The future…is smaller

(by peter)

The wine industry is worried.

Dark clouds are brewing on the horizon. Sales are stalling – even in growth categories like rosé.

Consumer confidence and purchasing power is low. The supermarkets, which between them account for over three quarters of UK wine sales, persist as bullishly as ever in prostituting alcohol – wine included – as a loss leader to lure shoppers away from the competition.

Entire generations of consumers have been weaned onto a diet of wine-buying-on-bargain. It is understandable that they are now reluctant to change.

The industry is under siege from health campaigners and legislators keen to be seen taking a tough line on antisocial behaviour. Margins are being continuously eroded by stringent duty rises, more of which are looming in next year’s budget. What is more, VAT is set to return to 20% in the new year.

Suppliers – including some of the world’s finest producers – are starting to court other markets, such is the concern about the long-term future of the UK wine market.

The upshot? Much wailing and gnashing of wine-stained teeth. That – and some innovative thinking.

Recently, I heard of one particularly ingenious solution to the conundrum of keeping a bottle of wine affordable (eg under a fiver) but also profitable for suppliers.

And that big idea is (drum rolls…) smaller bottles.

The plan is to supplant the current standard 75cl wine bottle with a 50cl format.

It’s altogether more metric. At the same time as showing a responsible attitude towards problem drinking. And, most importantly, it allows that key price point to be met.

I can’t quite work out whether this is inspired thinking or simply a facile quick-fix (please send through any views).

It certainly would involve more packaging and thus waste. Certain wines might age faster – though this is rarely a concern with most entry-level wine. It also might risk accusations of sharp practice by consumer watchdogs.

But there’s no particular reason why the standard industry model of the 75cl bottle should persist. And if it allows more choice for consumers (especially those who can’t finish a whole bottle in one sitting), that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

UK importer Buckingham Schenk currently has a range entitled ‘50’, which features wines from France, Italy and Chile. The packaging is classy, the bottles are sold as ‘the perfect size for two to share’ and, the company adds, ‘it’s easy on the pocket and the liver’.Waitrose do a similarly sized 50cl range, also billed as, ‘the perfect size for two to share’.

Of course, any 50cl roll-out would have to be responsibly marketed and clearly signposted for shoppers.

But why not? I’m all for finding ways to keep the UK wine business profitable and diverse at a time when good wine producers are being squeezed out of the market by the seemingly insatiable demands of the big retailers.

A recent tasting threw interesting light on this very topic.

We were recently sent, unsolicited, a set of four miniature wines (in 25cl plastic PET bottles) from Marks & Spencer.

We’d seen them regularly enough while filming in the stores. These puny plastic bottles seemed good for juggling, student economy drives and little else. We paid them scant attention.
So we were very pleasantly surprised to have our assumptions thoroughly challenged when we finally got round to tasting them.

All four wines we tried were excellent examples of their style, in a very handy format. Admittedly, they weren’t the most complex wines, but neither are they sold as such.

They do exactly what is asked of them and nothing more – the vinous equivalent of Ronseal. Just much more palatable.

The Garganega Pinot Grigio 2009 from Veneto (£2.49) was fresh, relatively neutral (as you’d expect) but balanced and a very pleasant quaffer. Perhaps the least impressive of the lot, but still a very honest drop.

The Las Falleras rosé 2009 (Utiel Requena, £1.99) was simple, dry but soft and rounded. Easy-going but spot on and satisfying, with pleasant cherry and strawberry fruit.

The Beaujolais 2009 (£2.25) was another lovely mouthful from this excellent vintage: lively, fresh, and satisfyingly gluggable.

The Alta Mira Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Chile, £2.49) was bright and engaging with flavours of blackcurrant pastille, cherries and pleasantly rounded tannin.

Diminutive bottles – imaginative marketing – affordable pricing – and decent liquid inside.

Could it be the future?