The worst possible place to buy wine


How many times have you heard people braying with irritating smugness about all the wonderful cheap wine they have picked up in French supermarkets? Endlessly, I’ll wager. Well next time you hear some smug arse prattling out this tosh I strongly suggest you make it abundantly clear you could think of few experiences as dreary as sampling the filth they threw their money away on and so you don’t want any of it popped when you are in danger of having to drink some. This is because French supermarkets are almost certainly the most atrociously abysmal places in the world to get decent wine.

This is a consequence of both France’s amazing diversity as a wine producing country and the shamefully cretinous ineptitude of the supermarket wine buyers. These reprehensible dunderheads have at their fingertips all a lover of fine things could desire, but ignore this in favour of the most insipid, wearisome flotsam and jetsam their great country produces.

The problem is the buyers think that, given the stunning number of different wines made in France, they need to have as many of them as possible on their shelves. Given the huge demand for wine by supermarkets and the limited availability of properly decent kit there is little ability to buy anything of real quality.

Furthermore, most people who buy wines in supermarkets, as is true the world over, are generally choosing their bevvies by price rather than looking for specific wines of renowned quality.

The result of these two factors is that, whilst French supermarkets have what looks like a stunning array of wines, they have been chosen simply because, in the first place, they are available for purchase and, secondly, they have been made by someone whose epic yields and slapdash winemaking allow the price of the final product to be right at the bottom of their viticultural region’s spectrum.

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So you may well be able to pick up three different Pommard Premier Crus in a reasonably sized shop, but they will have been made by a producer of dumbfounding obscurity whose neglectful, lackadaisical attitude to oenology and viticulture merits only having his vineyards confiscated. I use Pommard Premier Cru as an example as that was the last supermarket wine that someone poured for me. It was so loathsomely repugent that I think I am being far too charitable to the person who subjected me to it in that I never speak to them anymore.

It is true that some stores have fine wine sections, but it is surprising how vanishingly rare these are and as most of the wines they offer have been purchased on the secondary market I have seldom seen a good bottle at a keen price.

I cannot describe my passionate love of France, French wine and the French people (even though occasionally, as Eddie Izzard says, “they can be a bit… well… French”), but I cannot make it clear enough that if you are injudicious enough to by wine whilst in one of those massive comestible-packed warehouses over the channel you probably deserve an even worse fate than having to drink it.

I may as well touch on wine in English supermarkets. Of course, wine sold here is usually chosen by price point as well. The difference is the UK is not a winemaking country and we are fortunate to have a commendably active and professional wine trade. This means we are not obsessed with getting wine from the homeland and that the buyers know the world wine scene well enough to score wine that may come from a novelty location, but it will be made well enough to be inoffensive (although usually stupefyingly anodyne) and can be sold at the price most buyers seek.

Some supermarkets really do make a bit more of an effort. Wine seems to be at least slightly modish in the UK at the moment and if you visit a large supermarket you may well see two or three bottles of genuine interest which are usually priced perfectly reasonably. If I may suggest the supermarket with the best list I think it would have to be Waitrose – La Gitana is a real bargain there.

Fino Perdido, the Sherry I just scored

Just as an aside, you may have read that Tesco’s wine buyer called Decanter’s editor an elitist snob for saying that you cannot get decent wine for less than £4.99. The Tesco’s fellow is clearly a rude clodpole (and there is nothing bad about being an elitist) and Decanter’s editor is just wrong – decent wine starts at a tenner. Mind you, I say that and I’ve just purchased some rather spiffing Sherry for £7.95…

  • I think I have to disagree with your here. Having a fine taste in various things, and a partner who things dinner is toast and a Bubbalo Bill ice cream, some people do not deserve nice things, its simply wasted on them. I buy my nice bacon, then buy crappy supermarket stuff for him as does not give a toss either way about what he eats and does not even notice the difference. Its not about anything other than those sort of people drinking fine wines when they are happy with crap is equal if not worse than just pouring it down the sink. Hope all is still on the improvement and you get out of hospital soon!

  • Ed Tully

    I am not sure I agree with you here. I have scored some pretty good wine in French Supermarkets: noticeably some Trimbach CFE 2006 (15 euro) and Pontet Canet 2000 (12 euro!). There have been some real horror shows in Britain. Threshers was so abysmal it deserved to close, but what made me real sad is the disaster Oddbins became when, was to Castel? they sold out. It brings tears to any wine lovers eyes to remember what you could buy in oddies until the late Nineties.

  • Walden

    My experience accords with yours, David. A few years back, we rented a place in Britanny. You would ^think^, not far from Loire, grocery stores would be packed with good Cab Franc, Muscadet, etc., but they were a disaster. We ended up drinking Kir, converting mediocre Muscadet into something pleasant.

    Get better soonest!

  • Hi Aimee,

    I perfectly understand that some people are happy with filth. No, actually I don’t have the slightest understanding of that; it is totally incomprehensible to me. I would rather eat and drink less of stuff that has character and interest than any amount of cheap, boring rubbish. So let me rephrase myself and say that I know there are some people who buy frozen, grey sausages in 40-packs that in total contain half the meat of two of the sausages I buy. But this is Elitistreview and I do not give buying recommendations to the hard of aesthetics.

    Hopefully I will be out of hospital tomorrow. I will grab some lunch, go home and stroke the cat, then have a glass of truly amazing wine.

    I hope you are managing all right. Catch you on Skype soon.

