It’s ‘fruity’ not ‘sweet’ to Brown Brothers

Big retailers quickly sense consumer pain. And to preserve sales and profits they apply pressure on suppliers for better trading terms – be it rebates, discounts, promotional payments, bonus stock, longer credit periods or even a combination of these.

The savings are largely competed away. And in Britain, said Ross Brown of Brown Brothers on a recent visit to Canberra, retailers turned ‘ballistic’ in the current severe economic downturn, driving prices ever lower. He says supermarket chain ASDA led the fray but Tesco quickly joined in, fearful of losing market share.

For cash-strapped drinkers the discounting keeps wine in reach. But for equally cash-strapped producers, it’s making the UK’s feared BOGOF (by-one-get-one-free) deals of recent years appear gentle.

In the domestic market, Brown sees the biggest threat to wineries like his own as the rapid growth of private labels offered by Coles and Woolworths. Even so, he says the local market remains strong for the Brown Brothers brand.

He recalls that in the downturn following the market crash of 1989 his business came through strongly. He sees this as a result of strong branding and positioning most of their range at a modest price, not at the vulnerable top end.

Today that means very good, very strongly branded products retailing at $15–$20, with sales driven by consumer desire for the wines, not retailer discounting. Across the decades Browns have stood out as brand builders in a discount-led market, often coming to market with novel new products.

Ross cites the example of Moscato, a fruity, muscat-based, low alcohol wine. It’s a classic style of Asti, Italy, but had little following here in Australia and virtually no local examples until Browns launched theirs ten years ago.

It became market leader and according to AC Nielsen, in the year to 22 March 2009 was Australia’s ninth biggest selling white by value. Its success inspired many others and may have saved the various muscat varieties from extinction in Australia.

It also spawned Zibbibo, Browns phenomenally successful low alcohol, fruity sparkling wine. Then a pink version, Zibbibo Rosa, launched last year found a new army of followers without taking share from the original.

Another huge success in what Ross and his wife Judy call the ‘fruity’ category is the red Dolcetto & Syrah, Australia’s fourth biggest selling red wine by value. Now, we’d normally expect the red varieties dolcetto or syrah (aka shiraz) to be dry. But Brown’s version is very sweet – containing about 50 grams per litre of sugar.

That’s unconventional. But like so many Brown Brothers wines before it, its large scale roll out flowed from more modest success at the cellar door – perhaps one of the best test markets in the world with 90,000 or so visitors a year.

Like the odd winemaker in every generation, probably since the year dot, Browns have perceived that wine is a peculiar flavour, perhaps to the majority of humans. It’s generally an acquired taste and often the introduction is through fruity, sweet styles, often with an invigorating bubble.

In his wonderful little booklet, The view from our place (Simon & Schuster, UK, 2006) winemaker Phil Laffer writes of the birth of our modern wine industry, “Australian really started drinking wine in a serious way with the advent in the 1950s and 1960s of products with wonderful names such as Rhinegold, Barossa Pearl and Ben Ean Moselle. These are now as unfashionable as the sweet German hock that was popular in the UK market in the 1960s.

They were all white wines, they were all sweet and they were all well made… Each was attractive to drink and, collectively, this style persuaded Australians into drinking wine”.

The Browns, though, see this a perennially successful theme. Each new generation finds its own taste – and Browns have been incredibly perceptive in finding it and offering very high quality wines that Ross and Judy, with some justification, prefer to call ‘fruity’ rather than sweet. It’s justified because the successful wines all have terrific grapey flavours, not just sweetness.

But there’s more – as Brown Brothers offers seriously good, often cutting edge, quality across a very wide spectrum of styles

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009