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Published:  23 July, 2008

Like much of the fortified wine market, 'British' fortified and made wine is in long-term decline. So, are producers and brand owners preparing to pull out of the category, or are they gearing up to fight back against increasing competition from new drink categories? Jack Hibberd takes a look at the sector

The world of alcoholic drinks marketing has come a long way since Stone's Green Ginger Wine boldly proclaimed, Stay up with Stone's. Stone's Ginger wine possesses the many qualities extracted from ginger: it increases virility in men; stimulates appetite; increases sex drive; increases blood flow; cures coughs and colds; is a refreshing, vitalising drink.' In these more sensitive times only the last statement would be likely to squeeze past the regulatory codes policed by the various trade bodies. Happily for the brand owner, Matthew Clark Drinks, the inability to proclaim libido-boosting properties for its medicinal' fortified brand hasn't damaged its sales too much. Stone's is growing (+6% by volume in 2002, according to AC Nielsen), while continued consumer sampling programmes and sponsorships point to further growth. To say that the rest of the British Fortified Wine category is not performing at the same level is an understatement worthy of the former Iraqi Information Minister. While light wine, lager, FABs and almost any other drinks category you can think of have seen increases in sales, British Fortified Wine (BFW) has been going down, down, down (with only the unhappy triumvirate of ale, cider and other fortifieds to keep it company). Anthony Chapman, national sales manager at Broadland Wineries, says he has seen the market decline ever since I joined the company' - and that was 25 years ago. In 1995 the market was worth 110 million; the figure for 2001 was 66.7 million (The Drink Pocket Book 2003) and it has almost certainly fallen further still. The problem dogging the once proud (and highly profitable) industry wouldn't escape even the likes of Major Charles Ingram (of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? fame) - with or without the help of a coughing accomplice. There isn't much new product development in the market,' explains Paul Evans, marketing manager for Halewood International. If the market is to be revitalised, which looks unlikely, it would take something dramatic from one of the big players. But the margins have been squeezed and squeezed, so there's not a lot of scope for investment anyway. It's a commodity business for us - about supplying some own-label wine, and we have a few tertiary brands as well.' Crabbie's Green Ginger Wine, previously Halewood's only major ginger wine brand, has been sold off to Glenmorangie and the company is now concentrating on the much more profitable sectors of FABs, light wine and spirits. Chapman tells a similar story when it comes to Broadland. The [BFW] sector used to amount to a lot of our business. Now, it's relatively small compared with some of our other revenues. We still keep some big own-label contracts, and cash and carry brands, but that's about it.' Others in the industry are more positive, however. QC, the market leader in the Sherry-style' sector, and another Matthew Clark Drinks brand, was up 16% by volume last year, an astonishing performance in a declining market. But as Simon Russell, communications manager at Matthew Clark, says, The headline figures [of a slight decline in BFW sales] mask some fundamental shifts in the market. On the face of it, the category seems pretty healthy, given that lots of categories are flat. But examine the data over the same period [MAT figures for volume up to the weekend of 22 March] and you can see that private label is down 8% and QC is up 16% by volume and 11% by value. The major shift is from private/own-label into major brands.' This shift, however, appears to be due as much to a drop in competition as to any inherent strength in the brand. As Paul Silk, marketing director for Matthew Clark Drinks, explains, The trend over the last few years has been the emergence of FABs and other drinks categories, which has restricted the space available on shelf for more traditional categories. It's bad for the category,' he says, but good for us, as we have the number one, two [Tudor Rose] and three [VP] brands in the market. So you lose tertiary brands, but we stay on shelf.' Although BFW sales have always been strong in the local and convenience sector, around 80% of all sales take place in the multiples. So, without much space for brands, the only outlet for most producers is low-margin own-label (which, although declining, still accounts for more than half the market). No wonder most producers are looking for other outlets.

