Thanks to the speeding up of the bottling of wine at source, and to the UK joining the then Common Market in 1973, supermarkets were given the necessary boost to start putting their own name on wine labels. If this gave credence to the notion that the supermarkets' own-label wine was now respectable enough to plonk on the dinner table, some would say that it was no more than plonk. As Simon Loftus wrote in 1985, "a good many wine lovers see the supermarket own-label range as offering the dull decency of wines blended for general acceptability". As a pioneering wine merchant, Loftus had a vested interest in the more adventurous. But he was right to predict that supermarket own-label selections would become more extensive and better value as and when supermarkets started to go direct to the vineyard to source their wines, to invest in design and marketing, and to improve their brand by going upmarket.
In a generation, we've become familiar with the Tesco, Sainsbury's or M&S own-label with its implication of good value. With own-label and exclusively imported wines representing more than 40 per cent of sales for supermarket and high-street chains, it's helped turn wine into a mass-market business. Most supermarkets today have a basic own label and at least a higher quality tier, for instance Tesco Finest, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference, Asda Extra Special and so on. Over time, own-label has become more than respectable and purged once and for all the image of wine as the élite province of the rich and stuffy.
By the mid-1980s, own-label may have been in danger of extinction but it was rescued by the advent of Australian, Californian, Chilean, Argentinian and South African wines, and the idea, dear to the supermarket ethos, that wine, as a drink, is a product like any other on the shelf.
But how do you tell your Tesco chablis from your M&S chablis, your Waitrose champagne from your Asda, or your Tesco Finest from your Asda Extra Special? Enter one Caspar Auchterlonie, a suitably ruddy-faced former tastings co-ordinator for the now defunct Wine International competition. It was Caspar's long-cherished ambition to set up the own-label Championship "to inform the consumer of the best value wines and other alcoholic beverages on the shelf". With that object in mind, a panel of judges assembled over three days in February at Planet of the Grapes in New Oxford Street, first to do a pre-sorting and then to proceed to a final judging of under £5 and over £5 own-label wines available in the supermarkets, major multiples and department stores throughout the UK. Well, most, anyway. For reasons of their own, Sainsbury's and Majestic didn't enter, the Co-op and Somerfield missed the deadline, while none of Spar, Booth's and Morrison's few entries made the final.
There were 427 products, beers and spirits included, entered, with 82 finalists and 31 category trophy winners; awards were given to the overall best white, the 2007 Waitrose Sancerre, £10.49, from Joseph Mellot (right), and best red wine, the 2006 Marks & Spencer Barossa Shiraz from St Hallett, £7.99. The standard was generally high with seven category winners from Tesco, six from M&S and surprisingly only two from Waitrose, while humble Aldi managed three in the under £5 category. Only six of the 27 white and eight of the 27 red wine categories were under £5 with no sparkling, sweet, fortified or rosé wines under a fiver. Which shows that even at own-label level, you're having to pay more for quality, particularly since the Chancellor's budget has all but eliminated quality at under the £5 bar.
For a snapshot preview of the winners and finalists, check out ownlabelawards.com/index_files/results.htm