Consumers have become more willing to embrace Old World alternatives to the most popular New World wine styles. Nigel Huddleston reports on what has driven the swing back to Europe

The distinction between Old and New World wines has for some years been more of an artificial trade construct than an approach to wine shopping by consumers. Recent events have, however, brought the divide into sharper focus as issues such as Covid, Brexit, container shortages and extreme weather impacts increasingly help to shape the look of retailers’ wine fixtures.

While Brexit’s clogged winter ports and form-filling caused short-term issues for imports from the EU at the start of the year, a global shortage of shipping containers was putting pressure on supplies of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinian Malbec, two of the biggest crowd-pleasers on the UK market in recent history.

Liberty Wines says its advance planning avoided any shortages of, for example, Kiwi Sauvignon for its customers, but deputy managing director Tom Platt says that the Old World, where the company has its roots, offers plenty of alternatives to the adventurous retailer or shopper.

“While Old World Sauvignon Blancs offer a different flavour profile to Marlborough’s signature style, there are excellent examples of well-made, affordable wines coming from the Val de Loire IGP, lesser-known Loire appellations such as Valençay, Northern Italy and even as far south as Sicily,” says Platt.

“Other aromatic white varieties that can offer great value – and are every bit as gulpable as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – include Soave Classico, Albariño, Vermentino, Fiano or dry Riesling.”

Platt adds: “Italy, France, Portugal and Spain continue to be key countries for us, with many recent additions to the portfolio from each.

“Over the past 18 months, we’ve added around 30 Old World producers to our portfolio. These include long-established names – such as Ferreira in the Douro, Famille Perrin in the Southern Rhône, Alsace’s Domaine Rolly Gassmann and Domaine de Montille in the Côte d’Or – but also many new and emerging producers.

“Regardless of origin, when buying wine our main questions are: ‘Does it offer the best possible quality and value, regardless of the price point?’’; and ‘Would we want to drink a second – or third – glass?’”

Rightly or wrongly, many British consumers have found the likes of Chile, Australia and South Africa offering the most frequently positive answers to those questions

over the past couple of decades, but the lockdown era seems to have swung the pendulum back towards Europe.

Competitive market

Alain Sichel, president of the Bordeaux’s CIVB generic body, said its UK sales figures for the year to the end of June showed a 1% increase in volumes with a 40% increase in value. “We know how competitive the UK is, so while managing to grow volumes is very satisfying, the most impressive characteristic is the increase in value,” says Sichel.

“When we talk about value, the grand cru classé weighs a lot on that equation and it includes the shipment of a very successful and strongly demanded 2018 vintage.

“But because people couldn’t go to bars and restaurants their £20 bottle of wine converted to a £20 bottle in the off-trade.”

Sichel hopes 2021 will prove to be an opportunity to persuade UK consumers to reappraise Bordeaux.

“Bordeaux has always been a big player in the UK but this has been a great time to show and push forward the changes that have been made in the region,” he says. “People know Bordeaux for its fine red wines, of course, but there have been tremendous advances in the production of whites and rosés, and fresh and fruity reds.

“There’s been a fantastic emergence of young growers and winemakers who have travelled and been confronted by new consumption habits, such as out-of-meal times. That’s been a trend in the UK for a lot longer than it has in France. All this leads people to be seeking different styles of wine adapted to different drinking moments.

“We are seeing youngsters coming through in winemaking with fresh styles and breaking some traditional Bordeaux codes. That’s very exciting for everyone.

“The UK is very open,” he adds. “It’s our number one market for rosé and number two for dry white wines.”

Fiona Juby, the CIVB’s UK market consultant, says the region is rebooting tastings at consumer events and hosting pop-up bars to showcase those wines.

“We’re using specific white wine pop-ups,” she says. “It will take a little while but we are using digital media to get the message across to younger consumers. We’re looking to do more activity online. A lot of consumers have moved their wine shopping online and stayed there.

“People are prepared to pay a little bit more when buying online and you can communicate a story a bit more than in supermarkets’ stores.”

Climbing the ladder

Adam Marshall, Kingsland Drinks buying controller for Europe, says anecdotal evidence suggests that “the closure of the on-trade has probably seen a shift up the quality/price ladder for European wines”, with plenty of alternatives to popular New World varietal styles.

He adds: “France is an obvious opportunity, as is eastern Europe in some cases, in particular Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Spain and Portugal also offer fantastic value and quality, although perhaps not the direct varietal replacements.

“The challenge is to get styles as close as possible to the New World wines or, even better, to encourage consumers to try different expressions of the wines they love from the New World.

“Retailers that can effectively implement a ‘Like that? Try this’ communication have the opportunity to get consumers buying a broader repertoire, future-proofing their supply and ranges against any further issues in the next few years, which, with climate change and other factors, cannot be ignored. 

“There is no doubt that countries such as Spain can offer some of the best-value wines in the world and we know that Old World wines in general fare well at Christmas. 

“Consumers often look for something a bit more traditional, like Champagne, Rhône, Rioja or Bordeaux, and they are willing to spend that little bit more on a special bottle.”

Philip Cox, commercial director of Romanian producer Cramele Recas, says “there is clearly a crisis for Sauvignon Blanc”, with strong demand for its wines as a result. He says: “Our local variety Feteasca Regala has surprised us by growing over 700,000 bottles by year end. Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio continue to be strong.”

He thinks market proximity will help European producers in the UK as the climate crisis intensifies.

“Apart from the transport of wine itself, buying wine from other continents involves a lot of travel, samples etcetera, which is not good for the environment,” Cox says.

“The Old World needs to keep an eye on value for money, offering quality wines at good prices. Listening to customers and tailoring wines to what each market wants is critical.

“We are doing our best to support customers with an intensive campaign on social media, such as product tasting video clips, as well as Zoom tastings for press around the world. We are increasing budgets for local promotions and point-of-sale materials.”

German potential

Germany is another Old World country that has been seeing a bit more love in recent times, particularly through the success of its generic 31 Days of Riesling campaign in independents.

At Wines of Germany’s recent Big G trade seminar, Oddbins buyer Ana Sapungiu MW said the chain had seen success with the country’s wines. 

“What works really well for us is Spätburgunder, but it’s actually labelled as Pinot Noir, and that’s a top-selling SKU for us,” she says.

Consultant Ruth Spivey added that Germany “gives independent shops a lot of potential”. She said: “There’s great value, great quality and a lot of things to discover from a consumer point of view, which makes it really exciting.”

Rioja is another European classic that has seen a recent surge in interest, with value sales up 17.9% and the average bottle price hitting £7.38 in 2020 (Nielsen)

José Luis Lapuente, general manager of the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja, says: “For the

next 12 months and beyond, the UK campaign will be focusing on supporting value growth in the category.

“Rioja Wine Month, a celebration of Rioja in retailers during October, will see us support and engage with partners across the industry and drive awareness of Rioja in the run-up to Christmas.