Do fine wines offer rich pickings?

12 January, 2007

What do the following

producers have in common: Domaine Antoine Arena, Azienda Galardi, Finca Sandoval, Wein-gut Emrich-Schönleber, Domaine Aly Durh, Gaia and Poesia? Unless you're closely familiar with the Loire Valley, Campania, La Mancha, Nahe, Luxembourg, Greece or Argentina, there's a good possibility that you won't have heard of any of them, let alone sold a bottle of

their wines.

But open a copy of Michel Bettane and Thierry Dessauve's recently published The World's Greatest Wines (£25, Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and all seven get a page of their own. Both men are experienced tasters, but it still makes you wonder how they define a great wine. In the book's introduction, the two Frenchmen attempt to provide an answer: "aromatic purity, freshness, finesse, silkiness of tannins (in the case of reds) and length on the palate". Throw in a track record of reasonable distance, not to mention a soupçon of terroir and you have a great wine.

Or do you? The problem with great wines, or fine wines if you prefer, is that greatness is subjective. Not one of the estates mentioned above featured in Robert Parker's The World's Greatest Wine Estates (£50, Dorling Kindersley), published in 2005. To be fair to the three authors, there are plenty of wines on which they do agree. It would make no sense to write such a book and exclude, say, Château Latour, JJ Prüm, Elio Altare, Penfolds, Krug and the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

How do most consumers identify fine wines? I suspect that the answer is largely price-related. A cynic might argue that in the UK anything that sells at more than £5.99 is, de facto, a fine wine. Classic regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, Tuscany, the Douro Valley and Piemonte may find it easier to sell wines over £10, as does Champagne, but if you exclude fizz this sector of the market is tiny. ACNielsen estimates that it accounts for between 2 and 3 per cent of off-trade volume, although it is clearly higher (at equivalent prices) in the on-trade.

The good news for retailers, and for

the wine trade in general, is that the fastest growing area of the market currently is between £6 and £7 (up 13 per cent to the end of November 2006), even if it

represents only 3 per cent of total sales. Indeed, there is encouraging overall growth between £4 and £8, while the sub-£3 bargain basement is struggling (down 22 per cent year-on-year). In other words, there is substantial potential in the mid-market.

Above that, it's much more difficult. Most of the major retailers have fine wine ranges of sorts. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Threshers all have separate areas in their stores dedicated to fine wine, and Oddbins and Majestic have a number of high-end stores. Even Morrisons and Somerfield have introduced more expensive wines ranges in the last year or so, although I suspect many of these listings are gathering dust as we speak.

Commenting on the company's impressive pre- and post-Christmas figures, Majestic's chief executive, Tim How, said: "Most of the growth was driven by selling more expensive wines and more Champagne. We're driving for a greater share of the market".

If How is talking about the £10-plus sector, he's targeting a small audience, especially because Waitrose, Tesco, Oddbins, The Wine Society, Direct Wines and most of the UK's independent wine merchants have designs on the same set of punters. Maybe he'd do better to focus on wines under £8. After all, that's where the real growth lies.

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