Archives for category: Cheap wine

So has smuggled French wine has been spotted in Ireland? Wine that is brought in undeclared so no excise duty has been paid.

(You are of course perfectly entitled to buy wine in France and bring it in for your own consumption but selling it on is another thing.)

Excise duty on a case of wine (12 bottles of 75cl each) is €23.60 – ex vat – or  €1.97 a bottle – again ex vat. If you haven’t paid this cost, and then obviously don’t have this charge to pass on, your wine will be at a much more attractive price than wine from someone who has.

How can you tell? Well wine made for the French domestic market has an image of ‘La Marianne’ on the capsule or the screwtop, and wine for export does not. Capsules with ‘La Marianne’ have the French duty incorporated into the price of the capsule – you don’t just buy a ‘Marianne’ sticker for the top of your bottle, it comes as part of the capsule or on the screwcap.

But it is not always this black and white, at times a producer may not have enough of the export capsules to fulfil an order and we have on occasion imported bottles with ‘La Marianne’ on them, in this instance  the winemaker will take the hit – that is to say he or she will have to export having already paid French duty (which is about 2 cents a bottle roughly) but they will have decided that waiting the extra time for the export capsules to be ordered and delivered would not be worth it.

‘La Marianne’ as she appears on the top of a capsule

So if you see on the shelf of a shop, or in a restaurant some ‘La Marianne’ capsules it does not automatically imply the wine was bought from someone avoiding excise, but should you see a whole rake of wines adorned with ‘La Marianne’ well,  questions should be asked.


Oh but there does seem to be a bit of ranting out there at the moment. Before I join in I have 3 quick questions on art, literature and fashion that I’d like you to have a look at:

1. You have a space on your wall you’d like to fill, would you rather

a. buy a poster for your wall now?

b. save for a few months for an original print or painting that you fell for or one by an artist you happen to rate?

c. save for a one-off by a grand master? (good luck with that)

2. You’re on holiday relaxing by the pool or on the beach or inside by the fire, would you rather

Beach Ball, Donegal

a. flick through a gossip magazine?

b. read a John Grisham or similar?

c. devote yourself to something you read a great review about and have been waiting until you had the time to do so?

3. You’re getting married, would you rather

a. wear something you picked up in Penney’s?

b. save to buy something off the rail in a department store or independent shop?

c. save up and go to a tailor/dress-maker?

There is obviously no wrong answer here, and I’d probably answer a, b and c to all three questions depending the mood I’m in when asked. [Small pause] Well, maybe not to that last one unless I were a serial bride, but if the wedding funds were such that it meant party or dress, I’d go for a frock from Penneys and a good knees up over a great dress and no guests any time.

I hope you get the point though. There is a great deal of snobbery out there when it comes to my line of work, wine. But no more than you can get from art critics or film buffs, book reviewers or fashion critics. Sometimes an airport novel is just what you need, it’ll do exactly what it says on the tin, and the same applies to a good old rom-com DVD.  I think that maybe the wine trade itself has a lot to answer for, reviewers have used overly flowery language or deliberately talk in exclusive jargon and it can be hard to explain the price differences between vintages or even decipher some labels. Wine snobs are a nightmare, I know.

photo: Robert Hunter

If you think of literature; say you read a novel by a certain author that completely knocks your socks off, be it a love story or thriller, then you are far more likely to pick up the author’s next offering, or try something he or she wrote previously. You are not going to assume that you will now love all thrillers or that all love stories are going to rock your boat. Something like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ or ‘Dr Zhivago’ is hardly the same as a Mills & Boon (for the record I happen to quite like a Mills & Boon once in a while but I would never rate one in my all-time great reads). Or take music, you are hardly likely to go into a shop, or go to iTunes and get yourself any old tune categorised as ‘Rock’ just because you’re a big fan of The Rolling Stones. When it comes to film, would you like to see only main-stream, box office successes available? Or would you like to support the independent, sometime kookie, often amazing work the small, lesser known directors and producers come up with? [That reads a bit odd to me, I don’t mean that tall producers can’t be lesser known or come out with amazing films…. That’s probably not helped either.] It’s the same with wine, the grape is perhaps one of the least important pieces of information on the label – just because you like a wine made from the Merlot grape variety by producer X does not mean you now like all wines made from Merlot. Nor that if you like one Côtes du Rhône you’ll like all Côtes du Rhône (or the inverse). A pair of jeans from Penney’s is not the same beast as a pair of jeans from Levis but both are a pair of jeans. You don’t say ‘I don’t like cotton’ because you had a bad changing room experience with a t-shirt in Gap (I blame the mirror). Importantly this is not to say that all designer wines are expensive, neither am I saying all mass produced ones are bad.

