Last July, shocked headlines greeted the launch of France’s first cola-flavoured wine. “Wine with cola? Quelle horreur!” read one, while another went further: “French firm horrifies wine snobs by creating world’s first bottle of red flavoured with COLA”. Their approbation ignored one thing: soaring demand for the brightly labelled bottles known as flavoured wines.
In the last three years, sales of flavoured wines, technically known as ‘Boissons Aromatisées à Base de Vin’ (wine-based aromatised drinks, or BABV), have quintupled.
Starting at a modest 4.38m L in 2011, sales stood at 20.96m L as of 13 October 2013, according to the latest data from research firm Information Resources Inc. (IRI). In value terms those litres were worth €15.68m ($21.22m) and €74.52m ($100.85m), respectively. The figures are particularly impressive when compared to overall market growth in France’s still wine sector. Between 2013 (to 13 October) and the same period in 2012, flavoured wine sales volumes rose 68.1%, while the wine sector posted 0.9% growth for the 12 months of 2013, versus a year earlier. For the period 2012/2011, flavoured wine sales volumes grew by 247.6% (albeit from a low base), compared to 0.6% for the wine market.
Going out on a limb, flavoured wine enthusiasts could even attribute the general wine market’s 0.3% increase between 2013 and 2012 to flavoured wine sales, although no figures are available to prove that. What IRI’s Magali Dubeau will say, however, is that “the still wine market has not been negatively affected by the sudden explosion of flavoured wine sales.”
Some flavoured wine recipes are secret, but most consist of about three-quarters wine and one-quarter water and flavouring. They are drunk principally as an apéritif and most voraciously by women and young adults. IRI says the most popular flavour – despite the headline-grabbing cola one launched last year by Bordeaux-based Haussmann Famille – is rosé grapefruit, which accounts for 69% of flavoured wine sales by volume.
The tradition of fruit-flavoured wines comes originally from southern France, where grapefruit juice, fresh or concentrated (in the form of France’s popular range of ‘sirops’ found in any local shop or bar) have been added to local rosé wines in summer for as long as anyone can remember. But a summer drink does not a sales explosion make. Rather, said the director of Wine Intelligence, France, Jean-Philippe Perrouty, flavoured wines seem to be leveraging three existing trends.
Firstly, but in no particular order, said Perrouty, they are low in alcohol. “For customers looking for lower-alcohol wines – and we know from research that a lot of them are – these wines stand out on the supermarket shelves, with their clearly labelled alcohol content of 7% to 10%. It’s much harder to find a traditional red or white with low alcohol. There are fewer of them and the print is small, so you have to look carefully.”
Secondly, flavoured wines are cashing in on growing demand for wine as an apéritif – particularly whites, rosés and sweet whites. “As an apéritif, rosé grapefruit is now the third most popular choice in the wine category for younger buyers in France. Plus these wines are sweet, and we know sweet wines are perceived as being very approachable by younger drinkers,” said Perrouty.
A December 2013 study prepared by Wine Intelligence for wine trade fair Vinisud found that growing demand for a wine-based apéritif as a pre-lunch or dinner drink is based on two popular beliefs. Firstly that it was healthier than spirits, and secondly, the idea that having wine instead of sprits before a meal – which would normally be accompanied by another wine – meant people could avoid mixing their drinks.
Additionally, the study found that 28% of current domestic wine consumption is in the form of an apéritif. Meanwhile average monthly consumption of an apéritif ‘dînatoire’ – meaning an apéritif accompanied by something to eat, but stopping short of actual dinner – among 18- to 34-year-olds is double that of 55- to-64-year olds.
All of which is somewhat surprising, given that apéritifs are more generally associated with an older generation of French parents, who can often be heard insisting in vain on a quick Lillet (a sweet wine-based drink, comparable to Martini Bianco) or ‘porto’ before lunch, while their 30-year-old children slope to the fridge for a beer.
As well as being associated with something light to eat, ‘dînatoire’ style, the study also found apéritif wines are often drunk without eating, while watching TV, or while reading or cooking, which must be music to the ears for producers. The idea of separating alcohol from food has long been something France’s health authorities have abhorred, but sales people and producers have quietly longed to boost, having seen wine bars where little food was offered booming in the UK in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Finally, said Perrouty, flavoured wines come cheap at an average price of €2.66 ($5.60) per bottle. Indeed, they yet may become a symbol of the French recession, given that their boom has taken place, year-for-year, against a backdrop of rising unemployment and negative-to-poor economic data.
Three market leaders
Unsurprisingly, there are numerous flavoured wine producers, from supermarket own brands to small regional labels. Nevertheless, three company brands hold sway at the top of the list.
The self-confessed number one is Moncigale, owned by the French-based wine and sprits company, Belvédère Group. Headquartered in Beaucaire, in south-eastern France, Moncigale’s company director Jean-Baptiste Duverne said he has over 35% of the market, with sales of his ‘Fruits and Wine’ brand reaching 12m bottles in 2013.