    Hello Edward,

    I have vanishingly rarely seen wines of that quality in French super markets, you have been a lucky fellow. Although obviously I don’t give two hoots about Pontet Canet at any price. Crap as they are, Threshers (incredibly crap) and Oddbins (reasonably crap) are not supermarkets.

    See you in Winchester soon!

    Hi Walden,

    Well, quite! if you want decent wine you just have to hope you are lucky enough to be near a specialist merchant or buy direct from a producer.

    Thank you all for dropping by.

  • Ed Tully

    No, oddies or threshers were not supermarkets, but then your article did not specify that, just that they needed to be the worst place to buy wine. I suppose if pedantry had come to the fore I might have suggested that a public lavatory in Kabul might be the worst place to score the grape goods, but that’s just silly. The Aldi in Thornbury (home to the in laws) would take a lot of beating in the competitive Worst Supermarket Wines class. Well worth a visit if you wish to utter an exquisite laugh of derision mixed with despair.

  • Jeremy Seysses

    There is definitely supermarket and supermarket and the worst of the French compare to the worst of the English. There is a big difference between Waitrose in Kensington and Waitrose in a shabby neighborhood. Budgen’s in Summertown, while in an affluent neighborhood, was nothing to write home about. Similarly, the Carrefour at the Porte d’Auteuil carries some good wines.

    The French supermarkets do function differently, but stocking fine wines much of the time but having massive “foire aux vins” twice a year when they push through a lot of high end stuff. Due to supplying constraints, a lot of that volume is Bordeaux. That said, the UK
    supermarkets also have to focus on the larger scale producers.

    On another note David, your gripe with Bordeaux had frequently mentioned that the problem was a lack of pleasure for the price, implying too expensive rather than a total absence of redeeming qualities. For 12 euros, I’d say that Pontet Canet 2000 is a real score.

    Aimee, what are you doing with such a tasteless person?

  • Ed Tully

    In fairness the supermarkets in the sunny south of France also stock some super booze. Pretty much everyone has Pibarnon, usually the 2006 at the moment and the price is a not entirely unreasonable 25-28 euros. You can also find a pleasing diversity of champagnes. One should not judge France by what you can find in Calais. In fact, we have to take most of the blame for the horrors of that town given that we have been invading it for nearly nine hundred years. I suppose you could say the same thing about claret…

    I agree with Jeremy. The issue with fine claret is not the quality but the hideous, ghastly cost.

  • Dan Richardson

    But, but, Decanter have just awarded a gold medal to a £3.99 Chilean merlot that one can find on the shelves at Lidl. Surely this means that Lidl sells uber-wine. No?

  • Ed Tully

    Yes, that must be true. Decanter would never, ever lie or get things wrong. I doubt that it is possible to make wine for under a tenner. Maybe “wine” but not wine and certainly not “Wine!”. Life is just too short to put up with filth and nonsense.

  • Hi chaps,

    I didn’t know about the “foire aux vins”, I must try to visit one. Yes, my main gripe with Bordeaux is the price, so I suppose the Pontet Canet did not suffer from this. That being said, I’d rather drink Cyprien’s Bourgogne Ronceive for about the same price every time. Cabernet just so rarely does it for me in the way that even modest Pinot can.

    I’m afraid I cannot stand Decanter. I used to do panel tastings for them until the whole format just became too irksome for me. They would often have some really serious wines in their line ups, but you had so little time to give them the attention they deserved they could quite easily disappear into the morass. I remember tasting a batch of 1999 Pommards and Volnays and there were some incredibly beautiful, elegant and classy little numbers there which most of the other tasters just seemed to miss and gave crap scores to simply because they were not powerful enough to stand out. I gave de Montille’s Pommard Rugiens five stars (it was so stunningly beautiful) everyone else two or three. I was appalled.

    £3.99 – odd’s bodkins! After VAT, duty, shipping and so on there is perilously little money to spend on the wine. No thanks.

    Thanks for all your comments.

  • I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written David. For the most part French supermarkets stock really poor Negociant brands of famous regions plus a haphazard selection from their own region. Supermarket buyers don’t go out and taste wine or visit wineries or go to trade fairs. They sit in their office and wait for some poor sod who has some surplus wine to sell or has some debts to pay. My local Champion has a selection of the worst wines to be found in the Roussillon. OK he has some Pontet-Canet and perhaps a couple of other respected Bordeaux gathering dust under the hot lighting but what kind of fool buys their Pontet-Canet from a supermarket?

  • I’m with you on this, David. Of course, there are exceptions, and one can on occasion be lucky enough to find gems in supermarkets on both sides of the channel. But in general, I think it’s shocking how much filth French supermarkets sell to their customers. The French are right to be proud that they produce most of the world’s fine wine. But there is still some woeful swill around as well, and French supermarkets are too ready to stock it. There is muck to be found on the shelves in France that no British supermarket wine buyer would look at. In general, I think UK supermarkets have done a pretty good job of introducing people who are new to wine to quite OK, clean, decent expressions of the wines they are at prices they can afford. Some then graduate to other things. French supermarket buyers too often seem to treat their customers with contempt.

  • Hi Jon,

    Many thanks for dropping by, I hope you like the site.

    I quite agree, if I saw something fine with proper age on it sitting on a supermarket shelf the price would have to be razor-sharp and my good-fortune senses truly tingling for me to drop the sponds.


    Of course, as ex-Oxford captains we are in total accord. You were impressively rude there, fancy a guest column on ER? 😉