Last year we Brits put away 100 million cases of wine. It sounds like a lot, but don't go thinking we're a nation of binge wine drinkers. We don't feature as even a blip on the radar in the league of the world's 12 thirstiest wine consumers. That's headed up by our European neighbours France, Italy and Switzerland.
One of the characteristics of our wine drinking is that we are in thrall to big brands such as Jacob's Creek and Blossom Hill, most of them not from Europe. "Brands are now shaping the market," says a new report on wine by the market research company, Mintel. Why? "Because they have significantly improved the quality and reliability of wines within the mid-to-lower price ranges."
Since the olden but not so golden days of Bulls Blood, Hirondelle and Blue Nun it's true, up to a point, that today's monster brands are more reliable. That's mainly because their flavour and ripe generosity are underpinned by New World grapes. Eight of the 10 top-selling brands are New World, with Stowells heading the list, though only because of a broad range of 20 wines in pubs and restaurants. In the retail trade, California's Gallo heads the list, having shifted 56 million bottles last year, and the top 10 includes five Australian brands: Jacob's Creek, followed by Hardy's Stamp, Rosemount, Banrock Station and Hardy's VR. The other three are California's Blossom Hill, Kumala from South Africa and the French Piat d'Or.
According to Mintel, "many consumers feel more comfortable with brands because they lack that experience to choose by grape and region, thus choosing familiarity over quality". As we're spending so much on these familiar names, the standard and type of wine should matter. Yet while the quality of brands has improved, it's still not as good as it should be. Nor are the big brands anything like as good as most other wines, including supermarket own labels, available on the shelf.
This was confirmed by this week's Which? Report. Based on a tasting of the popular brands, it points out that the standard of the widely advertised household names simply isn't good enough. Not surprisingly, the most expensive one, 2002 Rosemount Diamond Label, at £7.49, came out best, although I preferred some of the chardonnays mentioned below. And the wines were almost universally cloying, aimed at suckling new wine drinkers with unnecessarily large doses of sugar.
It may come as no surprise to find that the four brands to emerge with any kind of credit were all Australian: Lindemans, Rosemount, Hardy's and Penfolds. Australia's economies of scale allow producers to make gluggable wine at a fair price. Plus they have the budget to market them with attitude.
Not that Australia is completely exonerated. True, the 2004 Lindemans Bin 65, the 2003 Koonunga Hill and 2003 Hardy's Nottage Hill, all chardonnays, were exemplary. The 2004 Lindeman's Cawarra Cabernet Merlot, at £4.99, was also good value for money. However, the Jacob's Creeks were surprisingly indifferent, and two Penfolds wines and two Banrock Stations came in the bottom 10. Piat d'Or was overall bottom, just followed by Gallo.
Would the world be a better place without big wine brands? As a first stepping stone, they serve a useful purpose in attracting new drinkers to the joys of wines and there is a place for them if the quality is there. Still, at least the top 10 brands only account for a quarter of the total wine market, so we're in fact far less beholden to wine brands than spirit or beer brands. That's the good news, folks.