Duverne won’t give the exact blend, but said his wines consist of “wine, juice concentrate, exclusively natural aromas, sugar and water.” The range, launched in 2010, boasts 12 different flavours and includes the recent addition late last year of two mulled wine flavours, a red and a white, meant to be drunk hot. With sales of flavoured wines currently peaking in summer, the move toward a hot version is undoubtedly meant to boost sales in cooler times. In 2014 the company will add four organic flavours: rosé grapefruit, rosé raspberry, rosé peach and a white wine-based pear flavour.
Moncigale’s main market is France, but as of 2013 about 20% is exported to Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, Hong Kong, China, Japan and Taiwan.
After Moncigale comes the Bordeaux-based Castel, which sold 6.2m bottles of flavoured wines from September 2012 to September 2013, and La Compagnie Vinicole de Bourgogne (CVB), where sales reached 3.5m bottles in 2013.
Castel’s range, called VeRy, started with three flavours: the ever reliable rosé grapefruit, as well as a white wine with lime, and a white wine with peach. In 2013 they added a white wine-based apple, a rosé raspberry and a red wine-based pomegranate.
CVB, which is based in Chagny, eastern France, was one of the first into the market back in 2008 with the Arômes et Vin range. The wines come in eight flavours, with rosé grapefruit accounting for 60% of sales. The other flavours are rosé cherry, rosé strawberry, rosé raspberry and two whites with pear or peach flavour. The two latest additions are cocktail-based: a white mojito and a rosé Planter’s Punch.
Discussing CVB’s sales targets, marketing director Viviane Martin said having sold 400,000 bottles in 2009 to their current level of 3.5m today, there’s “no reason for that kind of exponential growth to stop. Selling four million bottles in 2014 is not out of the question.”
CVB’s wines are, said Martin, lower in alcohol than most at only 7.5%, and their blend is about 60% wine and 40% water and flavourings. In another move designed to combat the seasonality of sales, CVB recently launched a sparking version of the rosé grapefruit, which costs €3.90 and which sold 30,000 bottles in December.
Of the smaller companies, probably the best known, thanks to its cola daring, is Haussmann Famille. “We got a lot of attention when we launched the cola flavour at Vinexpo in 2013. People were half shocked, half amused. I had to spend a lot of time explaining it was not wine mixed with cola,” said the company’s marketing director, Pauline Lacombe.
Relative late-comers to the market in 2013, their range of flavours include the red Rouge Sucette (meaning ‘lollipop’) Cola, Rosé Sucette Grapefruit, Rosé Sucette Passion Fruit and a white wine option, Blanc Sucette Passion Fruit. Two new flavours, Rosé Sucette Mandarin and Blanc Sucette Star Anise, hit the market at the end of January. All the Sucette wines are 9% alcohol and the blend is 75% wine and 25% water and flavourings. In 2013 they sold 700,000 bottles and the aim for 2014 is to sell 1.5m bottles.
Trend or fad?
No one can say yet what the mid- to long-term impact of the flavoured wine boom will be. The positive outlook is that they could boost wine consumption in a country where annual per capita consumption of wine has fallen from 58.2 L in 2000 to 46.1 L l in 2011, according the figures available from FranceAgriMer.
“The wines might bring young adults to the supermarket’s wine section and maybe educate them about wine. It gives them a chance to try something different,” said Lacombe.
There is also the possibility they could help reduce France’s binge drinking problem, which is mostly spirit-based, by “at least giving people another, affordable, option,” Lacombe added.
On the downside, flavoured wines are contributing to what International Wine and Spirit Research’s French expert, José Hermoso, called continuing “value destruction” of the wine category, despite their contribution to wine sales.
Wine buffs have similar fears. In his Wine Anorak blog, Jamie Goode recently wrote about the flavoured wine craze, saying their advent could mean that wine loses its “privileged position in society”. He went on to say, “Cheap commercial wine is already pretty bad: anyone who wants to make it worse must be completely mad.”
Replies to his post varied, but in terms of what the US Central Bank calls ‘forward guidance’ it is one worth noting. “Perhaps flavoured wine will be just like flavoured water – pointless and nothing more than another niche or fad. But if it strengthens people’s perceptions of genuine wine then let it have its day in the sun, and we’ll see who’s still batting at the end of it.”
Asked about the comparison to flavoured water, Zenith International market researcher Simon Redwood said sales picked up 7% in 2011 and 2012, on beliefs that it’s a healthier alternative to fizzy drinks, despite the fact that flavoured waters cost more than ordinary ones. So, if health and price are the keys to success, then the comparison would seem to bode well for flavoured wines, which are as cheap or cheaper than many other wines at the lower end of the market and which have, as yet, no significant rivals from the reduced-alcohol wine sector.