It seems many of the supermarkets have a fine wine section these days, but what sort of value do these wines represent? Should the average wine drinker consider treating themselves to something extravagant from the fine wine section for a special evening in, or is it just a waste of money?
Unfortunately, for reasons we shall explore, and despite the fact that I am certainly a fan of fine wines, I can’t really recommend anyone takes a chance on buying from the supermarket fine wine ranges.
To understand why, it’s necessary to start by considering what the rather vague term ‘fine wine’ really means. Although it is often seen as a synonym for ‘expensive’ it’s most meaningful when taken to mean an age-worthy wine. Whilst the vast majority of wines are produced to be consumed within a couple of years of bottling those wines which deserve the ‘fine wine’ label are generally made in a way which demands a number of years of cellaring to really bring out the best in them. This generally means that in the first few years they will be either too tannic (red wines) or too acidic (whites) to really be enjoyed, and they certainly won’t have developed the sort of interesting tertiary flavours from aging which really make fine wines worth the money.
To understand the problem with the supermarkets’ fine wine sections you only need to quickly scan the vintages on the bottles available. Taking a quick peek in Waitrose, for example, they currently have the 2014 Clos St. Michel Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the shelf for £20 – this at a time when The Wine Society have yet to release their 2014 Rhône en-primeur offer (an opportunity to buy wines before they are even released from the winery). The recommended drinking dates for this wine are from mid-2017 through to 2026. Clearly Waitrose are trying to start a trend in Châteauneuf-du-Pape Nouveau.
Even their older wines which one might assume are ready for drinking are problematic. As another example they are currently selling the 2008 vintage of the iconic Lebanese wine Château Musar. After seven years this might be considered ready for drinking, but only at a real push. The Wine Society recommends a drinking window of 2016 – 2030 for this wine while the producer recommends waiting at least 15 years before pulling the cork. Anyone drinking the wine now would be well advised to decant it at least two hours in advance and it is still unlikely to show anything like its best.
Are there exceptions? Well, there are a few – again Waitrose currently have the 2013 Brazin in their Fine Wine lineup. I would argue though that this has more to do with their incorrect categorisation of the wine – it’s certainly a very good wine (and good value at their current offer price of £9.75, though not at its normal price of £13) but it’s made for early drinking – probably within no more than five to six years from the vintage – not what I would call a ‘fine wine’. Also, Sainsbury’s have the Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 which should be drinking nicely. However, the age probably has more to do with the admirable practice of the Rioja winemakers in only releasing their fine wines after extensive aging rather than any restraint on the supermarket’s part.
So, what do I recommend for someone who wants to treat themselves to a fine wine? Well, certainly not a semi-random selection from the supermarkets fine-wine shelves. Most of the time you are likely to end up with a red which tastes like strong black tea or an overly acidic and bland white – which is a real shame as the same wines could be wonderful if aged properly and consumed at the right time. A better choice is to visit one of the smaller wine retailers where they should certainly have some fine wines available at the peak of their drinking windows, and if possible go somewhere that offers tastings so you know you are buying something you will like. The cheaper long term choice is to start your own wine cellar, and The Wine Society offers excellent value cellaring at only £8/year per dozen if you don’t want to take the plunge and invest in a home cellar, although the service is only available for wine bought from them in full cases. There are plenty of other custom wine storage facilities around, but all seem to be at least twice as expensive.
It’s a real shame that the supermarkets are giving their customers such a poor service when it comes to fine wines – most of their customers are unlikely to be especially knowledgeable wine buyers and will simply be put off from buying fine wine, or at least wonder what all the fuss is about, if their first experience of it is something far too young from the typical supermarket’s fine wine range.