Tam­ing the name­less ter­rors of aisle five

Is the own-la­bel wine boom in su­per­mar­kets mak­ing us bolder, or play­ing on our fears?

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - FOOD & DRINK - VIC­TO­RIA MOORE

If you’re open­ing a bag of crisps with your prosecco later to­day, chances are that the crisps will be a well-known brand, but the bot­tle own-la­bel. Along with ice cream and soft drinks, savoury snacks are among the prod­ucts that shop­pers are most re­sis­tant to buy­ing un­der a su­per­mar­ket’s own brand, ac­cord­ing to anal­y­sis by re­search firm Kan­tar.

Wine is sim­i­larly “treaty”, but the way we be­have around it is dif­fer­ent. Own-la­bel wine – even cham­pagne, that most lux­u­ri­ous of all wines – has en­joyed huge suc­cess over the past cou­ple of decades. It is a sta­ple of dis­count stores like Aldi and of lux­u­ri­ous M&S Food Halls alike. Un­der its last man­age­ment, Majestic went big on own-la­bel. Tesco’s Finest range is so ex­ten­sive and baroque it now in­cludes a sparkling wine from Fran­ci­a­corta in Italy, South African cin­sault, Cen­tral Otago pinot noir and Ital­ian greco di tufo. Own-la­bel can even be found at Berry Bros & Rudd, Bri­tain’s old­est wine mer­chant, where the sell is not so much “cut-price” as its op­po­site, “be­spoke”: the BB&R ku­dos gilds a hum­ble wine, and very ef­fec­tive it is too – BB&R Good Or­di­nary Claret is a best­seller that reg­u­larly turns up on smart din­ner ta­bles.

So why the dif­fer­ence in at­ti­tude be­tween salty snacks and wine? Per­haps it is fear. Last time I checked, no one was scared of a bag of crisps but drinkers re­port an anx­i­ety – or per­haps that should be in­se­cu­rity – about pick­ing a good bot­tle. Fear is known to make us risk-averse, which may ex­plain the miserly at­ti­tude that so many have to­wards wine, and the pref­er­ence for sav­ing money with a cheaper own-la­bel bot­tle. Like the big­gest brands, own-la­bel also pro­vides a kind of sanc­tu­ary – a safe op­tion in a sea of dif­fer­ent la­bels. This can have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on our drink­ing choices as su­per­mar­kets use this lifebelt to en­cour­age drinkers to be more ad­ven­tur­ous – how many would choose to try marzemino, pecorino or Slove­nian sau­vi­gnon fur­mint with­out it?

But what are you ac­tu­ally get­ting when you buy own-la­bel? It can be sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult to know. Part­ner­ships that are highly prized by a su­per­mar­ket are some­times trum­peted on the la­bel. For ex­am­ple, if you look closely at the lit­tle sil­ver shield on the front of a bot­tle of Tesco Finest GSM (£9) you will see that it’s made by the highly rated Aus­tralian win­ery d’Aren­berg. It’s a lovely wine, too – a cosy bear-hug of a red. How­ever, own-la­bel may also be used to hide the prove­nance of a wine. How many peo­ple check the small print? And, in any case, legally, the la­bel is only re­quired to state the name and ad­dress of the bot­tler (which could eas­ily be dif­fer­ent to that of the pro­ducer, for in­stance, when wine is shipped in bulk for UK bot­tling). Hid­ing the name of the pro­ducer can be handy for all sorts of rea­sons.

First of all, it makes price com­par­i­son im­pos­si­ble. Sec­ondly, it can make a wine ap­pear semi-bou­tique when it might ac­tu­ally come from a gi­gan­tic man­u­fac­turer – of­ten the same gi­gan­tic man­u­fac­turer that is sup­ply­ing other su­per­mar­kets with sim­i­lar wines.

Thirdly, it means the pro­ducer can be silently changed with­out the cus­tomer notic­ing. This re­cently hap­pened with Sains­bury’s Taste the Dif­fer­ence Douro, a Por­tuguese red that I loved when it was made, as it was for many years, by Quinta do Crasto, but like a lit­tle less now it comes from Syming­ton

Fam­ily Es­tates. And lastly, it en­ables a su­per­mar­ket to of­fer the ap­par­ent rich va­ri­ety of sev­eral dif­fer­ent la­bels – when, ac­tu­ally, sev­eral of them come from the same enor­mous

Good buy­ers will al­ways taste their way to a bet­ter wine out of a big pro­ducer

pro­ducer. This is par­tic­u­larly use­ful for a su­per­mar­ket that needs to cut costs by re­duc­ing the num­ber of sup­pli­ers it works with.

What’s more, the suc­cess of dis­count stores has meant a nec­es­sary rash of cost-cut­ting across many of the big play­ers. For in­stance, at the last M&S tast­ing, I counted four wines (out of the 90 red, pink and white shown) from the huge MGM Mondo del Vino Ital­ian wine pro­ducer and six (in­clud­ing a Châteauneu­f du Pape) from the French Cas­tel group – a gi­ant that pro­duces 640mil­lion bot­tles of wine a year, ac­cord­ing to Forbes.

I guess all this sounds as if I am a bit down on own-la­bel wine. I’m not. It can be a very good thing, bring­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, re­as­sur­ance and some­times ex­cel­lence all at the same time.

If you want a taste of own-la­bel done re­ally well then have a look at Booths, whose buyer, Vic­to­ria An­der­son, has en­sured that nearly ev­ery wine is a joy (a good buyer like An­der­son will al­ways taste their way to a bet­ter wine out of a big pro­ducer, as well).

But I do think that own-la­bel is now over­done. It’s not al­ways a very trans­par­ent way to sell wine and I’d like to see a bit less of it on cer­tain su­per­mar­ket shelves.

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