Recently published research indicates that while consumers have taken to the clear and modern marketing techniques employed by New World producers, they still cherish the romance and mystique of wine, which appears to be good news for France. Chris Brook-Carter reviews the evidence.

As 2005's Vinexpo approaches, the French-based wine show last week unveiled findings from the second of two research projects it has sponsored into the global wine industry. The results of the project, this time into consumer attitudes to wine, surprised few at the press conference in London but they sparked an interesting debate into how best to market wine for mass appeal.

In the last decade, the growth of branded wines and the simple appeal of products from the New World has given a powerful voice to those who argue that mysticism and complexity should be stripped from the wine industry. Everything must be done, the argument goes, to banish confusion amongst consumers as they stand in the wine aisles of supermarkets if wine is to succeed at a mass level. 

Growth in wines such as Blossom Hill, Jacob's Creek and Hardy's, has to a certain extent, backed this view of the industry's future. But analysis of the research provided by Gatard & Associates on Vinexpo's behalf seems to fire a warning not to take this approach too far. Wine is not beer, nor indeed cola, and, mystery and romance are still key elements in the consumer's purchasing decision, even to the relatively uninitiated.

The first part of the study was conducted by Gatard & Associates in December in five major cities: London, Paris, Frankfurt, New York and Tokyo. The project took the form of three two-hour qualitative focus groups in each city. These consumers drank wine at least once a week, were not wine club members and did not claim to have any specific knowledge of wine, other than through the media and conversations with friends. In short, they were what the project's manager…called amateurs.

Reading through the results of the focus groups, there are of course strong cultural differences in the consumer reactions to wine in each of the cities but there are also important common threads, not least of which was a shared feel for the importance of symbolism in wine.

"The study found that wine is seen as socially and emotionally aspirational," the report said. "Viewed overall as part of a lifestyle of cultural elevation and financial ease, wine evokes a sense of 'sophistication, refinement, education, comfort and luxury' and, at the same time a sense of hedonism. The consumer has a feeling of personal well-being and feels empowered to attain upward social mobility and a certain level of financial distinction."

It went on: "For all the groups, wine was deeply connected to values of social and psychological distinction. The rituals surrounding wine were seen as somewhat sophisticated, rather than crude, and a way of differentiating oneself from others."

Interestingly, despite the unrivalled growth of New Word wines across the world's most important markets, when asked if wine were a country, which country would it be, the majority of people in every city said France. For all the marketing efforts of the New World giants, this suggests that the history, tradition and romance associated with French wine still dominate consumer perceptions of wine in general.

"Does the research show the need to simplify wine?" asked Jean-Marie Chadronnier, chairman of Vinexpo. "Wine is connected to history, heritage - can you simplify wine and retain those characteristics? We have to keep the message simple but must keep the mystique without having to explain it."

A second study, by decanter.com, also presented on the day, backed up this view. The website surveyed 700 visitors about their motivations for drinking wine. It found that 54% of respondents associated wine with "a way of life". Some 48.8% associated "traditional" values to wine while only 15.6% saw it as "modern". Around 47% saw wine as "sophisticated". And again, for the clear majority, 74.8% in fact, France is the country they most associate with wine.

However, before defenders of the status quo retake the moral high ground, it must be said that there remained clear indications from both studies that consumers were after a simple message. It's just that that message must still communicate traditional values associated with wine. "The type of consumer in this research does not want to be educated - liking the product is enough," said Chadronnier. "It has raised serious questions about the way wines are marketed."

This of course raises something of a problem for the marketing executive, because according to the conclusions drawn by Gatard and Associates, while consumers do not want to go into the complexity of wine, they certainly don't want it entirely stripped away. The mystique that surrounds a glass of wine is what distinguishes him or her from the beer or spirits drinker and elevates that moment of consumption above the ordinary.