Should we scoff at supermarket own-label wines?

What sort of an answer do you expect when you taste an interesting wine and you ask where it’s from? Do you hope to be told it’s from a little village nestling in the foothills of the Cevennes, just an hour’s drive from the Med? Or would it be more useful to be told, “Waitrose”? The best answer would include both pieces of information, but supermarkets can make that difficult. Some of their best value wines are their own brands, but it can be hard to find out where the wine is actually from.

Take Waitrose White Burgundy Chardonnay. That’s all it says on the label, which is not that helpful when Burgundy stretches from the dry flint-like wines of Chablis in the north to the opulent wines from the sun-drenched vineyards around Mâcon in the south. The trick is to turn the bottle round and read the small print on the back label. The wine comes from the Cave de Lugny. Suddenly a whole world of information becomes available. The Cave de Lugny is the largest co-operative in the Mâconnais, with over 400 growers contributing grapes. The co-op is so big it’s divided up into three wineries, one of which is in the village of Chardonnay, from where the grape is thought to have originated. Co-operative winemaking in Burgundy makes good sense. Vineyards tend to be small and bad weather is often quite localised. It makes the wine very variable. A summer hailstorm, or a spring frost may wreck a few vineyards. A co-operative can maintain standards if they have another 395 from which to choose their grapes. And the Mâconnais is a lovely part of France, its rolling hills dotted with small villages, each with its church tower or spire and village square. Lugny is not far from the Abbey of Cluny, founded in 910, but we can’t credit the monks with bringing winemaking to the area, because that started under the Romans. Doesn’t that make a glass of Waitrose White Burgundy more interesting?

And just to demonstrate that that isn’t a one-off, let’s take the bottle on the shelf next to the Burgundy. All the label tells us is ‘Waitrose Touraine Sauvignon Blanc’. The small print on the back isn’t much help. It just gives its origin as EMB49050A, which requires a bit of online searching. That takes us to a co-operative called the Cave de Oisly, and Waitrose Cellar online confirms that is where the Sauvignon comes from. What a place to come from! There are Loire chateaux all round, including the glorious Chateau at Cheverny. The co-op makes its own label prize-winning Sauvignon, called Vallée des Rois. Not far to the east is Sancerre, at the same latitude, on the same geology, where the same grape and the same winemaking methods are used. Oisly’s wine may not have the complexity of Sancerre but it’s cheaper by a mile.

I’d say Waitrose knows how to pick them. And it’s not just Waitrose. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Languedoc White is made by Paul Mas, the extraordinarily successful winemaker from the Languedoc. The Co-op Irresistible Chateauneuf du Pape is made by the famous Perrin family. Their own label Chateau de Beaucastel would set you back between £60 and £1000 a bottle according to which one you choose, but their Co-op version is a mere £14.99.

Thanks to David Williams for the idea behind this article (and a little of the detail).



Andrew Polmear

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