Why big wine brands deserve a higher rating
I’ve been thinking a bit about wine brands lately and why we don’t rate them as highly as we do brands in other fields. Think of fashion, cosmetics and even food, and brands generate an enthusiastic and loyal following, yet wine experts tend to be decidedly sniffy about them.
What brought this to mind was a recent trip to Portugal with local wine giant Sogrape (pronounced Sograp) that, among other things, owns Mateus. No, I’m not a fan, either, but I can see the advantage: the income stream from Mateus helps to fund the cultivation of vineyards on the precipitous slopes of the Douro, which have to be worked by hand. At the top end of the scale, Sogrape also makes Barca Velha, the wine Manchester United boss José Mourinho famously gave to his predecessor, Alex Ferguson.
It’s a similar story with other big companies. Australian giant Penfolds, now owned by Treasury Estates, makes Rawson’s Retreat, but also the stratospherically priced Grange. Likewise, the Chilean winery Errazuriz makes affordable wines under its own name, but also the much-acclaimed Seña.
The advantage of a brand is consistency, a quality prized much more in spirits than in wine, where vintage variation is admired as part of a wine’s DNA. But if you’re slightly anxious about your wine choices, predictability is reassuring. The downside of brands, however, is the pricing. Not necessarily that they’re more expensive, though that may well be the case, especially with champagne, but that prices fluctuate so wildly between one outlet and another. That isn’t always down to the producer, though – supermarkets can and do discount wines to whatever level they feel will give them a competitive edge (having often charged over the odds in the first place).
The other day, for instance, Morrisons was selling Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc for £6 a bottle at the same time as you could find it for £3-£4 more in its competitors (the same wine was £9.49 at Bargain Booze, ironically). What’s the harm in that, I hear you ask. Well, for starters, the fact that independent shops can’t hope to match those prices, so suffer from the impression that they’re overcharging (a bit like bookshops and Amazon); in fact, I found the Villa Maria at twice the Morrisons price in one merchant.
The answer, of course, is not to buy a well-known brand in an indie (concentrate on their more obscure finds instead) and to look out for special offers on those you buy in supermarkets.