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Published:  23 July, 2008

A vintage year for the drinks trade? Or a time when marketing departments finally triumphed over wineries and distilleries? David Williams picks out some of the year's biggest, quirkiest and zeitgeist-defining launches

Tesco Unwind Like the musty smell it leaves in its wake, the issue of TCA won't go away. Indeed, barely a week goes by without a story landing on the Harpers' news desk of some winery or other's defection from bark to screwcap. But while the switches made by, among many others, the Clare Valley Riesling producers, Randall Grahm and Villa Maria sent shock waves to Portugal, possibly the biggest closure story to date was Tesco's much-publicised decision in April to put 26 premium wines under Stelvin (a figure that has since grown to 35). Six of the wines were completely new, and collectively formed the Tesco Unwind varietal range, which is probably the first drinks brand since Grolsch to be marketed as much on its stopper as its contents. We cannot sit back and ignore anything that reduces our customers' enjoyment of wine, or at worst, puts novice consumers off drinking wine,' said product development manager Lindsay Talas at the time of the launch. We wanted to launch a range of wines with unadulterated, untainted varietal character, produced from the most popular grape varieties, sourced from wherever we could get our hands on the best quality for 4.99. We also wanted to break down the misconception that screwcap equals cheap and nasty wine. So we designed and produced our own bottles, opting for elegant rather than quirky. In short,' she says, our idea was to offer no-nonsense drinking pleasure, or "glug without the tug".' Featuring a Pinot Grigio from Friuli Grave, a Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa's Western Cape, a Chardonnay and a Shiraz from South Eastern Australia, a Merlot from the Languedoc and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile, the range weighs in at 4.99 a bottle and, according to Tesco's product development manager Helen McGinn, already accounts for a significant amount' of the 650,000-1.2 million bottles of premium' screwcapped wine now sold in Tesco stores each month.

Curious Grape New Zealand has Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina has Malbec, Australia has its Shiraz and England well, England has Huxelrebe? Schnburger? Bacchus? Ortega? Not the most promising raw materials for a marketeer looking to establish the English in a varietal-obsessed wine market. Hats off, then, to the team at New Wave Wines, who made a virtue of necessity with the launch, in May, of their Curious Grape range of English varietal wines. Comprising 12 wines (nine white, three red), the range was the first release from New Wave Wines, the new name for the grouping of Chapel Down, Lamberhurst and Carr Taylor, which used to be known as English Wine plc. Frazer Thompson, the newly-installed managing director of New Wave Wines, told Harpers that the new products were evidence of a major step forward in English winemaking and marketing, and a new generation of English wines. Our winemakers have mastered the climate, grape varieties and winemaking techniques to rival any wines produced anywhere in the world. [And] Kent has become an innovative wine growing region. Watch out Champagne and Sancerre.'

I'm a celebrity, get my wine out there If you were a celebrity casting around for a nice little business venture into which you could plunge a few of your spare hundreds of thousands of pounds, or were perhaps just looking for a quick and easy way to use your name to raise yourself enough money for that fifth house in the south of France, what product would you choose? Over the years, perfumes, sauces, salad dressings and even, in the case of ageing boxer George Foreman, glorified sandwich toasters, have all fallen prey to the lure of the celeb. But this year, the product of choice for endorsement-hungry stars from A- to G-list was undeniably wine. The highest-profile meeting of the vine with the vain was Sir Cliff Richard's Vida Nova, a big bruiser of a red produced from Shiraz, Aragonz, Tempranillo and Trincadeira by David Baverstock in the Algarve. After garnering several hundred column inches in the news pages of the nationals, Vida Nova became one of the most successful wine launches of the year, in terms of sales. When Tesco released 3,000 bottles on its website on 12 August, at 45.50 per six-bottle case, they were sold out within 24 hours, while off-loaded 1,200 bottles in 12 hours. And the entire UK allocation of 24,000 bottles, out of a total production of 27,000 bottles, has already been snapped up, largely by those who instinctively think of mistletoe whenever they buy wine. Other celebrity launches this year were, in descending order of celebdom: Jamie Oliver's latest favour to his Sainsbury's paymasters, Jamie Oliver Garganega and Jamie Oliver Montepulciano d'Abruzzo; Aussie cricketer Shane Warne's The Shane Warne Collection, a 2002 Chardonnay and a 2002 blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot, produced by Zilzie Wines; Koala Blue Chardonnay and Koala Blue Shiraz, the work' of Grease star Olivia Newton-John; and the Keynote range from South Africa, a Shiraz and a Chardonnay that feature the voluminous input of Jilly Goolden.

Tia Lusso Something of a Sunny Delight-style success story, this one, going from nothing to number two in a growing category - cream liqueurs - in its first seven months of release. An 11 million advertising budget, topped up by a further 3.5 million spend in the run-up to Christmas, not to mention distribution in 85% of the UK's multiple grocers, has undeniably helped Allied's new addition to the Tia Maria stable to its exalted position. But, at least according to brand manager Neil Anderson, Lusso has also forced a major reappraisal of cream liqueurs by consumers', which should prevent it from making a Sunny Delight-style nose dive in its second year of release.

