This is an extended version of a guest post I wrote for Groupon UK. You can read the shortened version on the Groupon blog.
You remember Theseus? Yeah — the bloke who had to kill a savage, halitosis-ridden minotaur, then find his way out of a vast and treacherous labyrinth. A labyrinth, what’s more (though the legends don’t tend to mention this) that was probably ankle-deep in minotaur crap, unless there was some kind of sophisticated drainage system in place.
You may think Theseus made a pretty good job of all the above. And I wouldn’t disagree. But what I say is: put Theseus at the entrance to an out of town supermarket and tell him to come back with a half-case of exciting, high-quality wine?
Suddenly, that minotaur business don’t seem so taxing.
Because picking out the good stuff from your average supermarket wine aisle is a grim and potentially psychologically traumatic experience. But fear not, adventurer! Here are six tips to help you get out of the maze without putting your foot in something nasty:
1. Be suspicious of the beautiful label
Something to bear in mind, especially if you’re looking at the cheaper wines (around the £6–7 mark and below): at this price, a scandalously small amount of your money is going towards the actual wine. Most of it gets eaten up by taxes, duties and other such shaboddle. Read this article on UK Wine Duty and weep (a taster: spend £5 on a bottle of wine and less than £1 of that was spent on the wine itself)
So if you see a cheapish wine with a beautiful label, bear in mind that the producer already had a very small amount of money to make the wine, and that label design and branding consultancy don’t come cheap.
On the flip side, though, great label design on a more expensive wine may well be an indication that a producer is focused on its customers. So I’m not saying you should avoid nice labels per se. Just be aware that you’re paying for that label design.
2. Avoid the big names
We’ve all heard of the grand and prestigious wines from places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Sancerre, Barolo, Chateauneuf du Pape … But here’s where I’m going to tell you to ignore them.
Well, not entirely. But I virtually never buy big-name wines at the supermarket (except perhaps Waitrose). Why? Because often they are bad, bad examples of great wines. Sold on name alone.
If you want a grand old Bordeaux for a special occasion, I’d always go to an independent wine shop — where someone will help you find a good’n — or order online.
But, in the supermarket, I suggest you avoid the big names — and instead …
3. Seek out the unknown gems
These are the wines from places and grapes you may not be acquainted with. Why buy these? Because supermarkets know that most people buy the familiar stuff — slap ‘Bordeaux’ or ‘Pinot Grigio’ in big letters on a label and that wine will probably sell.
But slap ‘Torrontes’ or ‘Musar Jeune’ on a label? Not so much. These are wines that will generally be bought by more seasoned winos. As a result, they’ll tend to be better quality. Because the wine can’t rely on name, so has to prove itself by quality.
4. Be wary of 2 for 1 deals
Ah! The mythical 2 for 1. Bargain, right? Alas, dear trolley-pusher, it may not be so…
Because there’s a bunch of wines that only ever sell when they’re on 2 for 1. At other times of year, they’re shelved somewhere out of the way, at a high full price that hardly anyone would pay. They are designed to be sold at 2 for 1. And that fact is built into the pricing.
So don’t be so sure that a pair of 2 for 1 wines for £10 is actually worth £20. It probably isn’t.
5. Look for the medals
Like a shrewd, discerning singleton at a military officers’ ball, you need to keep your peepers peeled for the glint of polished metal. Wine awards aren’t the be-all (many brilliant wines don’t win medals) — but if a wine does have an award festooning its label, chances are it won’t be a dog.
Unless you’ve somehow strayed from Tesco’s to Crufts.
6. Search high and low
The way things are shelved in supermarkets is incredibly significant. Products placed at eye level will sell best. So if Mr Supermarket wants to shift a particular brand (or a particular brand pays Mr Supermarket for the privilege…?), that brand gets the prime space.
And, once again, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that the best quality wines won’t necessarily be the ones that Mr Supermarket is keenest for you to buy.
So get on your knees — and your tip-toes — and scan the badlands of the top and bottom shelves. This is where those modest beauties may be coyly hiding.
Well — I hope these tips fortify your next voyage supermarketwards.
Oh, yeah, and on your way out, give that Theseus a kick in the shins, won’t you? (For Ariadne.)