There’s no doubt that own-label wines carry a certain stigma. Many of us wouldn’t dream of serving Asda Champagne at a celebration, or putting Morrison’s Chianti on the dinner table when friends are coming round. It’s not so much about what’s in the bottle, but what it says about us as hosts – or perhaps what it says about our guests!
And yet despite the negative connotations, all of the supermarkets and bigger wine merchants have been expanding their own-label offering in recent years. Own-label now accounts for over 75% of the wine lines in Sainsbury’s I am told, while interviewed by a trade magazine in July of this year, Richard Weaver, Buying and Merchandising Director for Majestic Wine, said he saw no reason why their current 4% own-label share of sales couldn’t rise to 20% over time.
There is an argument that such wines should represent ‘the best in class’: if a respected retailer is going to put their own name to a wine, it should be a flagship example. But there’s no doubt the real driving force behind own-label is profit. Not only does it cut-out some of the supply chain (normally deals are done directly between retailer and wine supplier, with no middle men), but less is spent on promotional budgets for hundreds of different lines. In what I guess are extreme cases, it also gives enormous flexibility to, for example, change suppliers each year: if a generic own brand Languedoc Chardonnay can be bought for a few cents less per litre from supplier X, then supplier Y can be dropped even mid-vintage without rippling the water.
But some companies are using own label to deliver quality wines, often naming the producer on the label, even sometimes co-branded ‘in partnership with..’. I guess two wine suppliers spring to mind here historically: The Wine Society, whose ‘Exhibition’ wines are made by luminaries from Craggy Range to Jean-Louis Chave, and Marks & Spencer. Though these days they are more inclined to give the producers front-label billing, historically some great estates were the secret behind M&S-labeled wines.
Today, most large merchants and chains have upmarket own-label brands, often representing very highly-regarded appellations and made by winemakers of international renown. I was recently sent just part of Corney & Barrow’s strong own-label range, that spans prices from £7.50 to well over £20. Quality was good overall, with one or two stars, but given the Royal warrant-festooned nobility of the Corney & Barrow name, these might even be own-label bottles that you would be proud to have on your dinner table.