Richard Hemming MW on the golden age of wine
Golden ages are periods of sustained excellence within a sector. For example, in Hollywood, the first one ran from the end of the silent era to the beginning of the TV takeover, producing benchmark films of every genre.
No golden age is flawless, and exact timings might be arguable, but let’s examine the different eras of British wine retail.
Until the 1960s, wine was a niche product in Britain, accounting for no more than 10% of all alcohol sold. But once licensing laws were liberalised and retail price maintenance was abolished, it soon became more mainstream. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, supermarkets started bringing wine to the masses via accessible brands such as Blue Nun and Mateus.
Then, in the 1990s, a new era of wine retail emerged. Our thirst for wine was on a seemingly inexorable upward trend, almost doubling from 11.5 litres per capita in 1990 to 20.3 litres by the millennium. And, as global wine production continued to significantly exceed consumption, it was a buyer’s market. Deep discounting became a ubiquitous promotional tool, with BOGOFs and similar mechanics proliferating across all retailers.
Capitalising on this boom were high street offies such as Victoria Wine and Threshers, as well as specialist chains Majestic and Oddbins.
At the same time, varietally labelled wine from the New World ushered in a new stylistic era: oaked Australian Chardonnay, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Chilean Merlot and Argentinian Malbec were the new bestsellers.
In some ways, this period was the first golden age of wine retail in the UK. Sales were growing steadily, there was an abundance of styles coming from all over the world and overproduction kept prices low. The fine wine market was similarly healthy, with a series of good vintages, prices kept high by Parker points, and fresh investment from China.
Since the late 2000s the industry has moved into a different era. The credit crunch shook everything up, and over the past decade wine retail has changed. Price-led discounts are mostly a thing of the past, as are many of the high street chains that went bust. Growth in consumption has slowed, consolidation in the importer and agency sector has reduced diversity, while a combination of rising taxes and unfavourable exchange rates is squeezing margins. Meanwhile, top-end fine wine has become absurdly expensive, taking it out of the reach of most consumers.
Yet, at the same time, independent wine shops are flourishing, Majestic and Oddbins are back on track after some difficult years and online retail is providing greater access to more wine for everyone. Plus, the UK remains at the forefront of new wine trends, welcoming all manner of weird and wonderful styles from around the world.
Are we currently in a golden age of UK wine retail? History will be the judge – especially from the post-Brexit perspective – but all we can do in the meantime is continue to nurture and champion the industry that we love.