Wine with Titchmarsh

(by peter & susie)

Last week we popped in to the famous London Studios to record a piece for The Alan Titchmarsh Show.

You can see the results on ITV Player (our bit starts at 19.19, just after John Hurt – apologies in advance for the annoying ad breaks which you can’t fast forward).

The theme of the piece was supermarket wines. This followed on from another strong performance by the supermarkets and their wines in this year’s wine awards, notably the International Wine Challenge but also Decanter World Wine Awards and our very own What Food What Wine.

The tone was light-hearted and Ann Widdecombe joined us for the fun and games. (And yes, Moroccan brothels were mentioned – but entirely innocently, we assure you…) The piece was loosely topically themed around a Strictly Come Dancing format, with Alan and Ann rating the wines on their paddles.

It turns out that Ann, who we wouldn’t have had as much of a wine fan, is partial to the classic whites – Sancerre, Chablis, Pouilly-Fumé. Alan, meanwhile, knows good fizz when he sees it.

Neither of them went for the Spanish rosé but both loved the pudding wine, which got a resounding thumbs up. (Interestingly, since it was the cheapest bottle on show, albeit also the smallest at 37.5cl). What’s more, we can attest to how brilliantly well the Pinot Noir and Champagne were showing.

The wines we showed were as follows:

  • Waitrose Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne NV (£22.99, Waitrose)
  • Oyster Bay Marlborough Chardonnay (£9.99, Sains, Waitrose, Tesco)
  • Tesco Finest Navarra Rosé 2010 (£6.99, Tesco)
  • Roaring Meg Pinot Noir 2009, Mount Difficulty (from £14.99, Majestic)
  • Tesco Finest Dessert Semillon 2007 (£6.49, Tesco)

Like them or loathe them (and clearly very few of us care enough to avoid them) supermarkets are an increasingly dominant force in wine.

Some 94% of regular wine drinkers buy at least some of their wine in the supermarket. Around 84 out of every 100 bottles of wine sold to drink at home go through a supermarket till.

What supermarkets do well is to give consumers as little reason as possible to shop elsewhere. Convenience. Ultra competitive pricing. Diversity of products (from CDs to clothes, even to holidays and mortgages these days).

The same applies to wine. From a consumer point of view, it’s hard to quibble with the value for money that supermarket wine offers. Equally, the variety on offer is admirable – and the quality generally pretty decent too.

We’d go so far as to say that we’ve never had it so good as far as supermarket wine is concerned. But before you go out and fill your boots, we’d also throw in a few words of caution and advice:


  •     Beware big brands that seem to be constantly on offer. It’s a false economy – these wines are often made to be sold at the discounted price. Given the quality can also be insipid, buying into this classic marketing ploy is a mistake on many levels.
  •     Instead, wait for the generic offers that the supermarkets have started to run recently (ie 25% off everything when you buy six or more bottles) to stock up on your favourites – when you can also afford to experiment a bit at the same time.

Own labels

  •     On one hand, the downturn has heralded a new era of super-cheap own-label brands which could handily double-up as paint stripper.
  •     On the other, so-called ‘posh’ own-label is an increasingly reliable source of excellent value, eclectic wines. The likes of Finest (Tesco), Extra Special (Asda) and Taste the Difference (Sainsbury’s) ranges really do tend to justify a slightly higher price point in terms of diversity and quality. So if you’re open to experimentation, perhaps start here first.


  •     The average price of a 75cl bottle of wine to take home in the UK is currently £4.55. In supermarkets, the average price is £4.38.
  •     Well over half this amount (£2.57) goes on tax. In fact, at £4.38 really very little money is left over for the wine, after other costs are taken into consideration (transport, packaging, promotion, margins etc).
  •    That’s why it’s worth spending those extra few pounds on a bottle of wine – say, £6-7 – because in theory all that extra money is going towards the wine rather than the fixed costs, so you get far better value for money.
  •    Alternatively, if you are that stretched for cash, look to buy a smaller format. Many producers are now opting for the 50cl bottle, which is an excellent alternative as far as we’re concerned.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning life beyond supermarkets.

Although the high-profile demise of chains like Threshers and Oddbins have dominated headlines of late, the reality is that the independent merchants and online operations are thriving.

Although they can’t compete with supermarkets on price or convenience, the best independents are trying to engage customers through the likes of excellent service, top quality small-production wines, personal relationships, and added extras like sampling machines, events or wine bar facilities

Innovation is also rife online, with social media changing the rules of the game and helping usher in a new era of audience participation – it’s even stretched to winemaking collaboration. Now there’s a thought…

Bigger chains like Majestic (of the excellent Roaring Meg in our Titchmarsh line-up) continue to prove that wine can be big business and prosper – provided it’s run smartly and served with passion.

All of this was reflected in the major awards this year, where winners included the likes of The Wine Society, Majestic, Artisan & Vine, The Sampler, Corks Out, Naked Wines, Hanging Ditch, Tanners and Caves de Pyrène.

In general, the UK wine market is static, if not stagnant. Total take-home volumes are down 2% at 1.17 billion bottles – and value (£5.3 billion) is only rising because of tax hikes, more of which are undoubtedly on the horizon. Previous driving forces like rosé have faltered.

Add this to a shaky global economy, tight purse strings, a vocal health lobby and the rise of ersatz products like ‘British’ wine, and the panorama could appear to be very bleak.

But operations like these award winners, as well as the best of the supermarkets, give us cause for hope as far as wine on the British high street is concerned.

It’s only right, then, that we should celebrate them. Ideally, in the best way possible: by toasting them with their own wines.