photo: Robert Hunter

By the very nature of production, something that is mass produced is never going to be as interesting as its counterpart. How can it be? It can be good, it can be reliable, it can be safe, but hardly interesting. A fast food meal will taste the same no matter where in the world you are when you eat it (and yes, this can be a good thing). With wine you need to follow the artist, or talk to someone trustworthy who knows their stuff – your independent retailer for example. He or she will want your business, will want you to come back, to be satisfied with what you got the last time. He or she will probably have tasted the majority if not all the wines in the shop. This is not something you will get from your supermarket, especially not your discount supermarket.

When I read magazine wine reviews I get increasingly frustrated. For the most part the fashion pages are full of clothes I would have to really save up for – that said, I like what I read, even if I don’t like it, if you know what I mean. The beauty pages are inevitably about creams, potions and make up that I would be hard pushed to find on the shelves of say Aldi or Lidl (I am an avid reader of the beauty pages, needing more help than previously, I’m not sure why my mother keeps staring back at me out of my mirror). I don’t remember the last time I saw a review of a made-for-TV film, or something from my trusty Mills & Boon. The restaurant pages are not about the latest offerings from the Tesco or Dunnes Cafés. So why is it that I seem to be seeing a lot of bland supermarket wines there, and ones that are being sold almost below cost being touted as ‘good’? Why can’t wine prices mirror those of the fashion and beauty pages? As suppliers we often hear ‘only put forward wines that are widely available’ the implication here being wines available in supermarkets and off licence chains. Isn’t this the equivalent of asking restaurant reviewers to stick to places that have a branch in every major town in the country, or fashion reviewers to only look at high street offerings? For film critics to only write up films on general release and art critics to review nothing but mass produced posters? Where’s the room for the small guy? The artist starting out? The first time novelist? How will anything become better know unless people read about it somewhere first?

If you want alcohol and you don’t want to pay over a certain amount per glass then why not buy something a little more interesting than a mass produced supermarket wine? Why not try an Irish made beer, stout or cider – there are loads of really amazing ones out there at the moment. Or what about making cocktails? There’s more value, fun and flavour to be had with these than the majority of cheap supermarket wines. Please, please whatever you do, do not judge all Chablis or Châteauneufs, Chardonnays or Merlots against what you may pick up off the supermarket shelf. But if you do want a good bottle of wine, why not trade up by a just couple of euro, and talk to your local independent.

This is a rant that was originally sent out as a Newsletter in July 2011. It prompted a lot of conversation for us and we feel it’s worth posting here. We’ve updated and edited it slightly (vat rate has changed etc.):

How do we compete with the large chains? Is it a matter of educating our target consumer? And if so how do we do that? Do we need to rely on word of mouth to promote our services (as opposed to advertising to promote our brand) and if so how do we maximize on this?

Ten years ago the independent off licences of this country had about a 50% share of the total off-premise sales of wine, beers and spirits but in the intervening years this has been steadily eroded to about 30% and continues to slide. Who have they lost out to? Well it’s of absolutely no surprise to know that the shift has been towards supermarkets and convenience stores such as Centra, Spar, Londis etc as well as newer arrivals Lidl and Aldi. Every time one of these opens it just continues to nibble away at what is left of the market for independents. If you were a true economic liberal you might just say ‘hard cheese, it’s the market that dictates’. We think the reality is more sinister and that the drinks business, particularly the wine side of it, is in danger of monopolised by a small number of extremely powerful retailers who not only control the domestic market but who also, due to their significant buying-power, have an adverse effect on grape production and winemaking.

