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Best of British?

Published:  23 July, 2008

The fragmented category of British Wine (or the affordables category, as it has become known) may lack glamour, but still contains some strong brands, as David Williams reports

It is hard to imagine there is a single consumer in the UK (or, indeed, anywhere) who would describe him/herself as a drinker of British wine. That is not to say that there are no longer any British wine consumers. On the contrary, according to AC Nielsen, "made wine" (which is predominantly British) currently accounts for 19.6% of the wine consumed in the UK, or 2.263 million hl out of a total of 11.549 million hl. And that is before the likes of Lambrini and the rest of the "wine-style", British-made semi-sparkling perry market are added to the equation, to make up what is often called the "affordables sector". So are all of these drinkers simply ashamed to admit to the terrible truth of their consumption habits? Not exactly (though the more educated of palate may suggest they should be). The fact is that most consumers of British wine are unaware that what they are drinking is, in fact, British wine. This is particularly true of the fortified sector. As Paul Hillier, who looks after the category at Matthew Clark, said: "I don't believe most consumers see a difference between, say, QC and Sherry. The connoisseur may know what they are looking for, but the vast majority of people don't think about it." This despite the ruling of three years ago that fortified British wine could no longer be called British Sherry. This lack of recognition is exacerbated by the way that British wine is sold. In the off-trade, you would be hard pushed to find shelf space flagged up as "British wine". Usually, the products which make up the category are stored alongside the products they most resemble. So fortified British wine is placed next to genuine Sherry and the rest of the fortified offering; and light British wine will be found next to the cheaper wines of fresh grape, or as Bob Rishworth at Halewood put it: "with the 2.29 wines from Afghanistan". British wines of reduced alcohol, meanwhile, will form the bulk of any retailer's

low-alcohol section.

The almost apologetic scattering of the products across the shelves is evidence of a general lack of interest in a category which still sells, but which also lacks glamour. Gary Maloney, licensed trading controller at Londis, said: "British wine is quite big in our sector, and we have to service our customers, so we do stock a full range of products, but we don't really push them (to our retailers)." Rishworth is also less than enthusiastic. "I think because of the successes of our brands in other sectors, such as Red Square, we've probably taken our eyes off some of the less important, or more traditional brands," he said. But while that may be true, it is difficult to imagine how else British wine could be marketed. It is a fragmented sector and, despite the fact that a company which produces a fortified British wine will often produce the other styles of British wine and "affordables" - Matthew Clark produces QC, Concorde, Stone's and Babycham, for example; and Halewood produces Copperfield's, Sovereign, Crabbies and Lambrini - the products are very different, with correspondingly different consumers, sales performances and marketing strategies. To get a clearer picture of how the sector is performing, it is best to break it down into its constituent parts.

Fears for fortified

Fortified British wine has a problem that would be familiar to brand managers in categories as diverse as blended whisky, real ale, Cognac and, indeed, Sherry: an ageing consumer base. Vicky Swales, marketing executive at CWF, which produces Original Cask, Old Westminster and Old Courage, describes them as "older-profile consumers who have grown up with this style. It is the way they shop. They are still buying the same foodstuffs. Basically they like to stick to what they know." Jonathan Butt, wine communications manager at First Quench, agrees. "Because of the way the quality wine market has gone, palates have refined and people have more choice," said Butt. "The sort of people who are drinking fortified British wines are not so bothered by quality and are drinking it out of habit." The danger is that once those drinkers have died, and broken that habit, the category will die with them. "We're finding it difficult to attract younger drinkers," said Swales. "They are not turned on by these styles of drinks, they are perceived as fuddy-duddy." The sector is dominated by own-label, which now accounts for about 60% of sales, with the branded 40% becoming increasingly "rationalised", as retailers cut down on tertiary brands. It is not all doom and gloom, however, for brand managers. The category management which has led to a number of delistings for the weaker brands, has benefited stronger brands such as Matthew Clark's QC. Hillier explained: "There are so many tertiary brands within the fortified British wine market, and consumers are trading up to premium, so this has worked well for QC. " So well in fact, that sales have increased by 11% in volume. Swales, too, has identified some successes. "Our lighter products, the 13% fortifieds, have grown," she said. "Which is all part of a trend among people who are looking for lower-alcohol options. There is also a distinct advantage in terms of price points at that ABV." Anthony Chapman, managing director at Broadland winery, also said that sales of its Broadland fortified had "increased in both the UK and export markets". Halewood has not entirely given up on the sub-category either. "We are going to concentrate more of our efforts over the next year on our fortified brands," said Rishworth. "We are working on our strategies now. It's a question of providing consumer-oriented activity with price promotions and bogofs - sophisticated it ain't." Despite these very small silver linings, it is no surprise that other sectors are grabbing brand managers' attention. "We're still keen to keep a foothold in this part of the market," said Swales, "but as a company we are looking to develop outside of fortified. We want to move into different product areas."

