Consumer tastes are changing ? but wine has been slow to adapt

May 23, 2013
3 minutes read

I recently visited the London International Wine Fair at the ExCeL Centre where apart from having the dubious pleasure of sampling Mongolian wine, I spoke about whether wine is adapting to the changing consumer. My argument is that this is currently not the case, that the UK industry is led too much by its own prejudices and mores rather than those of the consumer.

One of the fundamental changes we have seen in the UK consumer over the past few decades is that people have developed a “sweeter tooth” due to the increasing amount of hidden sugar that we consume. For example, ever wondered why smoked salmon did not taste as oily anymore? Since 1990, consumption of sugar in Britain has increased by 31% and the average person in Britain consumes about 700g of sugar a week – that’s 140 teaspoons!

Yet despite this, the wine industry remains wedded to the idea that drier wine is “good” and sweeter wine is “bad”. However, look what is happening in the US where the wine market is being fuelled by a phenomenon called “Moscato madness”. This sweet-tasting and often cheap white wine grew by 33% in volume in the US in 2012 and now accounts for 6% market share, while sweet reds are also proving hugely popular.

This sales trend is being driven by younger, “Millennial” wine drinkers who not only consume more sugar than previous generations but also have biologically less developed palates, something which predisposes them to sweeter food and drink. Indeed, Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, MD, Associate Professor at Cornell University who conducted a consumer study on physiological differences in wine preferences in 2010, warns that through its insistence that sweeter wine is inferior: ’the industry is guilty of alienating a large segment of consumers who frequently opt for other sweet beverages or even stop drinking wine altogether’.

Making more sweeter wine does not have to be a “race to the bottom”, just a reflection that what tastes good for one person might be anathema to another: that “education” is a two-way process.

Secondly, we have seen that consumers in the West are increasingly seeking more intense, experimental and multi-layered tastes as they become more exposed to Eastern cuisine. There has been a particular interest in spices in food and drink. Hence the popularity of salted caramel and chilli or wasabi chocolate combinations, while Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum and Tanqueray Malacca Spiced Gin are just two examples of how nimble spirit brands are seeking to adapt. Yet while the likes of cinnamon wine would be extreme or gimmicky, why don’t more wines talk more about their aromas of spice or their complex spice notes? Only 5% of all innovation in Europe and North America in the past year actually did so.

The danger is that with people drinking less alcohol each year, wine will increasingly get squeezed out in the battle for UK “share of throat” unless it becomes more consumer-centric. This would be a real shame as not only is it a great product made by incredibly passionate people but it fits perfectly into the trend towards a more continental culture of drinking that the UK is finally starting to embrace.

Jonny Forsyth
Jonny Forsyth

Jonny Forsyth is Associate Director, Mintel Food & Drink, monitoring and engaging with latest innovations and market developments in all alcohol and coffee categories.

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