Many supermarkets have crowded and noisy aisles, which are not exactly conducive to thoughtful wine selection, so you may be tempted to grab a random bottle and swiftly move on.
However, that approach can often lead to disappointment, as you will be left with a distinctly underwhelming glass of wine later that day.
If you would like to reduce your chances of leaving the supermarket with a dud bottle, follow these tips:
Choose the right supermarket
Waitrose and Marks & Spencer represent the gold standard for high-quality supermarket wines in the UK. If you live in the north, you can add Booths to that list. Your chances of finding an impressive bottle of wine will increase significantly if you visit one of those stores.
However, there are still plenty of excellent wines at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda – you just may need to work a little harder to find them.
Meanwhile, Aldi and Lidl pride themselves in stocking quality wines that offer superb value for money, as it helps them attract wealthier shoppers into their stores, so do not write them off.
Decanter has a dedicated supermarket wine hub, providing tasting notes and scores for the latest wines available at all the major UK supermarkets.
Set your parameters before entering the store
Determine the style of wine you are looking for and how much you are willing to spend before venturing into the store.
Consider the type of occasion you are buying for. A major celebration naturally deserves a more noteworthy bottle of wine than an evening spent watching Coronation Street. If you are pairing it with food, consider the dishes you are serving.
We offer an in-depth food and wine pairing hub, which can help you select the best option for each meal.
Don’t ask for help
The staff at high-quality independent wine merchants tend to be highly knowledgeable, passionate about wine and eager to help. You can ask them for advice, and you will typically receive insightful, tailored recommendations.
By contrast, supermarket workers are seldom wine experts. They may be arranging bottles of Pinot Grigio in the morning, stacking bunches of bananas in the afternoon and collecting trolleys later that day. They’re busy, hardworking people but nobody expects them to be highly knowledgeable about the finer details of each bottle, so if you ask for a recommendation you are more than likely to receive a blank shrug.
There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Waitrose has a history of hiring wine experts to help out shoppers in-store, but knowledgeable supermarket workers are few and far between.
Fortunately, there are far easier ways to narrow down the range and find excellent wines that offer value for money when you visit a supermarket, as we have explained in the next two sections.
Look out for medals
One quick shortcut is to seek out wines that proudly display the medals they have earned in the Decanter World Wine Awards on the bottles.
We assemble a vast team of experts – which includes dozens of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers – to blind taste more than 15,000 wines from across the globe each year.
Only the best wines are assigned medals – bronze, silver, gold, platinum or Best in Show – as the judging process is extremely robust and demanding. ‘It’s the toughest wine competition to enter, because the standards are very, very high,’ says co-chair Ronan Sayburn MS. ‘The medals have to be earned.’
The medal stickers on the bottles can help you quickly gauge which wines have gained the stamp of approval from the demanding judges, and they can guide you towards quality wines.
Look for signs of a fault
It can be relatively easy to discern a fault when presented with a bottle of wine in a restaurant, but the task is far tougher when you are browsing the shelves in a supermarket.
Yet there are still certain steps you can take to reduce your chances of leaving with a dud. If there is a cork, look out for cork protrusion and examine it for any signs of crumbling, rot or mould.
While you will not be able to smell the wine through the bottle, you may notice unpleasant odours around the cork or the bottle neck. Check the liquid for excessive sediment or too much cloudiness, which could indicate issues with stability. Look out for lower than expected fill levels, which could indicate that the wine has been oxidised.
You can also consider the label condition, as a damaged label may indicate poor storage conditions or mishandling, and you may spot signs of leaking or stains.
Dodge the discounts
‘For decades, supermarkets have dominated retail wine sales in the UK, but their abundance of choice can be bewildering,’ says Richard Hemming MW, a wine writer who spent six years working behind the counter at Majestic Wine.
‘Without trained advisors on hand, customers often default to the biggest discounts or stick with the names they already know. There’s nothing wrong with that – but there are some ways to shop smarter.
‘Firstly, most supermarkets will have a seasonal offer, usually once or twice a year, where they offer a discount across their entire range. Stocking up is worthwhile, especially at Waitrose. Another tactic is to buy at price thresholds such as £9.99 and £14.99. To reach those prices, arbitrary though they may be, supermarkets work especially hard, resulting in the best quality-price ratio.’
Trade up to avoid the torture of duty and VAT
The UK government increased the duty on still wine by 20% in August 2023. It represents the largest tax hike since 1975, pushing the duty on a 12.5% abv bottle of wine to a record £2.67, according to the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA).
By contrast, the French pay just £0.03 in duty on a bottle of wine, the Belgians pay £0.48 and the Dutch pay £0.57. Meanwhile, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Austria, Greece and various other countries do not impose any duty whatsoever.
On top of the £2.67 in duty, you also have to factor in VAT, along with the cost of the packaging, logistics and other expenses.
‘In real terms, there has been an increase of 44p on a bottle of wine,’ says WSTA chief executive Miles Beale. ‘After VAT, that translates into £1 or so for a consumer. It is catastrophic for consumers.’
When spending £6.31 – the average price of a 75cl bottle of still wine in the UK retail trade – only 29p now goes on the wine itself.
By trading up to a £10 bottle, you get £2.10 worth of wine – around seven times more, according to wine supplier Bibendum. Meanwhile, you get nearly 22 times more wine for your money – £6.33 – when spending £20 on a bottle.
That shows the value you can unlock when you spend a little bit more on wine. In short, you get a lot more bang for your buck when you trade up to more premium bottles.
Take advantage of modern technology
‘If all else fails, don’t forget your phone,’ says Hemming. ‘Vivino is an unbeatable way to bring you more information on the spot, including average prices and aggregated scores, from a simple snap of the label.’
All you need to do is download the Vivino app, open it when you are in the supermarket and take a quick snap of the label on any bottle of wine. Vivino will search its database for a match, and you will invariably find a great deal of useful information.
You can also perform a quick search of our wine reviews database on your phone while standing in the supermarket aisle. We have reviewed more than 70,000 wines over the years. Many of them are high-end wines, but some find their way onto supermarket shelves, so you can benefit from helpful tasting notes when deciding which bottle to buy.