Monday 4 October 2010

Vino de Mesa, Sainsbury's Basic

How attractive this wine looks, in its Café de Flore carafe. It is as if I am about to enjoy a drink at the legendary café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Where Sartre and Camus lingered, and where the smallest, cheapest goblet of Brouilly costs €7.50.

If only. My location is actually not Saint-Germain de Pres. The contents of the carafe are actually Spanish. The entire bottle actually cost £2.68. And whether it is actually wine, in any basic definition of the term, is something we need to discuss. In fact, we need to discuss the definition of the term “basic”.

For this is Basics red wine, from Sainsbury’s. Like most supermarkets, this is the range where they claim to provide goods of acceptable quality for the lowest price. And the latter part of that claim is pretty unassailable. At £2.68 a bottle, this is the cheapest wine I have ever knowingly drunk.

But what is “basic” wine? And why am I disguising it in a Café de Flore carafe? We are about to find out…

Basics products (“cuttings costs, not corners”) carry jaunty little explanations of their “basic” nature. Lemons, for instance, are “no lookers, great juicers”. In this case, it is “wine for the kitchen, not the cellar”. Note “kitchen” – not “dining room”, “lounge” or even, for the residentially challenged, “supper table”. Must a wine provoke a whole, socially confusing route around the potential layout of our accommodation?

Or perhaps the idea of keeping it in the kitchen, or disguising its appearance elsewhere in the house, is an acknowledgment of the hideousness of the label, the colour and graphics of which would not happily co-exist with any table setting outside of a cartoon.

There is always a line of cynical thinking, and I am always drawn to it. The line of cynical thinking says that the lurid packaging of value ranges, whether Morrison’s Tesco or Sainsbury’s, is actually designed so that people feel embarrassed checking out an entire basketful. It’s a loud declaration of poverty to everyone else in the supermarket queue – so that even people who really want to buy a week’s worth of Basics feel embarrassed to do so. Supermarkets can therefore offer cheap products, improving both their image and their relative price rankings, while knowing full well that people will top their basket up with more expensive items.

So in the “dining room”, if you have one, this label would immediately launch a whole set of assumptions which might prejudice an evening’s conviviality, from the likely quality of the wine to the parsimoniousness of the host and the dubiousness of any accompanying food. You don’t catch many glimpses of this label on Come Dine With Me.

Indeed, how far would you have read in this post if it had been topped with a picture of that hideous label? Have we all made certain assumptions already?

So, for all those reasons, I decanted the wine into my lovely Café de Flore carafe. This would allow the wine to breathe, hopefully improving its flavour. It would avoid ribald comments from the rest of the household. And it might help me to forget the provenance of the wine and approach it with an open mind.

Basic wine comes, it seems from Spain – hence vino de mesa. Not wine from romantic-sounding areas with tabletop mountains like Algar de Mesa; no, here mesa really does mean “table”, as in table wine. Still, at least we have moved from the kitchen to the table…

Sainsbury’s themselves describe it as being “An easy-drinking table wine with light red-fruit flavours". Now, CJ and I seem to be alone in bringing into the vocabulary of wine description terms such as “challenging”, “sweaty” and “fight-inducing”. Nevertheless, I always find this “easy-drinking” notion intriguing – what else should wine be? Few cheap wines honestly describe themselves as “difficult to swallow”.

In the glass, this has an aroma I can only describe as burnt rubber, with its familiar catch in the nostrils, and suggestion of impending disaster.

But it has virtually no flavour whatsoever, beyond a vague taste of fruit-gums, possibly, but not necessarily, the red ones. As it opens up, a fragrance emerges which is reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party; but still no flavour, until the tang of alcohol finally itself forces its way through and begins to provoke a mild nausea. And a fast-impending headache.

I now understand both of the notions which eluded me. “Easy-drinking” means it is like swallowing saliva – a reflex action, virtually unnoticed, and certainly not troubling your palate. “Basic” means it echos the most fundamental aspects of wine which Messrs Sainsbury can find, viz, it is red, it is liquid and it is alcoholic. Beyond that, the relationship between this and wine is debatable.

There are wines with ironic labels like Old Git which can provoke a chuckle from your dinner guests. Sainsbury’s Basic does away with any need for a wine boldly labelled Cheap Bastard. It might provoke a chuckle. Or it might lead to an exodus, before any similarly “basic” food arrives…



  1. Best wine review I've read for a long time. Droll, funny, very very good.

    "As it opens up, a fragrance emerges which is reminiscent of alcohol and wet carpet, like the aftermath of a student party ..." *thumbs up*

  2. Work of genius chaps. You struggle for your art, that's for sure.

  3. Brilliant review. Had me in stitches!

  4. I just did a little review of the Sainsbury's Basics rose, and while I'm no wine expert I've found it a little more palatable than the red. Not sure if this would interest you to investigate further but I'm sure the information might be handy someday.


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