Supermarkets are liable to mislead people regarding the true cost of a product. Below cost selling, a tactic to get customers through the door, is misleading as to the true value of a product. Items that are made in respectful and authentic ways naturally cost a certain price and if for example you find a bottle of wine in a supermarket at €4.99 or even €3.99 (and they do exist) you should question not only the quality of what is in the bottle but also the production methods that have been used by the winery to manage to get the juice into the bottle and for there still to be enough margin to satisfy the large retailer. A bottle of wine at €3.99 attracts 23% VAT, so remove 75 cents from the price. It also is subject to import duty of €1.97 (ex vat). Remove transport costs of approximately 20 cents and we get to €1.07. What are known as the dry materials cost at the very cheapest about 50 cents per bottle for the glass, the label, the capsule, the closure (plastic / cork / screwcap) and the carton. By now we have arrived at €0.57 and we haven’t taken into account advertising and promotion let alone a margin for the retailer or the producer. The message is pretty clear; wine can be had for cheap, but we are led to believe that this is all quite o.k. and that everyone is happy. Substitute wine with meat say and it isn’t nearly such a palatable idea. Think of what smoked salmon has become in the last 20 years, or going further back, even the humble chicken. Both used to be a luxury product, eaten on very special occasions and usually of very high quality. An average chicken on the supermarket shelf is apparently only 30 days old and pumped with goodness knows what to get it from egg to shelf so quickly. Smoked salmon fills lunchtime sandwiches, is mass produced and fed a diet of antibiotics. These foods are practically affordable on a daily basis if you buy the cheapest quality. Who was responsible for this degradation of such wonderful foodstuff – the salmon and chicken farmers or the large retailer, or maybe the consumer? (Do we deserve what we get?)

the steep terraces at Côte-Rôtie where alll the vineyard work has to be done by handThere are apparently means afoot to get wine producers to state on the label all the ingredients that have been used to make a wine. This could potentially help the smaller, quality focused grower (for example someone in Côte-Rôtie, see image, here all the work in the steep terraced vineyards has to be done by hand.) How palatable will it be to the consumer to see that their favourite bottle of cheap white wine has additions of ascorbic acid, sugar, pectolytic enzymes, sulphur dioxide, tartaric acid, cream of tartar, bentonite, maybe a touch of copper sulphate and some more sulphur dioxide. Admittedly some or all of these may be used by quality focused growers but rarely in the systematic way employed by large scale industrial growers. In fairness it should be said that despite the chemical sounding names not all these added ingredients are ‘bad’ but it does take away from the romance of it all.

The other obvious issue regarding the retailing of wine and the difference between the small independents and the large scale retailers is the level of service. Unless you are exceptionally well-read on the subject of wine your chance of picking up something really interesting in a supermarket has to be severely limited by the fact that no one is on hand to advise you. Therefore the obvious choice is to reach for a recognisable brand, instantly putting you into a zone of bland, heavily manipulated wines. The dedicated independent on the other hand has often spent years honing their range, and their knowledge of that range, in order to better guide you, the consumer. An independent merchant could well carry up to a thousand different wines but if he or she is any good they will have probably tasted the vast majority of those.

We should never underestimate the desire of the large groups to wipe out the competition and we all know it’s not just in the areas of food and drink retailing (however the availability of cheap alcohol is another whole kettle of fish – just to mix the old food and drink mataphors up a bit – and another day’s blogging). Their thirst to do so though leads them ultimately to join forces with the large scale producers. Imagine there are, say, 300 branches of supermarket inIrelandand each store sells twenty cases a year of a given wine. That means for the Irish arm of this supermarket alone a winery needs to be able to supply 6,000 cases or 72,000 bottles in a year. Most small or medium-sized producers don’t even make that amount.

Individuality, high quality, knowledge in wine and great service is not going to be found amongst the shelves of a supermarket. However it is more likely than not, be found at your dedicated local independent off licence or wine shop.

A fewmonths after we had first sent out this in newsletter form two other very interesting blog posts appeared, sparked by a Lidl promotion. One by Kevin Ecock (which was then followed by an article by Conor Pope in the Irish Times) and the other by Liam Cabot, of Cabot & Co in response to that article, both well worth the read.