Food & Drink: Wine drinkers show a nose for quality

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The British are becoming a nation of wine buffs with a particular penchant for reds and roses. Nathalie Dal Molin and Clare Garner look at how educated drinkers are changing the market.

Growth in the amount of wine drunk in Britain is coming from established consumers who are increasing their knowledge of what they drink as well as the amount. While the number of British adults quaffing wine is declining, those who do so are taking their drinking seriously.

Last year, 678 million litres of wine were sold in Britain - a rise of 16 per cent since 1992 - and the value of the wine market is forecast to rise by 25 per cent in current terms by 2001. Around a quarter of annual sales are made in November and December as wine becomes more popular not only for drinking in the festive season but for giving as a present.

According to the latest survey by Mintel, the biggest wine drinkers are aged between 35 and 44. This age group is expected to buy 10 per cent more wine by 2001. People in this age group are the most likely to change their drinking habits and shift to wine. Those who enter this age group in future will have a greater awareness about wine than previous generations and are expected to be more enthusiastic wine consumers.

Nick Taylor-Stoddard, a 32-year-old City moneybroker,describes himself as an "enthusiastic amateur". Two years ago he became interested in wines, particularly those from the New World, and has since built up a collection of 200 bottles. "I've read books because I want to have a bit of understanding but at the end of the day there's no substitute for trying the stuff," he said.

The UK trend for more wine drinking is part of a general increase in the world market towards alcoholic drinks. Traditional beer drinking countries such as the UK and Germany have been increasing their consumption of wine while, conversely, those countries where wine has been the main drink, such as France and Italy, have been turning towards beer.

In recent years, the reds and roses have overtaken the whites in popularity. Sales of red and rose wines have expanded by 53 per cent since 1992 and by 2001 they will account for 55 per cent of the market.

A spokesman from Sainsbury confirms the supermarket chain's customers are increasingly choosy about their wine. The introduction of informative leaflets and the use of labels to identify the characteristics of wines have helped educate the public about wine.

"We sell more red wine than medium sweet white wine nowadays. Our sales are roughly 55 per cent of red wine against 45 per cent for dry white wine," he said.

"Our customers have certainly more awareness about wine. This is mainly due to the advent of New World wine producers such as Australia, Chile, South Africa, US and others which offer good quality and reliable wine at competitive prices. These wines are more accessible to people than French wines."

A spokeswoman for Waitrose said: "The sale of wine is increasing, and people are more knowledgeable about wine. It is down to the variety of what is available in shops, particularly in supermarkets. People want quality. It is no longer for better-off people only. The increase in wine consumption is coming from the whole society."