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13 reasons to be cheerful

Published:  23 July, 2008

When Harpers undertook its survey of the wine trade earlier this year - canvassing importers, distributors, retailers, buyers and sommeliers - an overwhelming sense of lethargy was apparent. For every response that was bullish, enthusiastic and hopeful, there were four that were bearish, negative and despondent. Reduced margins, deep-cut promotions, retailer and producer consolidation, increasing commoditisation of the product and the dumbing down' of wine communication were all cited time and time again.

Everyone likes a good whinge, granted, and the health of the trade is arguably far more robust than some respondents made out, but it was clear that many in the UK (and nearly everyone surveyed from abroad) felt that the UK had lost its position as the most exciting wine market on Earth.

On the spirits side, the Government crackdown on binge drinking, combined with flat consumption and similar problems with consolidation, has seen the guys selling the hard stuff looking equally morose.

Seeing as it's the start of the year, Harpers felt it was time to redress the balance and remind its readers that's it's not all doom and gloom. Just for starters, here are 13 reasons to be cheerful. Happy New Year!

1. Wine-consumption growth shows no sign of slowing

A nation of beer drinkers? UK consumers now spend more on wine than they do on beer in the off-trade, and while beer consumption has been flat or falling for the past five years, wine consumption has been growing by 4-6% (according to AC Nielsen) each and every year. Sales at above 5 are growing faster than those below, and the fine wine business is booming. Moreover, industry research group IWSR has predicted that by 2008 the UK will become the largest wine market in Europe by value, reaching 6.03 billion (including duty).

2. The Old World fights back

Harpers doesn't have anything against New World wines, but it's nice to see the Old World fight its corner. Recent gains in the AC Nielsen charts by Spain and Italy are immensely welcome, as is the turnaround in France's branded offering in recent years. Ranges such as HwCg's Blasons de Bourgogne, Thierry's La Loire and Brand Phoenix's Renaissance have shown that France doesn't have to dumb down to succeed. Rioja's success continues apace (a model to all Old World wine regions), while powerhouses Chianti and Burgundy finally seem to have their marketing programmes sorted. Bordeaux take note.

3. The growth in cocktail culture and the slow demise of RTDs

RTDs (labelled, somewhat correctly, by the mainstream press, as alcopops') arguably did more damage to the drinks trade than any other product in history, leading to screaming tabloid headlines and much-increased Government interference. Thankfully, sales of the brightly coloured super-sweet liquids have fallen year on year for quite some time now.

The new fashion, of which this correspondent heartily approves, involves mixing proper spirits with proper mixers. The rebirth of the cocktail - including classics such as the sidecar, as well as new creations involving everything weird and wonderful - has been the spirits story of the 21st century. Anyone for an Old-Fashioned?

4. The rebirth of the specialist sector

The success of both multiple operators and quality independents over the past year has shown that the supermarkets' march to total retail domination is not unstoppable. A host of new independents - such as Quaff in Hove, Ex-Cellars in Fulham and numerous others around the country - has proved (we hope) that the consumer is increasingly looking for quality wines and quality service - and, most importantly, is prepared to pay for it.

On the multiples side of things, Thresher's resurgence under the auspices of three-for-two' has been encouraging, especially since early reports indicate that consumers are raising their average bottle spend and becoming more adventurous with their choices than previously. Let's hope the exercise doesn't end up being too expensive for the company or its suppliers. Elsewhere, Jeroboams and Majestic also continue to perform well. And Unwins? The less said the better

5. The blossoming of premium brown spirits

What a difference a decade makes. Just 10 years ago, the Cognac industry was in tatters, faced with production cutbacks and a declining Asian market. And now, the rapping fraternity has boosted VS sales Stateside, while VSOP and XO are enjoying a resurgence in the Far East.

Rum - more specifically that of the dark variety - was an oft-neglected category, but it now boasts two of the top four category spots in the UK off-trade, and consumers at the top end are being seduced by the multifaceted charms of aged rums.

Even Scotch whisky, that most traditional of spirits, is shedding the tartan and reinventing itself with funky packaging, alternative finishes and one-off bottlings, all designed to attract new drinkers.

And all three spirits are proving a hit with bartenders searching for a new base ingredient with more pizzazz than boring old vodka. The future's bright, the future's er brown.

