Counting time on the £5 bargain bottle
My prediction for 2013 is that wine prices will go up. The Budget on March 20 will take excise duty above £2 per 75cl for the first time. That's just about 40% of the price of a £4.99 bottle. With VAT added, the tax take is 60%.
Looking on the bright side, this will help inflate the price of most wines beyond the threshold of 45 pence per unit of alcohol. The Government intends to impose this as soon as possible to inhibit the sale and consumption of all kinds of cheap booze.
On the other hand, there are also plans to ban the promotion of alcoholic drinks through "multibuy" offers in England and Wales. Already in place in Scotland, this sanction will outlaw supermarket deals luring shoppers into buying two bottles of, say, a £6.99 wine, for £10, saving a notional £3.98.
Most of us are sensibly wary of such offers, reasoning that the wine in question is probably only worth a fiver a bottle in the first place. But no less a consumer than the Prime Minister himself has attributed a more sinister motive than marketing zeal to the supermarkets' purpose. The retail giants, Mr Cameron told an audience of aerospace workers in Wales just before Christmas, are "actually pushing up the price of food to heavily pay for the very discounted, very cheap alcohol," they sell.
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The supermarkets refuted this serious charge – but don't expect the campaign of vilification to slacken. This year will see mounting pressure from the Government to price all alcohol out of reach of those it divines are most likely to be damaged by it. Namely, the poor. And that includes those of us who enjoy a glass of wine, but cannot, or will not, pay an artificially inflated price for it.
We might be powerless against the diktat that only the well-heeled shall have a well-stocked cellar, but we can continue to shop with shrewdness and discrimination. The average price paid at retail for a bottle of wine is still under £5, and there continues to be a reasonable choice of good wines under that threshold if you know where to look.
Don't take the good £5 wine for granted. This year might be its last. Here is my first selection for 2013. They are all from supermarkets.
Tesco Simply Côtes du Rhône 2011, at the endangered price of £3.99, is a pleasantly raspy and fresh, light but firmly fruity Mediterranean red of real character. Tesco Beaujolais 2011 at £4.49 is a very proper perky, juicy red entirely in the authentic Beaujolais style to drink gently chilled (try to imagine it's summer).
McGuigan Classic Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, down at Tesco from £7.99 to £5, is a big, defined Australian red of convincing blackcurranty ripeness and reassuring depth – a proper winter red with grip and length. And finally at Tesco, Viña Sol 2011 at £4.79, down from £6.29, is a sunny dry white from Spain of zesty fruitiness and real refreshment value.
Over at Waitrose, look out for bargains among the Italian reds. A new wine to me, the rather cumbersomely named Waitrose Rich and Intense Italian Red at £4.99 is a find. Made from the fruits of more than one harvest, and consequently a "non-vintage" wine, this Puglian blend from the robust varieties Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Montepulciano is darkly satisfying with toasty, spicy concentration and a grippy liquorice savour at its heart.
From northern Italy's Piedmont region, I commend Il Bello Barbera 2011, reduced from £5.99 to £5 at Waitrose. It's a middleweight red with a focused brambly-blueberry fruit that sits very well with sticky pasta dishes.
Also from Piedmont I like Alasia Cortese Gavi 2011, down from £6.79 to £5 at Waitrose. This fashionable dry white has the trademark grapefruit twang of the Cortese grape with mineral freshness to the long, eager flavours. Distinctive and elegant.
Just one wine jumps out at Morrisons. It is a nice big plump white from Chile, Viña Maipo Reserve Chardonnay 2011, halved in price to £4.99 in an offer ending tomorrow. This is old-fashioned New World Chardonnay, richly ripe and rewarding, and a true bargain.