A poverty-stricken Catherine Fellows trawls the stores to find the best red wine for under £3.
Eeny. meeny. miney. mo: Corbieres. Chianti. Merlot . . . You are late for a date. have £3 to spend and a load on your mind. You end up with a beast with a bite like vinegar. scrawny body and no tail at all. The wine gets drunk and your memory is blank. Same place two days later and it‘s hair ofthe dog: eeny. meeny. miney mo. . .
There has to be a more discerning way. Are all cheap red wines rough and much of a muchne'ss or. as I suspect. do they vary enormously from those which you wouldn't finish however impoverished or desperate you were. to those which are so drinkable that they question the wisdom of spending more'.’ It does seem foolish not to take up the challenge of a merchant such as Oddbins which alone stocks over 3() reds at under £3. and to do a little research into what is on offer.
The ability of modern producers to temper their wine in accordance with supposed popular taste. as well as the arrival ofcountless new combinations from all over the world. has made it very difficult to apply the traditional criterion that served the French-dominated market for years. For example. whilst the vast majority ofcheap reds seem to aspire to comparison with Bordeaux claret. many also claim to be full-bodied. Even amongst French wines. you cannot necessarily rely upon the Appellation Contra/ea rating as a guarantee of higher quality than the Vins [)e/irnilés (1e Qua/ire Supérieure
(VDQS). or even some of the Vins
82 The List 9 — 22 November 1990
The grape ought to give some indication ofcharacter. The ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon is supposed to yield a blackcurrant ﬂavour. moderate acidity and good tannin. Merlot is plummier tasting; ( 'aberne! Franc more perfumed and less tannic. Gamay is the lighter Beaujolais grape and Firm! Nair. arguably the finest grape. is responsible for the wines of Burgundy. Syra/z (known as Shiraz in Australia) is the principal ingredient ofpunchy Rhone reds. Whilst these French varieties tend to provide the basis for Eastern European and New World wines in the low price range. longer established Italian and lberian wines are likely to be made from local grapes with their own distinct characteristics.
After Oddbins. the greatest selection of wines under £3 is offered by the supermarkets: Sainsbury's. Saleways and Marks and Spencer. Sainsbury's wine buyer has such an exalted reputation amongst critics and consumers: the extensive shelves are so stuffed with award-winning bottles that a novice can be confident trying less usual offerings such as the Portuguese Arruda. Dao and Bairrada or the Australian Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon. (Apparently the Gulf crisis has pushed up shipping costs. which accounts in part for the dirth of inexpensive New World wines.)
Safeways also has its fair share of winners: their Chianti. Cabernet Sauvignon del 'l'riveneto and Pinot Nero. a young red to serve chilled. have been singled out by the wine press. Marks and Spencer looks more conservative. with the emphasis on French Vin de Pays. It is. however. the only place where I saw a (iamay for less than £3. and it
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It becomes obvious on visiting a few. that the choice on offer in the chain store off-licences depends upon the capacity of the branch as much as the policy of the particular company. Even the most meagre can provide at least one Bulgarian wine. Clearly and distinctively labelled as members ofa family. they benefit from each other‘s sound reputations and are the obvious choice against bottles so uninformative that they must have something to hide. ()ne of the most important things is a well-informed and willing service. My very ordinary looking local Peter Dominic was brought alive for me by one man‘s enthusiasm and frank advice — he could even provide a stack of books for in-depth reference — and I came away with two favourites in the selection below.
It is surely for this reason. as much as for their excellent reputations as discerning buyers. that the few independent merchants are so popular. Edinburgh‘s Peter Green is a warren of a shop. but even the most frugal customer is guided round with an attentiveness which could not fail to civilise and edify. If the choice of wines under £3 is not huge here. it is because of faith in the clear superiority of a few. including the ()riachovitza described below and the Bulgarian country wine Merlot/(iamza (Suhindol region). which has a very unusual fruity flavour. Similarly. Glasgow’s The Ubiquitous Chip is totally confident in recommending wines: at this end of the market the latest clear favourites are the Hungarian and Romanian Cabernet Sauvignons and the Romanian Pinot Noir.
The only way to achieve some kind of familiarity with different varieties and to establish personal preferences must be to try the wines. There is
however something of a consensus as to quality. With the recommendations ofwine merchants themselves and recently published critical surveys. l have come up with a dozen of the best red wines to be
; had for less than £3. and describe some totally subjective reactions to ‘ them. They are broadly
9 representative of the spectrum of
types and origins on offer. and. in my opinion. are all very drinkable.
Just as selections vary from one branch of a store to another. and are subject to the ability ofsuppliers to satisfy demand. so many of the wines I mention are available either in different bottles. or in identical form from outlets other than the ones I have noted.
A foray into the world ofwine tasting offers more than the chance to buy better next time. more even than a faintly highbrow justification for
getting pickled. It is a land ofpoets! ' llere lurk the last ofthe great
Romantics: 'Pale light gleaming greenish. . "l'hick. vermilion black: rich blackberry and cherry jam. and cream and summer pudding. . And there are countless examples of anthropomorphism: ‘Very good varietal character in a pretty. elegant way'. ‘Warm. earthy and assertive'. ‘Extraordinary plummy nose‘. That last I can believe. But to be fair all this free expression can be surprisingly communicative. So it tastes purple; 1 think I know what
3 that means. The trouble comes when ; the description bares no relation at
all to your own experience. You begin to wonder if you have been chewing the wrong kind of leather all
i your life. Bearing in mind that we are ' talking about comparatively meagre
vintages I thought it wise to push the
i holy cow a little closer to the herd
and avoid extravagant analogies. A Dozen Dance Before The Judges
l Saleways French Organic Wine £2.85. Safeways is forging a reputation for itselfin the field of green consumption. As well as supporting its own organic farm in Scotland. Safeways sponsors Britain'sonly organic wine fair. In view of the high price of most organic produce. it is encouraging to see this wine vying for a place at the bottom end of the market. It has a woody. rather sharp. vinegary smell: on tasting. the tannin is obvious. and the experience one ofdisappointing thinness perhaps a result of the wine‘s comparatively low alcoholic content. However. it grows on you. and is certainly ethically rewarding. I Gates de La Malpere VDOS £2.59. Augustus Barnett. It is a much ‘fatter‘ wine — the ﬂavour and texture fill the mouth - and more interesting; something of new mown hay and berries.
I St Michael's COtes de St Mont V008 £2.99. Marks and Spencer. Despite