Light up a Marlborough — the trouble with wine regions

A Wine Intelligence survey, released at the London International Wine Fair in May, reveals that wine drinkers in the USA and the UK – our two biggest markets – show little awareness of Australian or New Zealand wine regions.

Even after a decade of dominance by Australian wine imports in both countries, just 38 per cent of the 1002 UK drinkers and 10 per cent of the 2069 Americans surveyed were aware of the Barossa Valley. Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine region fared even worse, being recognised by only 27 per cent of UK and 12 per cent of USA drinkers.

While the report partly quantifies the challenge ahead for our wine regions, it also confirms the important role regions play in consumer wine-buying decisions.

In both the UK and USA, about half of wine drinkers rated region of origin as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ cues when buying wine. Strangely, though, two thirds of the British but only half of the Americans rated country of origin as important or very important.

Not surprisingly, UK wine drinkers showed the highest level of awareness, and understanding of the wines, of the long-established European names, Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Bordeaux, Chianti, Beaujolais, Cava, Rioja, Cotes du Rhone Loire and Provence.

Americans seemed familiar with fewer regions and their wine styles than the Brits, with the Napa Valley (USA), Champagne, Bordeaux, Chablis and Chianti at the fore. However, even though the Americans showed little recognition of the regional names Beaujolais, Alsace, Cava, Rioja and Prosecco, they made valid comments about the wine styles behind those names.

This suggests a wider importance for regional names to Americans than the figure for buying cues suggests. Clearly there’s an understanding of wine styles behind some regional names even if the buyer doesn’t recognise their geographic meaning.

Repeating this pattern, only 10 per cent of American buyers were aware of the Barossa as a region, but about three quarters of them showed some understanding of the region’s styles. Figures for UK buyers were about 38 per cent regional awareness and 80 per cent familiarity with the styles. This suggests that in both countries the Barossa name is synonymous with a wine style rather than a region.

Wine Intelligence asked respondents what words came spontaneously in response to regional names.  When asked about ‘Barossa’ the commonest British responses were ‘Australia’, ‘red’, ‘good’, ‘shiraz’. The American response was a less emphatic ‘red’, ‘Spain’, ‘good’, ‘wine’, ‘Australia’, ‘great’, ‘Italy’ and ‘California’.

From the English, ‘Marlborough’ prompted ‘New Zealand’, ‘cigarettes’, ‘strong’, ‘white’ and ‘sauvignon blanc’. And the Americans weighed in with ‘cigarettes’, ‘New Zealand’, ‘good’ and ‘sauvignon blanc’.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for Australian and New Zealand exporters lies in the tremendous goodwill towards us in the UK and USA – especially in comparison to other exporting nations.

Asked to rate their affinity to various countries, their people and their cultures, 78 per cent of British and 73 per cent of American respondents rated Australia as ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’ – putting us at the top of the list. New Zealand came in second with the British at 70% and third for the Americans 61% (behind second placed Italy on 71%).

Italy and Spain fared well in the affinity test, but poor old France, creator and doyen of so many classic wine styles, rated just 56% with the British and 46% with the Americans.

Perhaps this lack of empathy is a countervailing force to the widespread knowledge of their regions and styles – and a continuing opportunity for our winemakers.

And a warning bell I hear in the survey figures applies as much in Australia as it does in the UK, but probably not to America. The most powerful cue affecting buying choice in the UK is ‘promotional offer’, rated by 73% of respondents as ‘important’ or ‘very important’. In the USA ‘promotional offer’ rated only fourth, behind grape variety, recommendation by a friend or family and familiar brand.

The primacy of the retail offer in Britain reflects the enormous power of the major national retail chains. The same applies in Australia where our two biggest retailers now account for perhaps half of all sales.

While competition is unquestionably a force for good, keeping a lid on prices, too much market power can limit entry to markets for smaller wine players, especially when the focus is more on price than on quality. The power of our big supermarkets could well stifle our wine industry’s planned focus on regional identity.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009