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Saturday, June 12, 1999 Published at 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK


Red card for white wine

White is set to be knocked off the top spot

There was a time when cracking open a bottle of chilled Blue Nun fizzled with surburban sophistication.

With Demis Roussos records playing in the background, a splash of Liebfraumilch made cheese and pineapple on a stick go down a treat.

But a couple of decades on, the most unlikely wine snob gets all sniffy at the thought of such plonk passing their lips. The days of white wine's supremacy appear to be over.

Now even reluctant connoisseurs are more likely to be reaching for a glass of robust red.

Figures released by The Drinks Forecast - the drinks industry's bible of imbibing trends - show that for the first time, sales of red and white wines in the UK are neck and neck.

If sales of whites remain static, as they have in recent years, red wine sales will outstrip them within a couple of years.

[ image: Beer drinkers have not changed their habits]
Beer drinkers have not changed their habits
It is not that drinkers are abandoning white - or any other form of beverage, according to editor Mark Gately.

But red wine has enjoyed increasing popularity over the years, and is now being consumed in similar quantities to "safer" whites.

According to the Drinks Forecast, in 1985, the ratio of white to red sales was somewhere in the region of 70:30. Last year, those figures had almost levelled out to 50:50.

"There's no one reason why things like this happen," he said. "There are a multitude of factors to consider."

He pointed to the recently discovered and much-reported health benefits of drinking moderate amounts of red wine.

"But I don't think you can pin it all down to the health aspects," he said, "People in general don't tend to turn to a drink because they think it's healthy.

"And wines are much more available than ever.

[ image: Supermarket shelves groan with goodies from across the globe]
Supermarket shelves groan with goodies from across the globe
"All supermarkets stock a wide range of reasonably priced red wines from places like Chile and Australia."

Indeed, canny in-house marketing executives are adept at displaying different bottles in fish, cheese and meat counters. Some go so far as to label their wines "Fish" and "Meat".

"People are more sophisticated now than they were a few years ago," said Mr Gately. "They are more likely to take foreign holidays, they are more likely to buy exotic foods - buying a wider range of wines is just a part of that."

Oliver Richardson, of the UK Vineyards Association, agrees. He said: "Twenty years ago, the average family might be lucky to drink six bottles of wine a year - it was something for Christmas or a special occasion. Now it's pretty much the norm to put a few bottles in the supermarket trolley with the weekly shop.

"I don't think it necessarily means that people are great experts. The market is there for Chateau £3.99, maybe £5.99 for a special occasion."

Another factor in wine's boom has been the growing affluence and independence of women.

Mr Gatley said: "More women now work and have money to spend on non-essentials. Also there is little heavy industry left.

"So it is no longer the case that alcohol consumption is confined to men leaving the pit and heading to the pub for a beer."

[ image: Read all about it: Keith Floyd's books are best sellers]
Read all about it: Keith Floyd's books are best sellers
So while beer drinkers continue to get through their ale, increasing numbers of wine consumers are coming on to the market - and a high proportion of them are women, who prefer to drink wine.

TV programmes such as the BBC's Food and Drink show have also played a part in taking the grape to the masses.

Armed with Gluck, Gluck, Gluck, and Floyd Uncorked knowledge, armchair connoisseurs can switch on the telly to learn the rituals and lingo of wine appreciation from the likes of Jilly Goolden.

One of the upshots of the wine-goes-pop phenomena has been the growing prosperity of homegrown wines.

"It's a very good time for English vineyards," said managing director of Gloucestershire's Three Choirs Vineyard, Thomas Shaw.

"People are choosing to visit English and Welsh vineyards and enjoy tastings."

Far from the supermarket shelves, the private vineyards are also experiencing unprecedented demand for red wine.

[ image: Jilly's lingo is now so well known, it is used to advertise fabric softener]
Jilly's lingo is now so well known, it is used to advertise fabric softener
Mr Shaw said: "We produce one red wine. Already we have more orders for it than we can hope to produce.

"England is not a traditional red wine producing country, but there is now a new variety of grape which makes production in this country possible.

"It gives a light red wine, which has proved popular."

Consumption of light reds - albeit from relatively specialised outlets - squares with reports of young trendy things turning in increasing numbers to the tipple.

The Islington set - for the time being at least - apparently likes its red wine chilled, and lighter wines lend themselves to the ice cube treatment.

But a poor cousin is still coming out of the world's vineyards.

Wind back, for a moment, to the Abigail's Party scenario of the 70s. Nestled between an onyx ashtray and a half-empty bottle of Advocat would have been the plump, squat form of a bottle of Matteus Rosť.

"Rosť still has that image of being a bit naff," said Mr Richardson.

So the next time you are invited to partake of pineapple and cheese in Islington, it might be wise to leave the Mateus in the cupboard under the sink until Christmas.

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