Thursday 24 March 2016

Cheap wine – good, or no good?

When a Master of Wine lowers his sights to consider those of us scuffling amongst the bargains, it behoves us to raise our gaze from the bottom shelves to see what he has to say. And Richard Hemming MW recently turned his well-qualified vision to the wines offered by Aldi and Lidl.

If, as CJ wrote, “mute acquiescence counts as a ringing endorsement”, these are becoming something of a Sediment benchmark for cheap palatable wines. Mr Hemming MW admits that “they are almost without exception the very lowest possible price for their type”. But, it seems, that’s a bad thing.

“Such unrelenting focus on price, however, risks skewing the perspective of the consumer,” writes Mr Hemming MW. “If you can buy perfectly good Sancerre Rosé for less than £10, why pay more?”

Well…exactly. Why indeed?

But Mr Hemming MW suggests that we should. Pay more, that is. He asks whether we are potentially damaging the whole wine industry, by buying good quality wine at a low price.

“That not only puts pressure on independent retailers (who are experiencing falling sales according to this week's Wine Merchant survey), it potentially strips profitability out of the supply chain, all the way down to producers.”

Now, I would not claim to be an expert on the mechanics of the free market, but I think one principle of competition is that if someone can offer something for less, someone ultimately will – and everyone in the supply chain just has to adjust accordingly.

But I can also add to my A-Level in Economics some forty-odd years interim experience of buying stuff. And I think I can safely predict that the customers of independent wine merchants are not going to decamp en masse to Lidl and Aldi.

Take, say, Corney & Barrow. 230 years old, headquartered in the City, two Royal warrants and an ampersand. “Sometimes,” they wrote to me this week, “we have to pinch ourselves given the sheer length and breadth of our Fine Wine Broking List.”

Their customers probably don’t fancy driving to the outskirts and serving themselves, in a glorified shed, surrounded by pallets, busted cardboard boxes, and packets of processed German meats. While someone keys their Mercedes.

Yes, you can order Aldi wines online, and have them delivered. But you don’t see Aldi lorries competing for parking spaces in Knightsbridge with the Berry Bros vans. There may be a certain kudos these days, a kind of austerity chic, in unearthing bargains, and in demonstrating to the world that one is a shrewd shopper.But still, the thought of an Aldi lorry outside one’s pied a terre? Rather like seeing the bailiffs arrive, old chap! Wasn’t this year’s bonus up to scratch, then?

“I can't help thinking,” Mr Hemming MW goes on, “that as the discounters continue to grow, their low price strategy could threaten the diversity of our market.” Really? Because there’s still a diverse range of cheeses and coffees on the market at independent retailers (or, as we call them, chi-chi delis), even though you can get cheap, strangely-named but perfectly palatable cheese, or coffee, on any discount supermarket’s shelf.

And some of us would be quite content with cheap, strangely-named but perfectly palatable wine.

Or is Mr Hemming MW saying that cheap wine shouldn’t be palatable? That the wide range of great wines which an MW enjoys is only possible because paupers like us with untrained palates mop up the low-priced rubbish, which maintains the viability of the quality market?

You could view cheap wine as an entry into the whole world of wine, after which a customer might upgrade to the variety and quality and service of an independent wine merchant. In which case, it’s surely a good thing if that entry level wine is decent, and doesn’t put people off ever opening another bottle.

But it also assumes that the more “diverse” stuff from the independent merchants actually merits its higher price. And it’s up to the industry (including the MWs) to explain that merit to the public.

It’s wonderful that there is a bewilderingly huge variety of wines to explore. But there are also some of us, less affluent and less adventurous perhaps, who would happily settle for a “perfectly good Sancerre Rosé for less than £10”.

Or are we victims of a “skewed perspective”?


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