The low alcohol wine debate is caught in a semantic labyrinth
The “Comments” section of the UK’s Daily Mail website is perhaps not the best place to look for reasoned and evidence-based debate on the issues of the day. Last week it surpassed itself with the reaction to the news that Britain’s health minister was seeking to have the definition of wine reclassified to include lower alcohol products – down to 4.5% – which hitherto didn’t meet that technical definition according to the EU.
Over the course of 568 comments, this snippet of news was transformed into a sinister nanny state crusade by the British government to “water down” the wine consumed by “the middle classes” (presumably the working classes and upper classes can look after themselves). My favourite Mail reader comment: “Don’t think of touching the British public’s alcohol supply unless you want a revolution.”
What the commentators, and indeed the reporters of the original story (and many of the follow ups, including the Daily Mail) demonstrated was that the low alcohol wine debate in the UK is struggling to get out of the starting blocks, because it’s actually quite hard to work out a) what we are debating and b) why it matters.
Let’s start with the “what”. Are we talking about low alcohol wine, or lower alcohol wine? Most industry types and commentators agree that the former equals wine up to 5.5% ABV. But we’re not allowed to call it wine. . . so instead it is called, well, what? The copy accompanying the 5.5% FirstCape Discovery Series Light with Pinot Grigio on the Tesco website studiously avoids using the word wine as part of the product description, given that this would violate EU (and therefore UK) law. But it sits in the “Tesco Wine Warehouse” under “All wines” and “Low ABV”. An ordinary consumer might miss the fact that they are actually buying something that legally isn’t wine at all.
Then there is “lower alcohol wine”. This is the generally accepted wine trade euphemism for wine of 10.5% or below, and – confusingly – often includes the 5.5% ABV stuff, which of course isn’t officially wine at all. The difference between one end of this definition and the other is pretty broad: 10.5% is where many Rieslings and Proseccos sit, all of which are legally wine; the other end is a product that has been de-alcoholised somehow to fit into a much lower UK excise duty bracket.
As to why the low/lower alcohol category matters, we find ourselves in a new labyrinth. Wine Intelligence research has consistently found over the years that a fairly significant minority of consumers in the UK (around 4 in 10 monthly wine drinkers according to our latest report. say they have purchased a lower alcohol wine, either because they are watching their health, or their weight, or because sometimes they don’t like to drink too much alcohol, or most often because they prefer the taste, say, of an 8% Moscato to a 14% Chardonnay. Our latest research also shows that similar populations can be found in other major consumption markets.
Equally, no research we’ve ever done in the UK has supported the hypothesis that there was an unmet consumer need for partially-de-alcoholised wine at 5.5% or below. Sales figures widely reported in the trade press over the past week suggest that the category has gone into decline, having peaked at around 1 million cases in 2012, or 0.8% of the UK off trade market by volume.
During the category’s 4 year existence, 31% of UK regular wine drinkers say they have purchased a 5.5% product and 23% say they will buy it again, typically because they appreciate the fact that it is significantly cheaper than higher ABV wines by virtue of attracting Excise Duty of 85p per bottle versus £2 for 6%+ wines (source: Lower Alcohol Wines in the UK, 2012 view here). However the majority of UK regular wine drinkers have either never purchased, or have purchased and not returned to the category. Consumer satisfaction levels may start to rise thanks to some recent 5.5% ABV product launches that have strived to improve the taste experience, but it would be a brave shopper who consciously revisited a category which caused them (or someone they know) to feel let down the last time around
Where does this leave the rest of the “lower” alcohol category, i.e. wine between 6 and 10.5%? In the absence of a specific tax break, these products will remain marginalised in the UK, often costing more than their full-strength brethren, and failing the fairly basic – but widely-used – consumer comparison test: “how much alcohol can my money buy?”.