Chris Losh

Comment - Wine - Reduced ABV: Something for Everyone

By | 3 July 2012

The reduction of abv in the wine category in the UK has been peddled by some in the industry as an innovation. While that may be open to debate, Chris Losh believes there can be no argument that the move, if done right, could benefit everyone. But, there's still a long way to go.

The sudden arrival of a Tesco stand amongst the myriad producers at this year’s London International Wine Fair was like watching a herd of wildebeest who’ve had their party gatecrashed by a pride of lions.

But, to me, the supermarket’s decision suggests that they simply don’t feel they’re getting what they want from the wine world, and are prepared to force the issue a bit. Their impatience is understandable: Wine volumes in the UK are in steady decline, and show no signs of picking up.

Something, everyone is agreed, needs to happen.

The buzz word is, as always, innovation, although in wine (as opposed to spirits or beer) it’s a much-diluted concept, with ‘new’ usually meaning ‘new label’, ‘new blend’ or ‘different use of oak’ – none of which, frankly, sets the pulse racing.

Yet, genuinely different ideas are often incredibly hard to sell – mainly because humans don’t like change. Since it took the public decades (and a good bit of legal nudging) to accept something as logically beneficial as the seatbelt, it’s perhaps no surprise that they remain sceptical of the benefits of 50cl bottles or PET.

Plus, there are plenty of ostensibly successful ideas that have been scuppered by unintended side effects. Boisset’s French Rabbit, for instance, came in a brightly-coloured tetrapak, which scored well for shelf-standout and non-stuffiness – but was dismissed by the public as ‘picnic wine’. 

The same thing, I suspect, will happen with the new paper bottle, being demoed at the moment. It’s an interesting idea, and pushes plenty of feel-good eco buttons, but I just have a feeling that the public could be too conservative to go for it.

The problem, of course, is that, with such a fragmented industry, any changes in the way wine is presented inevitably lack critical mass. The only packaging innovation of the last 20 years that has really caught on is the screwcap – and that's primarily because the New Zealand wine industry backed it en masse.

I wonder what would happen if the Australians or Chileans suddenly decided to bottle everything in lightweight, 50cl bottles. Or paper.

If packaging innovation remains minimal, contents is another story, with some in the industry convinced they have hit on something that really might make a difference.

Lower in alcohol, and usually medium sweet, supporters of ‘lighter wine’ claim it is an example of the industry asking the public what it wants to see, then giving it to them. Moreover, it's a move that sends all the right messages to a booze-phobic government.

"Low alcohol wines is one of those rare instances where the consumer is being led rather than being followed," says Tesco’s head of BWS, Dan Jago. "It’s something I’ve felt strongly about for years – it’s about trying to make wine simpler and more approachable."

It’s hard to argue with such logic. There are strong signs that wine simply isn’t appealing to 20-somethings in the way that it once did, so anything that helps to remedy that – whether wine coolers in a can, low abv fizz or pink Moscato at 8% - is probably a good thing. 

Likewise, the number of casual wine consumers who have migrated out of the category to long, lower-abv drinks over the last three or four years is alarming.

What isn’t yet clear, however, is whether these lower alcohol wines are actually addressing either of these problems. The trade can’t agree on whether they’re aimed at new or existing wine consumers, and nobody (not even Tesco) has reliable data yet as to who is actually buying them.

One thing’s for sure, though, it’s unlikely to be drinks writers or the wine trade. While most have a grudging acceptance of Moscato or white Zinfandel, there is real antipathy towards the de-alcoholised wines. 

With, it must be said, some justification.

At a recent Tesco tasting, in an otherwise reliably good range of wines, the flight of sub-5.5% abv offerings stood out for all the wrong reasons. The best were drinkable, some were strange, most were foul. 

Flavour-wise they might be questionable, but the business rationale behind them is more compelling. ‘Made wine’ under 5.5% abv attracts duty (ex VAT) of just GBP0.75 (US$1.18) a bottle, compared to GBP1.78 (ex VAT) for normal strength wine. 

True, the public might want lower alcohol wine, but the plethora of activity sub-5.5% abv is at least as much about profit margins as it is about punter power. 

Still, if it allows retailers to hit the sub-GBP5.00 price point again, permits suppliers to drive more profit into a transaction and helps the public to get what they claim to want, then everyone’s happy, right? 

Well, not necessarily. Plenty of commentators worry about the effect of these products on the overall image of the category.

"At those alcohol levels, the product is so fundamentally changed it no longer looks like wine," says Richard Cochrane of importer Bibendum. "If you’re expecting something with a bit of body you’re going to be disappointed."

Even Stephen Loftus, global innovation manager at Accolade Wines, which has produced a number of innovations (including Banrock Light) over the last few years admits that it’s a sensitive area and that lighter wines are "about managing expectations".

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done. Lighter wines, undoubtedly, are ‘something’. So, to complete the syllogism, do they need to be done? 

To my mind, lighter wines could be a powerful addition to a category that finds innovation difficult; one that talks to new or uncommitted wine drinkers, and actually allows producers to make a reasonable profit for once.

But, if the rush to create a new genre means a sudden raft of poor-quality bottles, there’s a good chance that the industry could kill it before it’s even properly got started.

Sectors: Wine

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