Will the New World wine countries ever achieve the same dominance in the on-trade as they have in the off-? Chris Losh gathers together some industry experts in search
Ask a New World wine producer about the UK off-trade and they’ll probably grumble about the supermarkets, then show you several thousand cases in their winery destined for Tesco. Ask them about the on-trade, however, and they go all misty-eyed. For untold numbers of Chileans, Australians, South Africans et al, the UK restaurant scene is a land of milk and honey; a nirvana of good margins, regular sales and knowledgeable customers. The only trouble is, they don’t know how to get there…
It remains one of the more glaring contradictions of this market, that while the supermarket wine aisles are becoming more and more branded and increasingly non-European, restaurant wine lists remain largely European, with a few strategically chosen New World additions. So is this a case of the on-trade being out of step with the public; the public changing its behaviour from high street to top table; or part of a gradual but inevitable process of change that will eventually see wine lists as New World-dominated as Tesco et al?
Take a look at the figures from market analysts Nielsen and it would suggest the latter. France (unsusprisingly, given its dominance) is losing share, as is Italy, while Chile and the US are up. But the trouble is that this doesn’t tell the whole story. Or even, frankly, give much of a starting point – certainly for the readership of this magazine. Much of the New World’s growth has come from big brand sales in pubs, rather than a mass conversion of white tablecloth restaurants to Zinfandel or Carménère.
Whatever the stats say, empirical evidence suggests that, having established some key regional beachheads (Kiwi Sauvignon, Aussie Shiraz, Chilean Cab), the New World is finding it hard to push on and colonise the list. It was, understandably, a source of frustration for Wines of Chile’s Michael Cox. ‘The on-trade is not tapping into consumer tastes to the extent that the off-trade has done,’ he grumbled. ‘When consumers are not comfortable, we have to ease them gently into exploring a wider world.’
At a time when gastropubs can sell pigs’ trotters and supermarkets list grouse and pigeon, Cox may have a point that there is room for some boldness. But the Tate Group’s Hamish Anderson sounded a warning note about seeing the on-trade as
a kind of testing ground.
‘I’d fundamentally disagree that most people come into a restaurant to be educated,’ he said. ‘What they come for is to have a good time. The restaurants that have been around for a long time are not the places that offer 14 grazing courses of Korean food – and that extends into wine. There’s a time and a place to experiment. When I go out, I want food and wine that I know and like. Sometimes I might want to be challenged, but most of the time I don’t. People go out to be reassured and comforted.’
Or, as Peter McKinley of McKinley Vintners put it, ‘People don’t go to a restaurant to eat what they do at home, and they don’t want to drink what they do at home either.’ All of which means that even confirmed New World drinkers are not shoo-ins for a bottle of something similar in the restaurant and that attempts to give a customer something different need to be treated with sensitivity. ‘If people say they usually drink Chablis but want something different, I’d be more likely to suggest a Margaret River Chardonnay than a Chilean Riesling,’ said Gearoid Devaney, head sommelier at Tom Aikens.
The good news for the New World, of course, is that it has a growing number of food-friendly, cooler climate wines that can be Old World alternatives. The bad news is that public recognition of such regionality doesn’t go much beyond Marlborough Sauvignon or Barossa Shiraz, and hardly any wine lists break down their New World section by region. ‘It’s taken Australia 15 years to get anywhere with regionality,’ pointed out Cox.
But he remained optimistic about the potential. ‘More people now are conscious of places like Casablanca and Leyda in Chile than a few years ago. Once you start to put in complexity, then people can explore,’ he explained. However Murray Harris, proprietor of The Cavern Bar & Grill, sounded a cautionary note. ‘I’m from South Africa, but it would be wrong for my guests to have, say, 10 wines out of 50 being South African. You’ve got to have some staples like Chablis and Sancerre on the list. If you fill it all with New World stuff, then it’s boring.’