6. Licensing reform

Although the tabloids wanted us to believe that drinking after 11pm would cause the disintegration of life, the universe and everything, the Earth was still spinning on its axis the last time I looked. Two weeks into the reforms, the jury's still out on how it will affect total drinks sales and the product mix - but I say it's a bloody good reason to be cheerful anyway.

7. A proper closures debate

I wouldn't go as far as journalist Jamie Goode (who claimed, only half jokingly, that post-bottling wine chemistry [is] the new rock 'n' roll'), but the closure debate has certainly moved on apace in the past year. Gone are the two massed ranks - the poppers' and the twisters' - growling at each other from afar. I've lost count of the number of people who've recently told me: I don't think you can say there's just one ideal closure option.' Central to this, of course, is the new amount of data available on both TCA levels and bottle ageing (although more still needs to be done). Also massively welcome are the steps that the cork industry has taken to clean up its act, particularly Amorim's ROSA process and Oeneo's taint-free Diam. On the screwcap front, slow-permeability liners should mean reduced aroma' problems are less prevalent. Death to cabbage and cardboard, I say.

8. The Wine Show London and Richard & Judy

As Robert Joseph recently wrote in his column for Wine International, humble pie, once you've swallowed a mouthful or two, is not only quite digestible, but actually good for the system'. Joseph, like most in the wine trade, was highly sceptical that the inaugural Wine Show London, held in Islington in November '05, would work. But work it did, with 12,000 surprisingly young consumers packing the four-day event.

This, together with the continued success of Richard & Judy's wine club, has shown that mass wine communication is still relevant and, if anything, that consumers have been starved of accessible information for far too long. However, Jilly Goolden's performance on I'm a Celebrity may mean no wine writer is ever treated seriously again by the general public.

9. Boutique white spirits take to the stage

Following on from the success of big-volume vodka and a mini gin resurgence (helped, to no small extent, by the aforementioned cocktails boom), a new breed of boutique white spirits is coming to the fore. UK producers, such as the Grant's-owned Hendrick's and Blackwood distillers, are producing sumptuous white spirits, while overseas a host of producers from around the world has set bartenders' pulses racing. Even New Zealand (with 42 Below vodka) has taken part.

10. Vintage 2005

OK, so it wasn't great everywhere - parts of Spain and Italy suffered from an excess of drought and rain, respectively - but in most of France, Australia and California (among others) 2005 was a vintage to smile about. The Bordelais are particularly excited, and despite an unfortunate predilection to proclaim all but the wettest of years the vintage of the century', it appears that this year we can actually believe them. Producer after producer and commentator after commentator has remarked on the almost total absence of rot and the exceptional ripeness of the grapes. Similar reports have come from Burgundy. Expect a bun fight for the top wines at next year's en primeur campaigns.

11. The diminishing power of Robert Parker

Numbers, numbers everywhere, and not a drop that's drinkable. The Maryland lawyer and king of scores, Robert Parker Jr, may remain the most powerful wine commentator on the planet, but there are increasing signs that the advocate of all things big and bold may be losing a degree of influence. UK merchants have reported that his recommendations had little impact on the prices of the 2004 Bordeaux en primeur campaign, with the 2003 vintage the only one since the turn of the millennium where his scores have driven demand. Elsewhere, the Australians have become increasingly tired of his pronouncements on their wines: witness James Halliday's recent rant slamming his misunderstanding' of Australia's

cool-climate regions and beatification of everything Barossa and bush grown. Back in Blighty there is increasing evidence

of a return to classicism, with fine wine consumers asking for elegance and control. Here's to wines of which you actually want to drink more than one glass.

12. The Ashes 2005 and the World Cup 2006

Howzat! England - home of tea and scones, binge drinking and crushing sporting defeats - finally did it and beat the all-conquering Australians at cricket after 18 years of misery. Although most of England celebrated the memorable victory with gusto, members of the wine trade - particularly those involved in Australian wine - greeted the result with particular abandon. Bragging rights should last until England's top-order collapse at the First Test next year in Australia. But by then, of course, Wayne Rooney et al will have already brought home the football World Cup from Germany, while the Socceroos will have crashed out in the first round.

13. The end of deep-cut discounts

Okay, maybe not. Let's call it 12 reasons to be cheerful