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Describing a wine’s taste for a mass consumer audience is a tricky task – is it worth it?

Conveying the essence of both the style and flavour of a wine is an enduring challenge of the category. How can a few words on a wine label convey a whole sensory experience? Given the constraints of language and meaning – and with the constant danger of drift into to the sort of flowery prose that comedians rightly lampoon – the construction of an effective tasting note can be a daunting task for the wine marketer.

As market researchers, we wondered whether some consumer data might help. Our hypothesis was that certain taste descriptions would prove to be more influential to regular wine drinkers than others. But which ones, and in what context? Our initial population of interest was Australian monthly wine drinkers, and we released the full report of the insights from the project earlier this week. Other markets will follow – watch this space.

The evidence from the initial Australia study suggests that Australian consumers are in fact more influenced by style and flavour descriptions on shelves or wine labels than they are by shop staff recommendations, and whether or not the wine has won a medal or award. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this who has shopped for wine recently: if you don’t like light red wines, it would take a highly persuasive staff member to dislodge you from your usual high-octane Zinfandel and sell you a delicate Beaujolais instead.   

For the purposes of the research, we divided our descriptions into two categories, informed by the way in which consumers think about how to describe wine: “Style” and “Flavour”. Style descriptors express the general structure and body of a wine, for instance whether it be “crisp”, “fresh” (white wines) or “juicy”, “bold” (red wines). Flavour descriptors talk about the specific taste, such as “melon”, “vanilla” (whites) and “blackcurrant”, “pepper” (reds).

When it comes to white wine, Sauvignon Blanc is the favourite white varietal for Australian regular wine drinkers, with Chardonnay being their 2nd favourite. This correlates with the clear consumer preference for style descriptors of “easy drinking”, “fresh” significantly outperform descriptors such as “nutty”, “creamy”, or “bold”. Supporting this, flavour descriptors are more appealing for white wine when they balance indications of freshness (crisp, citrus & zesty) with gentle fruit sweetness (fruity, peach & tropical fruit).

In the context of red wine, Merlot vies with Shiraz in terms of Australia’s favourite red varietal. Our qualitative research with Australian wine consumers suggested that they see Merlot as the ‘catch all’ and ‘universal’ red wine – suitable for most people and most occasions. Therefore, Merlot is widely, not necessarily most frequently, consumed in Australia. On the other hand Shiraz has the strongest awareness-to-usage conversion rate for red varietals, indicating that it has a strong following.

For red wine, Australian’s are positive towards style descriptors that suggest a balance of mellow characteristics (smooth, easy-drinking, fruity), supported by fuller flavours (full-bodied, rich). In line with their developing palates and wine experience, younger drinkers prefer sweeter descriptors for red wine, whereas older drinkers show a preference towards full-bodied red wines.

In terms of flavour descriptors that are favoured for red wine, those that characterise specific berry flavours are most appealing, with less appeal for both sweeter fruit descriptors and spice favours. Whilst the description of full-bodied has strong appeal for red wine, the more involved drinker segments are also significantly more likely to find light red wines appealing, reflecting their interest in a broad range of red wine styles.

For more information, take a look at our Flavour and varietal preference in the Australian wine market 2017 report.

Author: Lulie Halstead