We may be a thirsty nation, but we are not always a spendy one. While Britons are famous for keeping incomes healthy among the bar-owning inhabitants of various European sunspots, our fondness for quality has never matched our passion for quantity. And things appear to be getting worse: according to the consumer research group Kantar, the proportion of UK households buying wine has dropped from 71% to 68% since the beginning of 2017, while one in three people balk at paying more than £5 for a bottle of wine.
Wine is a luxury, so it is not surprising that expenditure on it goes down in austere times. And there are, clearly, many bottles to be had within this budget: Waitrose’s “crisp and floral Italian white” is £4.99; Kooliburra Australian shiraz, from Aldi, is £3.99. So what is the problem?
Well, thanks to duty rises, a bottle at £5 is not necessarily half as good as a £10 bottle. In fact, it is probably much less than half as good. And it is certainly less good than it used to be. That is not prejudice; it is maths. Wine duty in the UK is £2.23 – that is a flat rate on a 75cl bottle of still, unfortified wine, whether you pay £4 for that bottle or £400, and it has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Then there is VAT on the duty and the wine itself, so if you pay a fiver for your bottle you are at £3.06 – and you haven’t yet paid for packaging or shipping, much less any wine. Put simply, it is not wine snobbery to suggest that wine priced below £5 cannot be good. It is magical thinking to believe that it can be.
The UK has among the highest wine taxes in Europe – and they will only get worse if or when we leave Europe and start paying full tax on European wine. Those cheap wines? They are probably supermarket loss-leaders, a calculated cost to get wine drinkers through the doors.
If wine drinkers subtracted the duties and realised they were paying less than £2 for their wine, they might be tempted to spend a little more – and, if necessary, to justify it by drinking a little less.
Otherwise, bag-in-box wines are getting better, are more sustainable, have cheaper packaging costs and tend to last longer, as there is no pressure to finish that last glass-worth that won’t taste good by tomorrow. (If you are finishing a box in one sitting, it is probably time to stop drinking altogether: they are usually 225cl, equivalent to three bottles). But, while these tend to be cheaper, the better ones still don’t work out at under £5 a bottle. Even the Wine Society – the wine cooperative that offers exceptional value, due to its longstanding relationships with winemakers, vast storage facilities and profit-sharing structure – no longer sells wines for less than £5. That said, it has a great many for under £6, which should really be the threshold these days.