Katherine Donnelly: Get off the beaten path
How do you negotiate those supermarket wine shelves and come away with genuine bargains, rather than falling victim to clever marketing?
There are little gems out there, but we often fail to root them out because we reach for the comforting familiarity of well-known labels. But, familiar can be boring!
The first lesson in supermarket wine buying is to be cautious of marketing ploys that suggest the liquid in bottles labelled two-for-one was ever worth the claimed full price. The true value is closer to the offer price.
Second, look beyond the obvious. Wines from a number of well-known regions unfailingly turn up in supermarkets. You know them so well -- Rioja, Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Chianti, which earn a prominence because of the recognition factor.
Classic wine regions they may be, but standards can vary hugely. Too often, a wine may technically satisfy the regulations to justify a famous label, but it is at the lower end of the spectrum. Vintages vary too; what was good one year may be unripe the next.
Far better to explore lesser-known grapes and regions and enjoy the voyage of discovery. Real value can be found in wines that are not well known and have to keep their prices down to gain a foothold.
Rather than Rioja, look at other Spanish reds. Often the grape is the same. In fact, cross the border and try some of the great- value, underrated Portuguese reds. Instead of Australian Chardonnay, try a Semillon. Instead of Chianti, try flirting with another Italian, Barbera d'Asti.
If Châteauneuf-du-Pape is your thing, you may do just as well, or better, at half the price, by looking at similar offerings without the illustrious name. Vacqueyras, Gigondas, or even plain old Cotes du Rhône (the highly rated 2009 vintage is on the shelves) all share the same southern Rhone provenance and grape varieties.
Supermarket own-label wines are worth a look, too. They put effort into finding a wine they can stand over, but even here, it is worth experimenting with the less well-known. Supermarkets don't take chances on filling shelves with products that won't sell, so if they're taking a punt on something you've never heard of, maybe it is time to listen.