This week sees the publication of a new report from Wine Intelligence that looks at the wine markets in the Nordic region. Graham Holter considers the report's findings and learns that, when it comes to the region's wine consumers, one size most certainly does not suit all.

Markets like the UK are distorted by hardcore discounting activity in the wine aisles – indeed it’s often remarked that British wine drinkers have been trained to buy wine on promotion. What would happen if the UK (or indeed Australia, France, most of the US or any other free market) banned such discounts? Would consumer behaviour change? What about if we went one stage further, and put all wine sales – in the off-trade, at least – under government control?

The Nordic countries – defined here as Sweden, Norway and Finland – have, conveniently for students of consumer buying habits, already taken such steps. All three markets are guarded by their respective state-owned monopolies: Systembolaget in Sweden, Vinmonopolet in Norway and Alko in Finland. The objective is to limit the effects of problem drinking and encourage a sales environment devoid of razzmatazz. For suppliers, this means no discounting, no 'buy one, get one free', not even a bit of extra POS to make their brands stand out on shelves.

So, it would appear that the Nordics are the perfect laboratory for those who wonder what a purer, less distorted wine market might look like. A market in which consumers base decisions on factors beyond price and marketing. It would be reasonable to assume that wine drinkers in all three monopolised countries might behave in a fairly similar way. But, Wine Intelligence research shows this is not exactly the case.

Let’s look at some of the headline stats. In Finland and Norway, the most important buying cue for regular wine drinkers is the brand. In Sweden, the brand is certainly important, but a long way behind a recommendation from a friend or family member.

In terms of the wines themselves, it’s delusional to talk about “the Nordic taste”, as the research proves. In Sweden, Australian wine is more likely to be consumed by regular wine drinkers than wine from anywhere else (52% say they’ve drunk it in the past six months). But, Aussie wine doesn’t even make the top three in the other two countries. In Norway, it’s Spain that leads the way, while in Finland there’s a massive lead for Chile.

Neither can Nordic drinkers agree on their favourite grape varieties. When asked what white varietals they have consumed in the preceding six months, Chardonnay is a clear leader among wine drinkers in Sweden and Finland, but Norwegians put Riesling out in front. There is more convergence among reds, with Cabernet, Merlot and Shiraz/Syrah taking the top spots in Norway and Sweden. But, Finland breaks the pattern, preferring Merlot to Cabernet, albeit by a slender margin.

In terms of regional preference, there are some fundamental differences too. In Norway and Sweden, consumers are more likely to say they have recently bought a wine from Rioja than any other region; in Finland, it’s Bordeaux. The top threes in each country all have peculiarities: Champagne is unique to Sweden, Chablis only crops up in Norway, while Chianti is the preserve of the Finns.

Although consumers in all three markets broadly agree that they drink slightly more red wine than white, the approach to rosé is markedly different. Almost six in ten Swedes drink rosé on a regular basis; in Norway it’s nearer four in ten, and in Finland a little over three in ten.

Why should there be such differences in three neighbouring markets, none of whom have a tradition of domestic wine production, and yet have so many cultural and climatic similarities?

Such questions may be  beyond the remit of the report, but the answer must lie in the influence wielded by each monopoly. If one market sells twice as much Bulgarian red as the other two, for example, this may simply be a result of the monopoly opting to list twice as many red wines from Eastern Europe than the others. The Government is managing choice, however subtly, although it should be noted that on-trade and cross-border wine sales are not subject to the same regulation. If a Swede isn’t happy with the Bulgarian wine selection in a Systembolaget outlet, he or she is free to explore the range in a local restaurant, or indeed in an Alko or Vinmonopolet store. They can also indulge their passion online, backed with their debit card details.

Not all the variations can be explained by monopoly activity, however. Wine Intelligence has identified some intriguing differences in the way consumers think about wine. In Norway, 65% of regular wine drinkers say they enjoy trying new and different styles of wine on a regular basis. In Sweden, the proportion of adventurous wine drinkers is noticeably lower, at 59%. In Finland, it’s right down at 46%. Governments are blamed for many things, but stifling experimental attitudes to wine is not usually one of them.

Despite the differences, there is much that the Nordics have in common. They share a high disposable income and a love of wine – a potent combination. The three markets aren’t especially large by global standards (even Sweden isn’t as big as Japan, while Norway and Finland look up the league table to Ireland). 

Per capita consumption isn’t huge, either. But, in terms of penetration, Scandinavia leads the world. Almost nine in ten adults in the Nordics are wine drinkers, well ahead of the UK and even further in front of France and Germany.

The Nordics are worth getting to know, then. Clearly, any wine exporter looking to break the Scandinavian markets needs to spend some time getting to grips with the mechanics, regulations and peculiarities of each country’s monopoly operator. But, the job doesn’t end there. To really crack the Nordic region, it’s essential to have some insight into the habits of its consumers. And it needs to be understood that the Nordic nations, for all their shared heritage, are not a federation of states, but three separate countries with some occasionally very different wine preferences.