It often seems like there’s a lot of grumbling within the UK wine industry. High taxation, unfavourable exchange rates, range consolidation, En Primeur hyperbole, low average bottle prices – there is always something to complain about. So every now and then it’s worth being reminded just how lucky we are.
Spending a week in Thailand turns out to give the ideal perspective to do exactly that.
The most obvious difference is price. With taxes in excess of 300%, wine is significantly more expensive than in the UK, and appears even more so when compared to the price of beer and food.
The cheapest wine I could find in retail was £14 for two litres of Italian plonk, equivalent to £5.25 per bottle, but the price for something half decent (basic red Bordeaux) was around £20 per bottle. In restaurants, lists start at £14 per bottle for Hardys’ Moscato and go up to £18 for a Pinot Grigio delle Venezie. For comparison, in the same restaurant a bottle of Singha or Chang beer cost £1.40 and the most expensive dish on the menu was no more than £5.
Now, maybe you’re thinking that £18 for a bottle of basic Pinot Grigio sounds pretty similar to many UK pub prices. This brings me to the second big point of difference: quality of stock. The Pizzini Pinot Grigio being sold was the 2011 vintage, and this was a common problem: because wine is so expensive, stock moves slowly and vintages hang around for years beyond their best.
Part of the problem is the grey import market. A local wine professional told me that to avoid taxes, may wines are brought over from Laos or Vietnam, or those that are shipped direct to Thailand will be described as 'fruit wines' to attract a lower rate of duty, or labelled as ‘South Australia’ instead of ‘Barossa’ because the authorities think that Barossa wines should be expensive and will tax them accordingly.
Basic wine provision in the UK is hugely sophisticated, diverse and affordable by comparison. That hasn’t prevented a fine wine scene developing in Thailand, however – there’s a thriving appreciation for wine in five star hotels and top restaurants. In Bangkok for example, the best wine bars could be transferred directly from London or New York with broad selections and well-trained staff.
The difference, once again, is price. Moët et Chandon NV champagne for £159, Torres Viña Sol for £9.20 per 150 ml glass, or at the very top end Château Margaux 1985 for nearly £2,000 per bottle – it is uniformly more expensive than the UK, and the price differential between a beer and a glass of wine is in excess of 400%.
It’s understandable that the UK wine trade would complain about raises in duty and bemoan any perceived reduction to wine ranges. However, we’ve also got plenty to happy about when compared to somewhere like Thailand. Now, if only we had their weather ...