There’s a further reason why Old World wines still tend to hold sway in restaurants, as Anderson pointed out. ‘New World wines are far better with food than they used to be. But people have got used to drinking it without. Those are the type of people who will come into our restaurant and look for a claret or Burgundy.’ This perhaps also explains why New World wines are selling rather better in pubs and bars than in restaurants: people are simply continuing their consumption pattern from home.
Who’s at fault?
There are further difficulties for the New World, though. In particular many wines, such as those from Chile for instance, have a highly fragmented route to market, which makes it difficult for restaurants to stock them – unless the buyer is prepared to deal with a dozen different suppliers of course. Apart from Australia (for which the likes of Bibendum and Liberty, to name but two, have impressive portfolios) this is a problem that many New World countries face.
Michael Cox, though, wasn’t so sure that more of the blame didn’t lie with the on-trade itself. ‘There are pockets of tremendous innovation in the New World,’ he said, ‘but your local Italian trattoria isn’t likely to stock anything more adventurous than Valpolicella – and it never will. So you’re instantly denied access to a pretty hefty chunk of the on-trade.’ Certainly, the on-trade has a somewhat chequered record when it comes to seizing the initiative and attempting to influence the consumer. Understandably, fear of getting it wrong usually wins out over the inherent riskiness of moving people out of their comfort zone.
That said, even places with wine buyers who are full converts to the New World and who have lists to match, can find it hard to shift volume of non-European countries. Anderson, for instance, estimates that while 8% of his list at Tate Britain is Australian, actual sales of the country’s wine are far lower, and that this pattern is repeated across the New World portfolio. The problem, it seems, is not just getting New World wines on the list in the first place, but getting them to move once they’re there. But this is an area where restaurants are able to exert some influence without seeming unduly pushy.
Trial is the key
‘I’ve got some new Chilean wines coming in that I’m really excited about,’ said Devaney. ‘But it’s only by putting them on by the glass that I’ll sell a lot.’ Trial in manageable amounts is the key to selling New World in the on-trade. By the glass is, obviously, one option. But so, too, are half-bottles, and here the New World remains curiously slow on the uptake. Anderson has 90 half-bottles at the Tate group, of which only six are from outside Europe, for the simple reason that New World producers don’t offer them.
‘It’s a mindset,’ sighed Cox, admitting that thinking needs to change. ‘If a small Burgundian producer can make half bottles, then bigger producers should be able to manage it,’ said Devaney. Half bottles are a particularly attractive way for restaurants to sell the higher-priced wines which, coincidentally, is an area where the New World has always struggled with a glass ceiling, both for sommeliers and the public. ‘Provided half bottles are stored well, there’s no quality issue,’ said Anderson. ‘They age slightly quicker, but that’s no bad thing since most restaurants list wine that’s too young anyway.’
So, in 10 years’ time, will the New World be further on in restaurants than it is now? Generally speaking, yes, particularly if the producers make it easier for the gatekeepers to sell their product. But as to whether Chile, Australia et al could be at the same level of dominance in the on-trade that they are in the off-trade, the answer looks like an emphatic no.
‘I’m not convinced by a lot of South Africa’s wines, but a lot of people buy into the country in the same way they did with Australia, and that will continue. Chile has great potential, too.’ Hamish Anderson
‘I don’t see any more potential for Australia.’ Murray Harris
‘The New World countries are having to earn their spurs in a way that the appellation system wines haven’t. France had a 200-year head start and no competition.’ Peter McKinley
‘There’s an issue with higher price points. Above a certain level, customers switch back to classic European wine regions. I think the wine list will stay 70:30, Old World/New World.’ Gearoid Devaney
‘The average wine list compiler has to move away from the vinous equivalent of prawn cocktail, sirloin steak and black forest gateau – which is where they are at the moment.’ Michael Cox
Hamish Anderson, group wine buyer, Tate Group
Michael Cox, director, Wines of Chile
Gearoid Devaney, head sommelier,
Murray Harris, proprietor, The Cavern Bar & Grill
Peter McKinley, McKinley Vintners
How to get more out of your New World wine selection
ILLUSTRATIONS: RUSS TUDOR
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January / February 2008