Private brands are basically the same thing as own brands, only with made-up names so that people who think they’ll look mean for serving a bottle that shows the name of the supermarket where they buy their wine, don’t have to worry. They’re all those Castellos de This and Châteaux de That when, really, there’s no such place.
What happens is that the retailer does their research and then tells the supplier – often a co-operative or a mid-size producer – that they have room for, say, five-thousand cases of an up-front, medium-quality reserva Rioja if they can get it on the shelf for xyz pounds a bottle in X weeks time. The winemaker does their sums, taps into their bit of the world’s ocean of surplus wine, and … Bingo! “Baron de Alava” – or, for all I care, our old chum “Windy Bottom” – is born.
Most of the majors now send their own experts – not just their buyers – out into the world to work with producers to make and market private brands. A few even become mini-brands in their own right and get sold to other supermarkets. It’s all about “positioning” and they’re pitched above the “own labels” at around the same level as the big international brands and attract customers who want to feel they’re getting a wine made by “real” people in a “real” place rather than by a bunch of machines owned by a corporation. As it happens, they often are … it’s just not the people or the place they think it is.
If you’re sad that the grapes in your wine are not being lovingly harvested and vinified in his shed by a friendly, slack-jawed yokel in a beret, skip the rest of this paragraph. The big producers need to be very nimble to sell all their “juice”. An Aussie firm that is a humungous provider of supermarket own-labels also sells its own brands in direct competition with the separate labelling of the same wines as supermarket private brands while – get this – supplying millions of cases of wine made under contract for some of its biggest, household-name, competitor brands. They’re all there, side by side, on the shelf.
M&S, who don’t sell branded products, were the first UK retailers to do private brands when they wanted a separate tier above their own labels and decided that “Chevalier de Hows-Your-Father” had more cachet than “M&S Chablis.” Meanwhile, the Wine Society approached the problem of different quality levels equally successfully with its “Exhibition” range and this seems to have been the model for the “tiered” own-brand offerings elsewhere.
Margins are better on private brands than on “real” brands because there are fewer marketing costs involved and the good ‘uns are among the best-value wines on supermarket shelves. They tend to come and go quite quickly – presumably an algorithm somewhere is doing the math – but a few current favourite bargains are listed below. (It also counts as a crash-course in getting the hang of the dodgy names thing.) As ever, reading our knowledgeable and conscientious (and, not infrequently, irresistibly attractive) newspaper wine writers is the best way to keep up with it all.
Marks and Spencer: Perez Burton, Soleado, Valdepomares, Falleras, Secano, Clocktower, Cobborah, Corriente del Bio Réserve de la Saurine. Marquès de Alarcon
Sainsburys: Spanish Steps, Flor de Nelas, Marquès de Montoya, Elegant Frog, Rio de la Vida, L’Esprit de la Cité
Tesco: Gran Tesoro, Viña Mara, Palais des Anciens, Villa Taurini, La Leyenda, La Terre, Fern Bay
Waitrose: Cuvée Chasseur and Cuveé Pêcheur, Whale Caller, Moncaro, La Rectorie, Montgravet, Eva’s Vineyard, Fontaine du Roy
Asda: Gran Vega, Marques del Norte, Pleyades, Mas Miralda, Le Monferrine, Villa Ludy, Château Salmonière
Co-op: Villa Pani, Rocca Vecchia, Les Crouzes