah Cote du Ventoux at €7 from €14.99 is my top pick.
tesco: The Mount Pleasant 'Elizabeth' Semillon is the undoubted poster girl at a tenner. This is positively the last time I'm going to talk about this wine. If you haven't bought some, your loss. The Denman Vineyard Hunter Valley Sauvignon, €6.99 makes a good intro to the grape. The Macon Villages Blanc €6.99 is easy drinking and good value too
Finally, 2010 Croix des Bardes REserve Lalande de Pomerol, mostly Merlot, from big producer Yvan Mau, is a good buy at €9.99 but at the original €19.99 there are better clarets around. Hey, isn't this where I came in?