Defining fine wine

11 June, 2010

What exactly do we mean by “fine wine”? There’s no shortage of replies from people in the trade, but it’s a question that’s probably best targeted at consumers.

Wine Intelligence addressed this point with some research carried out prior to the Fine Wine 2010 conference in Ribera del Duero, which was presented to delegates at a seminar at the London International Wine Fair.

The project was not concerned with the kind of wines that are the sole preserve of investors and multimillionaires, but the type of products that can be found for £10 or more in the UK off-trade. Since this is more than double the average retail price for wine, it seems as good a place as any to start the definition of “premium”.

Wine Intelligence spoke to consumers in several markets, but especially in the US, the UK and Switzerland. What emerged was not simply a definition of what consumers consider a fine wine to be, but a definition of fine wine consumers themselves.

Chief executive Lulie Halstead outlined the factors which motivate consumers who buy fine wines.

Top of the list was heritage. “That’s a tough one for many in the industry,” she said. “What happens if you don’t have hundreds of years of history, and what can you do to negate that fact? You must look at some of the other cues consumers are using.”?Second on the list is provenance. “That means the wine has to have a sense of place. It must come from some-?where. What consumers are telling us here is, ‘I want to know where the wine comes from, to teleport myself or imagine myself in that place’,” she said.

Consumers also like to think of fine wine as being hand-crafted: to believe that a human has actually made it, which for some may even conjure up images of foot-treading.

After that, the next most important attribute is a wine’s critical acclaim. Halstead cited the example of the US consumer who, in the research, declared he would “only buy wines with 95 or more Parker points”. But, she added, “the downside is: what happens if the critical reviews are negative?”?The family history of a fine wine is fifth on the list of consumer priorities, followed by its rarity. The scarcity factor may be of vital importance to collectors of elite wines, but for less specialist consumers it barely registers.

“The one thing we learnt was time is the key dimension for fine wine,” said Halstead. “Consumers want to feel time has been dedicated to the vines, to the making of the wine and to how it looks. They want time from the retailers or their sommelier in the on-trade. They want time to drink it. They want the space and time to cherish what they feel are very authentic wines.”?At Fine Wine 2010, Tim Atkin MW called for a new definition of fine wine, arguing that good-quality wine can come from “anywhere”.

According to the Wine Intelligence research, two-thirds of regular wine drinkers agree with him.

France still leads the field in consumers’ minds as a country associated with luxury wines; Americans and Swiss also have a high regard for their own domestic products.

In the UK, consumers also give credence to the idea of premium Australian wines.

Countries which emerged as mid-ranking producers of premium wine in the research were Spain, as well as (in the UK at least) New Zealand and South Africa.

Wine Intelligence’s research manager Juan Park said the fine wine market attracted two types of consumer: those who regularly buy upscale wines, and those who trade into the category infrequently, perhaps once or twice a year.

Regular luxury buyers (12% of premium wine consumers, 60% of value). These are consumers with the highest income, and the highest involvement with wine as a category. “They have the interest and they have the money,” said Park. “Their spend is not much affected by the economic climate. They have high confidence in the future.” This group likes to search for exclusives. Consumers in the US and Switzerland like to buy wine for ageing, though this is not a priority for those in the UK.

Occasional buyers (88% of premium wine consumers, 40% of value). “These people have income and they have interest; not as high as the regulars, but they have some interest in the category,” said Park. “Their spend has been affected by the economic climate. They may be a dormant segment waiting for the economy to get better. Interestingly, these consumers don’t seek rarity and exclusivity. What they want is a classic wine. They seek assurance by heritage and provenance. They do it once a year – why risk it?”

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