Sugar and spice and all things nice The current outlook for ginger wines, however, is somewhat different. Along with Matthew Clark's success with Stone's, which now has a 48% share of sales at the multiple grocers (presumably this would be less in the independents), other companies are also positive about the segment. Vicky Swales, marketing manager at made wine producer CWF, says her company has had a very good year' with its ginger wine brand, Mackies, while the market in total is up 3% by volume. Stone's has also boosted interest in the segment with the introduction of Stone's Special Reserve, which has a richer ginger flavour and a higher ABV (18%). Launched around 18 months ago, the brand has grown to command around 3% of the market by value. Ginger wine is obviously boosted by its versatility. Silk stresses that it can be used as a mixer, over ice, in place of Pimm's or in a cocktail, and in a Whisky Mac. I see some strong growth coming from that segment.' So, is ginger wine the only silver lining on the cloud hanging over British-produced wines? Not quite: fruit wines are also performing well. Chapman says that Broadlands has seen sales of its fruit wines' increase by around 50% over the past three years', with cherry the most popular flavour. The fruit wines (which contain varying proportions of grape juice) are usually sold in bulk to be bottled and labelled by other companies. They are then sold in local shops, delicatessens and markets under different labels. CWF also has a full range of fruit wines and meads and claims a good rate of sale for its flagship brand, Harvest Fruits. We're having a lot of success with the lower-strength products [13-15% ABV],' says Swales, and we are doing a lot of new product development in this area. We should have some new products to launch this October.' Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex is also having success with its premium fruit wines, with Elderflower the best seller, although sales are undoubtedly boosted by the 35,000 visitors the winery receives each year. However, the American proprietor, Jerome Schooler, feels that his products are different. Authenticity is what we do here,' he says. All our fruit wines are made entirely with the juice of that particular fruit. We don't use grape juice as well, unlike everybody else. Just look at our mead: I think it's one of the few properly made meads in the country. People in England don't even know what mead is [fermented honey with spices]; you don't know about your history. Everyone in America knows what mead is, because we read Beowulf at school, and Beowulf fights Grendel in the Mead Hall.'

Semi-sparkling success But fruit and flavoured wines aren't the only success story. Of all the wine style' drinks made in the UK, it is semi-sparkling Perry that's making the real impact. Once again, Halewood and Matthew Clark are leading the field, with Lambrini (Halewood) the big winner, commanding just under half of the market, with sales of six million cases of its 70cl bottle, priced 1.99. Lambrini customers think it is a wine,' says Evans, which helps us, as supermarkets usually merchandise it alongside the sparkling wines, rather than with the ciders. We are also having some success in the on-trade with the baby size [250ml] Lambrini. It's a slow process, but we are starting to get distribution, and if you look at the success Champagne has in the bar sector, with a price point of over 5 for its baby bottles we can go much lower than that.' Due to disgruntled Italian Lambrusco producers, Halewood was forced to change a Gondola scene on the front of the label and other overtly Italian references, although, importantly, it was able to retain the name. Other Italianite me-toos' in the sector include Simply Fresco! (CWF) and Casa Blanca (Broadland). Everyone follows Lambrini,' says Chapman, but it's a sector that could grow. If you just look at the tax differentials: a case of normal-strength wines has over 14 duty a case. A case of sparkling Perry carries only 2.35 duty.' You can do your own maths. Matthew Clark is celebrating the fiftieth birthday of its Perry, Babycham, which is number two in the market and growing, according to Silk. We are putting in a major drive this year for the fiftieth anniversary. It's going to be a "girls just want to have fun" kind of thing and we are backing Breast Cancer awareness and other issues that young women feel close to.'

End of an era? A massive turnaround in the fortunes of BFW wines would seem unlikely, and most in the industry would rather see consumers buy more of the real thing (Sherry was 7% up in 2002) than more BFW. But it's not all doom and gloom for the industry, either. Halewood is happy to continue pushing its successful Reloaded Red Square FAB brand, while Broadland's bottling facility provides more than half of its revenues. However, it's easy to forget that BFW drinkers are very loyal to their brand and many are likely to be around for at least 20 years before they drop off the end', as Evans jokingly puts it. I think it will level out and potter along. There are people that enjoy it: they may be old, but they are being supplied with what they want to drink.' And who are we to criticise?