Jacob’s Creek. Gallo. Yellow Tail. Fat Bastard. Echo Falls. Barefoot. Concha Y Tora, a winery once described by footballer Wayne Rooney as “a legend”.
The chances are that you will have seen these wines thousands of times in your life, glancing at them, sometimes investigating them, often purchasing them, on visits to corner shops. Frequently they are your most reliable wines. Sometimes, they are your most regrettable.
The pandemic has seen off-trade wine sales (retail conducted outsides of premises like bars and restaurants) skyrocket. In 2020, Britons purchased more than one billion bottles of wine, a 13 percent increase on 2019. Corner shop wine sales are bigger than ever. In 2021, Accolade Wines, maker of what is possibly one of your dad’s favourite wines, the Shiraz Jam Shed, sold four million litres of this Australian supermarket smash hit in the UK alone.
Corner shop wines are often misunderstood and the recipient of both praise and abuse. For the doubters, memories of spending £5 on the cheapest bottle in the shop as an undergraduate still sting, a notable offender being Lambrini (not actually a wine, but a sparkling pear cider from Liverpool).
So where do these £10-and-under corner shop stalwarts come from? How did they come to dominate the shelves of your local newsagent – and are they best tossed aside like an uncorked, gone-off bottle of Malbec once you can afford something more expensive?
For Andrew Catchpole, editor of drinks trade publication Harpers Wine & Spirit, wines like those made by Jacob’s Creek or Gallo are “incredibly important because they’re the first point of contact for many wine drinkers”, playing a pivotal role in how they begin drinkers’ journey in wine. According to research by Wine Intelligence, a division of the IWSR Group focused on wine consumer research and insights, 46 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the UK buy their wine in corner shops, in contrast to just 20 percent of those aged over 45.
The key to why these corner shops brands remain so popular and ever-present is the consistency in how they are made. Winemaking nations like France, Germany and especially the UK are susceptible to varied climate conditions. Wines with a year on their label (known as vintage wines) will range in taste each year. In France’s renowned left bank of Bordeaux, for example, publication Wine Spectator ranks 2015 as one of the best years for left bank wines, ranking them 97 out of 100, while 2007 saw the vintage scored 86/100 (regardless, bottles often go for tens of thousands of pounds.)
It’s the consistency of weather conditions in countries like Chile, Australia and New Zealand puts them at the front lines of corner shop wine production, with many producers there creating reliable tipples that often cost under a tenner. Wine educator Jimmy Smith explains that these wineries will be “aiming to make something that is nearly always the same”. He notes that for consumers this consistency can have a huge appeal due to the “brand reassurance” of having a wine that is guaranteed to taste the same year-in, year-out.
Corner shop wines like those produced by mega-sized wine maker Accolade Wines, which delivers 276 million litres of wine across the world each year, emerge from a painstaking process of recreating the same flavours each year. This approach, incidentally, is the exact same as that used by makers of Champagne, who aim to ensure that non-vintage Moët and other wineries tastes the same every year.
Accolade go to considerable lengths to make their wines the right fit for corner shops. Operations Director Lucy Clements explains that their corner shop market white wines will be blended at an artificially lowered temperature of 10 degrees celsius – the same as a corner shop fridge – in order to ensure that its flavours are amplified and powerful at both fridge and room temperature.
“[The fridge] changes the acid profile, [and] their aromas will be more subdued”, she explains, adding that “we’ve got to do things to amplify their exuberance… It’s got to taste great cold”. She notes, with disarming honesty, that their consumer is most likely to “slam it [the bottle] when they get home” – hence the need for a more chilled approach.
So how should you go about selecting a wine at a corner shop? To answer this question, VICE took wine consultant and 2018 Young Sommelier of the Year Bert Blaize (who, among its other prizes, also took home a corkscrew worth nearly $1,000) to City General Store, a corner shop on London’s Kingsland Road.
Blaize acknowledges that it’s been a while since he had to pick a wine up from a newsagent’s, but offers his first tip: Check which grapes are on offer. “There’s no bullshit around that – a grape is a grape and it tells a story,” he explains, suggesting that even having a small level of familiarity with the type of grapes that you like will set you up a long way when picking out something you’ll enjoy.
Going back and forth across the shelves, he highlights what to be wary of: namely, heavily marketed wines with fancy labels. “You’re paying more money to their [the winemaker’s] marketing team than paying for the juice,” he warns.
A key element of corner shop wine discourse is price point. The average price of a bottle of wine in the UK is £6.18, and for many a low price is the go-to priority on a night out or for a casual evening. Blaize argues that the other side of the coin with price is that the higher the amount spent on a bottle, the higher the amount of actual “juice” going into the wine. Drawing on 2021 research by wine merchant Bibendum, he points out that in only 25p out of a £5 bottle goes towards the actual grapes (£2.23 goes towards excise duties, for example), arguing this is in effect a 25p investment in the grapes that go into a wine.
As soon the buyer is paying £7.50, the amount spent goes up to £1.38, a 452 percent increase. At the £10 mark, £2.64 goes into the grapes – a 956 percent increase. In Blaize’s view, the increase in spend should be paired with seeking out winemakers that are less familiar than the major corner shop players.
The increase in quality will not only be higher, but will result in “getting more concentrations of flavour,” he explains. “The bigger picture is that it’s more sustainable to spend more money and support these smaller independent growers.”
Digging around, he picks out a Sicilian wine blending Catarratto and Pinot Grigio grapes, and a 2012 Beaujolais, which he’s surprised to see in this store due to its relative old age. We bring both to a Vietnamese BYOB restaurant down the road. His pairings, unsurprisingly, are spot on, with the aromatic flavours of the Italian wine bringing out the zing in the salt and pepper squid.
Across the board, the message from those working in and around the industry is that your local newsagent shouldn’t be dismissed in favour of the pricey bottle shop down the road. The former might leave a sour taste for some in the early days of drinking, but they’re still a gateway to the wine world and can throw up a good find – as well as providing a relatively consistent place to purchase a crowd-pleasingly familiar bottle that doesn’t leave you penniless.
At lunch I ask Blaize why it is not common to see natural wines (a broad term used to refer to wines made with minimal intervention in the process of their making) in corner shops, considering how popular they have become in wine bars and across the world. “It would be like introducing someone to music by showing them Aphex Twin,” he says. Next time you’re in a corner shop, take a moment to explore all the genres on offer.