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Jefford on Monday: Wanted: the USA’s Missing Wine Drinkers

And on they roll, the solemn market-analysis reports from the data crunchers. Since these reports are priced for the corporate market and are thus prohibitively expensive for individuals, we demotic wine commentators rarely get a chance to look beyond the press release.

These sometimes suggest that the obvious is being sold with a great deal of statistical fluff wrapped around its ears (£2,500 from Wine Intelligence to learn that Australian wine consumers are more adventurous than they used to be, or £1,000 to discover that the taxman has finally made British wine drinkers realise that it is no longer possible to buy drinkable wine under £5).  

Once in a while, though, the data looks genuinely intriguing. Forget the kitchen antics of Rudy Kurniawan or the litigation bills of collector Bill Koch, nothing brought home to me the true cost of criminal counterfeiting in the wine world than the insight that almost 9 million Chinese (or almost half the ‘affluent imported wine drinking community’) are dissuaded from buying a decent bottle of imported wine by the fear that it may be a fake. If true (it’s a gobbet from Wine Intelligence’s ‘China Landscapes 2013’: that’ll be £2,500 if you want to know more), this casts an enormous shadow over what must eventually become the world’s biggest wine market. How are the Chinese authorities investigating and prosecuting these malpractices? What practical steps are major exporters taking to create confidence in their labels? I’ll try to find out more when in China later this year.

Vinexpo is touting its own slew of market research, prepared by the UK-based International Wine & Spirit Reseach, about the global wine market over the next three years: a bargain, perhaps, at just €1,000 a throw. The report suggests that global wine consumption is set to rise more steeply over this period than it has during the last few years of economic crisis (up 5.3% between 2012 and 2016). The existing trend, moreover, for higher priced wines to outperform cheap ones also looks set to continue: up 30 per cent for wines costing over $10, whereas sales for $5 to $10 wines will grow by just 10%. Encouraging news, no doubt, for all those potential exhibitors.

The wine world may be hypnotised by the Chinese market at present, but the authors of this report imply that the Russian market merits attention, too: with consumption set to rise by 18 per cent during this period, it should overtake Argentina as the world’s seventh largest consuming nation, with the UK in its sights. (Not all of this will be due to the heroic efforts of Citizen Depardieu.) If you’re selling sparkling wine, too, you might prefer to head to Moscow rather than Beijing, with Russian sparkling wine imports set to rise by 56% by 2016, making it the world’s fourth largest sparkling wine market. China doesn’t even figure in the sparkling top 10.

For the chief executive of Vinexpo Robert Beynat, though, it is the USA which continues to offer the best export potential (“If I had $100 to invest in export,” he is quoted as saying, “I would invest it in the USA”). It will still be the world’s largest wine-consuming nation by both volume and value in 2016, with consumption set to rise by 12%. At present, though, it is only the world’s third largest importer of wine; 73% of US consumption is domestic wine. Is that the prime reason for optimism?

Not at all. The strange truth about US wine consumption is that between 16 and 20 per cent of US citizens manage to consume 90% to 96% of the wine (these figures vary, depending on source). There are 40-80 million occasional wine drinkers in the US, but in reality around 36 million adults put away almost all it. Respect!

In other words, the world’s major wine-consuming nation (and the world’s third most populous nation after India and China) still has 279 million citizens who just aren’t pulling their wine-drinking weight. Agreed, 30% of US citizens describe themselves as abstainers (that’s 94.5 million people), and another 76 million are children, but that still leaves 108.5 million people who might be persuaded that a glass of Sancerre or Russian River Chardonnay is a little more interesting than another can of the almost-tasteless Bud Lite (a terrifying 269 million cases sold in 2012).

None of those potential consumers will have quite the same difficulties that Chinese citizens face in trying to decode labels written in an alien script; their per capita income is six times greater than that of their Chinese counterparts; and no one save the collectors of millionaires’ rarities need suspect that what’s in the bottle is a fake. Beynat may be right.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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