Here come the Italians Speaking at the Definitive Italian Seminar in London at the beginning of the year, Sainsbury's Italian buyer Julian Dyer lamented the absence of bona fide Italian hard brands, suggesting that all the branding attempts made by the Italians so far remained putative'. So Dyer, and many others present at the event, would have welcomed the latest attempt to cross the branding Rubicon made by D&D Wines International, in collaboration with Fratelli Martini. Canti, as the attempt is known, was initially a two-wine entry-level brand, featuring a Rosso and a Bianco at 3.49 and 2.99 respectively. But the range had swelled to five by the end of the year, with the addition of two dual-varietals and a sparkling Asti, all of which have found homes in Tesco, the Co-op and the convenience sector. The Cheshire-based company wasn't alone in its Italian focus, however. International Wine Services also identified some potential in the peninsula, and transformed its international Marc Xero range into an all-Italian, in time for this year's LIWSF. The company turned to the Veneto, the Marche and Alto Adige to source the fruit for a 4.99 range which now takes in a Pinot Grigio and a Sangiovese, as well as the original Italian Chardonnay, with production of the Merlot switching from California to Italy. Meanwhile, Western Wines scored some success with the launch of its Da Luca blend of Primitivo and Merlot from Puglia. While this is not, strictly speaking, a brand just yet - it consists of just one wine - it has nonetheless achieved listings at Waitrose and Safeway, and, at 4.99, is our editor's favourite 5 wine.

and the South Africans In the year that it overtook France in value, you might think that, of all the New World countries, this has been Australia's year. But for many buyers, it's South Africa that's the most exciting New World country, with more new brands making their way from the Cape than you could shake a bushman's stick at. Possibly the biggest of the new South Africans to arrive during 2002 was IWS' Cape Promise. Produced at the Helderberg Cellars, the range takes in varietals retailing between 4.49 and 4.99, and a Winemakers Reserve Range at 6.49. Launched in October, it already has listings in Safeway, Tesco and Waitrose, as well as in Waverley's on-trade accounts. Also arriving in the latter part of the year was Raisin Social's Leopard's Leap, an attempt to address the 5-6 mark, where so many of the Aussie brands operate (in the six weeks of the year when they're not on promotion). Featuring a Sauvignon Blanc and a trio of dual-varietals at 5.49, plus Lookout Red and Lookout White blends at 4.99, Leopard's Leap has also had the benefit of extensive ads and in-store activity since its launch, and has secured listings in Tesco, Sainsbury's and Safeway. It was pipped at the post in the launch stakes by Brand Phoenix's South African venture First Cape, a set of three dual-varietals pitched at the 3.99 price point, which arrived in Sainsbury's in September and also has listings in Safeway. Other brands of varying shapes and sizes which made the move out of Africa included: Enotria's Jabu, Stratford Agencies' Parrotfish, KWV's Groenland and Tumara, and African Pride Wines' (APW) Footprint; while Western Wines added a new Reserve tier to the leading South African brand, Kumala, and First Quench added a new, 50-strong South African list, including a new BOB, Imbizo.

Are finishes finished? Are the days of special wood finishes for malt whiskies numbered? Have consumers decided they're just a gimmick, born of the marketing room, rather than the distillery? Or are exotic woods still bringing genuine interest and new flavours to the category, and allowing it to expand? The debate rages on, as can be seen in this year's crop of malt releases from the leading whisky producers. On the one hand, you have the folk at Glenmorangie, who this year extended a range of finishes that includes Port, Sherry and Madeira - and in the past has featured special editions such as Chardonnay and Hautes-Ctes de Nuits - with the release of The 1981 Sauternes Wood Finish. Sold in Oddbins for 125, the luscious, sweet notes of the Grand Cru Sauternes perfectly complement the complexity of the malt whisky', according to Glenmorangie's head of distilleries and maturation, Dr Bill Lumsden. At the opposite extreme you have Diageo, who focused this year on bringing out a range of four single malts to complement its existing Classic Malts. The Hidden Malts' - so-called because they are all taken from distilleries which have been active since the 19th century, but which have never made their malts widely available in the UK - are: Caol Ila from Islay; Clynelish from the Sutherland coast, near Brora; Glen Elgin from Speyside; and Glen Ord from the Highlands, and retail at prices starting at around 25. Our decision now to expose these four to a more general release reflects our view that malt aficionados are continuing to develop more sophisticated and discerning tastes, and are perhaps weary of some of the more exotic finishes being put before them,' said Iain Cockburn, commercial director of the Classic Malts business, at the time of the launch. Pitched somewhere in the middle was Glenfiddich's new release, Caoran Reserve 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which is a peatier version of the traditional Glenfiddich, based on the taste of Glenfiddich produced in the 1930s and 1940s, when coal was at a premium and a greater proportion of peat was used in the maltings fire. Packaged in a modern black and silver bottle, Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve has an ABV of 40% and an RRP of 24.99 for a 70cl bottle.

Madeira Alvada Attempting to broaden Madeira's appeal to a younger consumer might seem as foolish a notion as attempting to convince twenty-something women of the inherent sexiness of support tights and talcum powder, but the brave souls at the Symington-owned Madeira Wine Company (MWC) were not to be dissuaded from their task. The result is what might well be Madeira's Otima, the flashily-packaged, 50cl Bual/Malmsey 5-Year-Old blend, Alvada. Retailing at 8.99 in Sainsbury's, and with a number of high-profile on-trade listings also tucked under its pink and purple belt, Alvada is an attempt to make something happen with Madeira', according to MWC director Dominic Symington. We thought, well, if we're going to try and make something happen with Madeira, then we're going to have to be a bit irreverent.'