In its second report in a matter of months on the international wine market, Vinexpo, in association with Wine Intelligence, launched an investigation into the effects of age and lifestyle on the UK's wine buying habits. Chris Brook-Carter reviews the results.

It is perhaps symptomatic of its rustic past that in this age of information overload - where nearly every purchase we make is logged by loyalty cards; tracked by market researchers and profiled by psychologists - very little is still known about wine buyers.

Ask the brand manager of one of the major beer labels who their target consumer is and they'll reel of a list of profile characteristics such as age, sex, marital status; number of kids, with such ease that you're almost waiting for a name and address at the end.

The wine industry by comparison, in particular the Old World, is still getting to grips with the modern market place, where every competitive advantage is sought. So it was with some interest that the results of Vinexpo's latest research into the buying habits of UK wine drinkers - primarily how age and sex effect purchasing - came out earlier this month.

Though the study, conducted on behalf of Vinexpo by Wine Intelligence, was limited to 1000 respondents and looked largely at "heavy users" (those consuming three or more bottles a month), its findings were nonetheless interesting and at times surprising.

What was perhaps unsurprising were some of the more general conclusions drawn from the research, such as the fact that in a group of "heavy users" over half said that wine played an important role in their social lives. Nearly half said that the most frequent occasion to drink wine was at home with a meal, while 47% thought the country or region of origin was important in wine buying. The average spend of the group was £4.92, when buying wine at home, £7.19 when buying as a gift, and £15.20 when buying in a restaurant.

Where the findings became more interesting is when the data is broken down a little. And on broad terms there were three main conclusions. Firstly, UK wine consumers are becoming increasingly more adventurous and confident in their purchases. However, men and women have remarkably different attitudes to wine and people's attitudes in general show distinct changes with age, marriage and children.

Gender
The most obvious social divide and the easiest factor in splitting down buyers is still gender. And the report suggests that the attitudes of men and women are significantly different. Men are generally more confident than women but are also more conservative buyers. Women, though, are more likely to listen to recommendations and are far more price sensitive. Most surprisingly though is that men view wine as a healthier option, whereas women do not take much note of the health aspects and nor do they see wine as something that reflects their self image.

The effect of age - drink more, experiment less
According to the report, the general picture is that with age, wine drinkers become more confident but their wine repertoire gets narrower. However, it is of course more complex than that. Drinkers are at their most experimental in their twenties and early thirties, as they seek to expand their repertoire. From their mid-thirties to their mid-fifties, drinkers then become more settled, as tastes mature and children eat into disposable income. However, what is interesting is that the urge to experiment has a brief and sharp revival when people reach their mid-fifties, before slipping back into highly conservative behaviour in their sixties and beyond.

But what will probably interest wine producers and retailers most are the findings on spending habits. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, this under-45 group tends to spend more on a bottle of wine than their older peers," says the report. This group is also less health conscious, more impulsive and less shop loyal.

Once drinkers reach their mid-50s, they become less impulsive, develop shop loyalty and are more willing to buy from independents as opposed to primarily buying from supermarkets. And again against perceived wisdom these drinkers become more price conscious as they get older and once over the age of 60, their consumption tends to fall.

Becoming a parent
The report then goes on to chart different life stages based around the arrival of parent hood. "Becoming a parent seems to have a long lasting effect," says the report. "Parents become less involved in their wine, more conservative and more price-conscious, while non-parents are keener to become wine buffs and remain more impressionable and impulsive. Surprisingly, this effect remains even after the children have left home."

From its research Wine Intelligence draws a number of conclusions. For brand owners the implications are that non-parents in their early 30s are most likely to try new brands, and women over men are more likely to experiment, but unfortunately less likely to spend big money. Loyalty to brands grows with age. In short, targeting what the report calls the "grey" wine drinker "may not be as easy - or as lucrative - as previously thought."

And for the retailers the key finding is that younger people are most likely to go for the expensive wines, but as an impulsive purchase. Shop loyalty meanwhile increases with age.

Interestingly Wine Intelligence also uses the data to make a number of forecasts, on the basis that population trends predict a significant increase in the over-55 population of the UK over the next few years. Because of this it predicts that wine consumption will increase, with red wine gaining ground on white. The Old World will also see a comeback as it is the favoured drink of the older drinkers. Wine drinkers are also likely to become less adventurous and less impressionable than before and price will become an increasingly important factor in wine purchases.

These forecasts, as Lulie Halstead of Wine Intelligence pointed out when she presented the data, assume that the buying behaviour of generation X, will be the same as the current fifty-somethings. Only a series of similar studies over a period of time will tell us if the current crop of twenty-somethings have been influenced strongly enough by the New World wines they have grown up on to change these patterns.