Poland’s wine market is set for an exciting period of growth – so long as its government doesn’t derail the economy
With Brexit looming on the horizon and the UK set to leave, Poland seems set to assume the mantle of the European Union’s most disruptive and lively member. A strong economic performance – Moody’s recently lifted its growth forecast for the Polish economy to 4.3% for the year – has awarded the controversial Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party) enviable approval ratings at home. Growing wages, a stronger currency (still the Zloty, though Poland is officially committed to joining the Euro at some stage) and an improved labour market, are behind the booming economy and, in part, why Poland has been upgraded from an Emerging to a Growth market in the Global Compass 2017-18 report by Wine Intelligence.
The Compass report, which takes into account a range of economic and specific wine market measures, points to a growing wine drinking population and disposable income as factors that make the Polish market more attractive. But there is something more intangible at play: wine is becoming more and more a part of the social fabric, albeit from a low base.
Polish society has experienced several profound cultural changes over the past 30 years. The fall of Communism in 1989, the advent of cheap air travel and membership of the European Union has infused the country with wealth and shaped the perspectives of a huge swathe of Poles born after 1980. French hypermarkets such as Auchan and Carrefour have established a strong presence, stacking their aisles with their homeland’s wines. Indeed, France is the top country of origin with 34% of wine drinkers in Poland having drunk wine from France in the past six months (according to our Poland Landscapes 2015 report). Portuguese-owned Biedronka, Poland’s largest supermarket group with 2,700 stores, has introduced consumers to Portuguese wine as part of its highly popular assortment of inexpensive own-label local Polish food and drink products. On the other hand, my recent store visits suggest that German supermarkets such as Lidl and Kaufland are still more likely to dedicate more shelf space to vodka than wine, with one Kaufland I visited displaying 3 full aisles of the spirit but just three shelves of dusty-looking wine bottles.
My recent visit to Poland also offered evidence that the on-trade is grappling, cautiously, with the wine category . Many restaurants in regional centres like Gdansk, Sopot and Łódź, list wine as simply “czerwone” or “białe” – red or white. For the minority of restaurants in these cities with more extensive lists, they might go as far as to differentiate between “słodkie wino” and “wytrawne wino” (sweet and dry). The appearance of a wine list by varietal, region or even brand means you are in a truly upmarket joint. However. eateries in larger and more cosmopolitan cities such as Warsaw, Wrocław and Kraków are more likely wine lists with more breadth and depth.
Ordering wine in Poland, you soon realise just how sweet the standard offering is. Perhaps it is to be expected from a country that brings us indulgently sweet sugar-coated treats like pączki and faworki, but the palate of the average Pole is decidedly sweet. Indeed, ‘sweetness of the wine’ is the top choice cue for Polish wine drinkers with 85% quoting it as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ when choosing a wine.
Wine consumption in the on-trade largely takes place in dining situations, with 55% reporting they drink wine in restaurants but just 20% in bars or pubs. Polish reworkings of popular cooking TV shows such as Kitchen Nightmares and MasterChef (Kuchenne rewolucje and MasterChef Polska, both presented by the inimitable Polish restaurateur Magda Gessler) have reignited interest in cuisine and wine.
Most of this interest is concentrated in a small proportion of regular wine drinkers (those who drink wine at least once a month). These drinkers represent 30% of Polish adults, a significantly lower than mature markets – almost 60% of the UK’s population fall under our definition of a regular wine drinker. For them, wine is a symbol of sophistication and elegance, something rather more refined. That Poland is home to four WSET accredited schools is testament to how quickly wine is becoming rooted in its drinking culture, though many ambitious wine professionals and sommeliers have been drawn to the UK. Piotr Pietras (the multi award-winning sommelier at Launceston Place) and Adam Pawlowski (the first Polish Master Sommelier) are just two such professionals making a mark on the UK on-trade.
As wine consumption grows, some ambitious individuals have decided to get their foot in the door early, planting their own vines. Though production is minute – there are just 200 hectares of vines planted in Poland – they are already making passable wines. The majority are hybrids hardy enough to withstand the brutal winters, but there have been some successful plantings of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The evidence from my trip points towards a bright future for Poland’s wine market, with a thriving economy and reinvigorated on-trade paving the way for growth. The only real cloud on the horizon is the possibility that, once Brexit is done, the EU and the Polish government will fall out spectacularly. Those wishing to pick a fight would have plenty to choose from: Poland’s resistance to taking refugees, its court reforms that threaten the rule of law, and the continued destruction of the Białowieża forest (despite EU court orders) that could result in the withdrawal of EU redevelopment funds. The EU budget remains the lifeblood of Poland’s infrastructure regeneration and thriving arts scene, so cutting off funds may bring growth grinding to a halt – and with it, possibly, its wine renaissance.