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Thursday, 21 June, 2001, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
New world wins the wine war
By BBC News Online's James Arnold
Forget Fitou; bye-bye Burgundy; sayonara Sancerre.
According to research prepared for VinExpo, the world's largest wine trade fair currently under way in Bordeaux, French producers have lost their stranglehold on the British palate.
For the first time ever, none of the top ten wines on the rapidly growing UK market is now bottled in France.
Instead, Australian producers have captured seven of the top ten places, indicating a triumph for flashy marketing, eye-catching packaging and a user-friendly approach.
Other New World winemakers, notably in Chile, New Zealand and the United States, are following Australia's lead, gaining a strong toehold in Britain.
And France's fall from fashion is mirrored by other traditional producing countries such as Italy, Spain and especially Germany, whose UK market share has dropped by 22% in the last five years.
Some Old World winemakers have vowed to fight back.
This year's VinExpo is focusing on Britain, and it's not hard to see why: at a time when global wine consumption is falling, Britain is one of the few growth markets.
Wine consumption in Britain has risen by 60% in the last ten years; now, the British drink an average of 20 litres of wine each a year.
And although some at VinExpo have talked of a global wine glut, the British market seems to have plenty of room to grow further.
Average per-capita consumption in France and Italy is close to 60 litres a year.
Britons are also among the most adventurous wine drinkers in the world, the research found, with wines from 43 countries available on the retail market.
But that very adventurousness has hit traditional producer countries hard.
"British consumers are becoming much more aware of what's on offer," says Caroline Park, promotions manager for the Australian Wine Bureau in London.
While French wines still just about hold the leading position in the British restaurant market, they have been overtaken by the Australians among consumers.
Ms Park says that Australian wines now command some 50% of the key middle market in Britain, where wines retail at £4-6 a bottle.
The Australian secret lies in a more corporate approach to the market, said Chris Brook-Carter, managing editor of just-drinks.com, an industry web site.
While the French wine industry is fragmented into hundreds of mainly small chateaux, Australia's wine industry is dominated by three large companies - BRL Hardy, Southcorp and Foster's.
This allows the Australians - unlike most traditional producers - to offer a consistent, reliable, branded product.
"No one's going to spend £8 on a bottle of Burgundy when they don't know what they are going to end up with," said Mr Brook-Carter.
"The Australian firms have brought wine marketing into the 21st century, creating brands in an industry that just didn't have them before."
One key element in this marketing is labelling: Australia was the pioneer of branding wines by grape variety - shiraz, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and so on - rather than place of origin.
"It's much more user-friendly," said Ms Park.
Market research also indicates that British consumers feel more comfortable with the simple Anglicised brand names of New World wines, than with the tongue-twisting names of chateaux and vineyards.
New wine in new bottles
The next step in this process could be even more radical still.
With most established wine markets close to saturation, producers are hoping to open up virgin segments.
BRL Hardy is gunning for the fledgling US wine market, where wine is increasingly being marketed as something close to a health product.
Earlier this year, Australian producer IWS launched Swaying Willow, the world's first diet chardonnay.
Firms have also turned their attention to the youth segment, worried by indications that consumers in their teens and twenties strongly prefer beer and spirits.
BRL Hardy has introduced a wackily-packaged range called Wicked Wines, which are aimed at clubbers.
"It's an extension of attitude and a state of emotion," says Wicked Wines' promotional literature.
According to Mr Brook-Carter, iconoclastic producers are also looking to change many traditional aspects of wine, such as uniform bottle size, glass packaging, corks and the need for careful storage.
Europe fights back
Traditional producers are starting to take note.
The French distillers' society is trialling a form of powdered wine for pharmaceutical use, hoping to cash in on news that moderate wine consumption is good for the heart.
Tired established European wine brands, such as German Blue Nun and Piat d'Or, French-produced but bottled in Britain, are being repackaged and relaunched.
And the French may have the last laugh.
While multinational firms are battling for the middle market as global demand falls, top French producers still dominate the ultra-premium sector.
After a highly acclaimed 2000 vintage, that is a lucrative position to be in.
Advance prices - known in the trade as en primeur - for the best 2000 Bordeaux wines are up as much as 100% on last year.
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