Supermarket house wine: Don’t go there

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There I was, yet again, standing in a supermarket wine aisle on a Saturday night, my eyes glazing over as I was feeling overwhelmed by a sea of cheap wine.

I hadn’t walked into the store with any intention of buying wine. But confronted by all of the cheap bottles in front of me, I wondered if I could find something drinkable for less than £5; something that didn’t remind me of ethylene glycol, which is becoming increasingly difficult these days.

Previous attempts to find a sub-£5 wine have brought mixed results. I recall a French wine that rough that even the slightest whiff of its abominable nose nearly threw me into convulsions; nearly all of it made its way into a pasta sauce that gave me a roaring hangover.

Then there was the £3.99 Lidl Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, which was something of a success given that it neither turned me off nor sent me to the hospital. But it was as boring as dating a maths graduate and, given the name on the label gives away its penny-pinching pedigree, wasn’t inconspicuous enough to take to a dinner party without outing oneself as a miser.

And then there was the experience I had this past weekend.

Ever since I first spotted the Sainsbury’s House wine range, with their ominous black labels and similarly ominous low prices, I couldn’t resist. I could have tried any other supermarket’s house wine and the outcome likely would have been the same. But on this occasion I was in a Sainsbury’s and so this is about Sainsbury’s house wine only.

To be completely fair to Sainsbury’s, consumers want to spend £5 or less on wine, so they are providing people with what they want, even if the economics involved leave few options when it comes to the final product. In other words, you can’t expect much from cheap wine.

Nevertheless, I was optimistic. Having a little bit of knowledge about wine, I followed simple guidelines when choosing from the plethora of options before me: I chose red over white because that’s what people say you should do, to trust cheap red wine over white wine. I went for store brand because I couldn’t possibly believe a supermarket would put its name to anything to awful. And finally, I opted for Old World over New World because surely the traditional European producers have been doing it long enough not to poison me.

Let’s start with the Sainsbury’s House Red Wine, priced at £4.25. With an aroma of lacquer remover and the flavour of cherries mixed with hair perming fluid, it is not exactly what I had in mind when I read on the label that it tastes of ‘ripe raspberries and cherries.’

Being thin and watery, as well as devoid of tannin, it probably has a more successful life ahead of it as wind shield washer fluid than an alcoholic drink. The first thing that came to mind as I tried it was that it reminded me of those wines you get for £5 a bottle in a nasty pub. And that’s because it probably is.

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What I wasn’t expecting was what happened next. Knowing that Cotes du Rhone, even when cheap, offers good value for money and a relatively high level of quality, I had figured the pick of the bunch was the Sainsbury’s House Cotes du Rhone, coming it at £4.75.

It would have helped if I had read Matt Walls’s piece on supermarket house wines before making my choices. But that would have been neither fair nor in the spirit of this exercise.

The bottle says the wine boasts of “ripe red fruit flavours” but apart from an initial blast of sweet cherries and currants, there isn’t much else to this wine except disappointment. Sure, there is acidity and tannin there, but neither of these is of any use when it is completely devoid of flavour.

For the first time in a while, neither bottle saw much more than a second pour, and that was just to verify that my initial observations were correct. Being averse to dumping wine of any kind, the bottles now sit forlorn on my counter, with no purpose to their existence.

All of this has led me to conclude that it really is nearly impossible to find a worthwhile wine for less than £5 in a British shop unless your intended use is anything but drinking. Brake cleaner? Check. Degreaser? Check. Lacquer remover? Check. But an alcoholic drink? I think not.

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