Semi-sparkling successes

One of those areas is semi-sparkling perry, a market which continues to grow, with one brand in particular standing out. Halewood's Lambrini now sells four million cases a year, with a 43% share of the market. The bulk of those consumers are, like the characters in the brand's marketing campaign, "thought to be females in their early 30s," says Rishworth, "but the cross-section is wider than we thought." Its success has spawned a variety of imitators, including CWF's Lanfresco, launched in 1999, and Broadland Wineries' Casa Blanca, launched at the end of last year. Lambrini, has to some extent, become a victim of its own success. A high-profile court case is pending after the Consorzio Marchio Storico dei Lambruschi Modenesi (Consortium for the Historic Brand of Modenese Lambrusco) issued a writ against Halewood claiming that the Liverpool company had infringed manufacturers' rights on the Lambrusco name. The Italians want Halewood to stop using the Lambrini name, and to reimburse the consortium for any losses. "In our view this is a classic example of one manufacturer trying to ride on the back of another's good will and success," said Richard Kempler, intellectual property lawyer with Addleshaw, Booth & Co, which is pleading the case for Lambrusco. "We say Halewood is misleading the public by passing off its Bianco as one of the consortium's wines. My clients have a right to feel aggrieved." Halewood naturally disagrees, and cites the fact that sales of Lambrusco were in decline long before Lambrini first came onto the market, as proof that the writ is essentially a case of brand jealousy. "The Italian producers prefer to blame Halewood, rather than their crass marketing tactic of flooding the market with cheap drinks branded as Lambrusco but carrying no identifiable message or reputation to their customers. Halewood has no reason to want to associate itself and its brand with the image of such a product." The case, which came to light in October, is, according to Rishworth, "progressing. We're fighting it vigorously, but it's going to take some time. We feel we've got a very strong case." The problems are not confined to the Liverpudlians, however. Swales says that CWF had also been contacted by the Lambruscans, although a writ has yet to be issued. "It isn't so serious for us because we're not so high profile, but we've still got back-up plans," she said. Meanwhile, the brand name of Matthew Clark's contribution to the sector, Babycham, remains unchallenged by its rather more hifalutin inspiration, Champagne, though this is not down to the fact that it does not sell. According to Hillier, the brand is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, possibly inspired by a kitsch 80s revival. "It's had a lot of press coverage recently, and a number of London bars are promoting the brand," said Hillier.

Ginger's winning ways

Matthew Clark is enjoying success with another of its brands, Stone's Ginger Wine, which has sales up by 8% and currently has 53% of the ginger wine sector, with own-label taking up 38%. The remaining 9% is spread between tertiary brands, with Halewood's Crabbies being the nearest rival to Stone's. Hillier says that this year Matthew Clark is seeking to build on Stone's growth by emphasising its mixability, and by deseasonalising the product, making it more than just a Christmas "must-stock". "We want to get across that Stone's can be consumed neat, with ice or with whisky as a whisky mac, and that it can be consumed during the summer months with a mixer," said Hillier. The company is also looking to give a national launch to Stone's Special Reserve, a range extension with, according to Hillier, "a greater ginger aroma and a higher ABV", than the original. It has already been tested with some success at selected Sainsbury's stores over the Christmas period. Also looking to add a product to the ginger category this year is Sussex-based producer, Lurgashall winery. The launch represents something of a move into the mainstream for the company which, over the last 15 years, has carved out a niche for itself as a producer of what it describes as "hand-crafted products", which include barley wine, British wine, fruit wine and, sometime this year, an organic wine. According to the company's proprietor, Jerome Schooler: "Our wines are a category in themselves. They are a table style - dry to medium sweet, they are all made from what they say they are, they are natural products." Schooler says that the company's range is particularly strong in the independent sector and in sectors of the on-trade where the traditional, "olde England" packaging appeals, such as licensed National Trust cafs and country pubs. The latter is an area of strength which Anthony Chapman, national sales manager, Broadland wineries, also identified for his company's range of fruit and country wines. Maybe it is in those styles of establishment that the elusive consumers who would describe themselves as British wine drinkers can be found.