Samui Wining & Dining
The Wine Page
Has wine become more popular than beer?

Has wine become more popular than beer?If you had to guess, how many bottles of wine do you think are produced per year? A friend and I were trying to put a figure to it the other day. And I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how far off I was, but let’s just say it was by a long way. The latest figures from International Wine & Spirit Research, a London-based drinks research group, estimate that in 2013, 3.2 billion cases of wine were produced. That’s 38.4 billion bottles. I’m sure you would agree that is quite an astonishing number. (For the record, 54% is red wine, compared with 37% for white and 9% for rosé.)

As a concerned wine lover, this immediately makes me ask a further question. Who drinks it all? The quick answer is eager consumers in Europe and the USA. Evidently the USA is still the biggest market by volume, drinking a total of 339 million cases of wine. This was above France’s 296 million cases, Italy’s 288 million, Germany’s 274 million and China’s 144 million (which made it the world’s fifth largest consumer of wine). The UK came in a poor sixth, drinking a total of 133 million cases. However, per capita wine consumption is perhaps a more interesting figure. Here, Italy leads the pack, ahead of France, Switzerland, Portugal and Austria.

I find these figures fascinating. It’s not just the sheer scale of the global wine trade, but in a world that’s increasingly looking toward new markets in Asia, it also emphasizes the importance of traditional markets. And these are the markets where wine consumption has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, whilst beer sales have, at best, remained flat. If you take the UK as an example, research suggests that wine has overtaken beer as the nation’s most popular alcoholic drink, with supermarkets reporting a surge in sales of red wine this year. In a poll, six in ten people chose wine as their ‘drink of choice’. The Wine and Spirits Trade Association, which commissioned the research, declared the results as evidence that wine was “no longer just for connoisseurs” and was enjoyed by “all social classes”. (In any case, there are a lot less thirsty coal miners about now, and a lot more aspiring computer programmers.)

Although breweries and pubs may dispute the assertion that wine has overtaken beer as the UK’s favourite drink, there is absolutely no doubt as to which way the trend is going. And that seems to be the case it just about every developed market in the world. Lately, a columnist for an American beer-industry trade magazine, called Cheers, announced that beer had “lost its way”. Its predicament was summed up in a lament on how wine had managed to overcome beer's lead in the hearts and minds of American drinkers. “Forty years ago, wine was mired in a swamp of low-margin jug sales. Drunks were called ‘winos’. Now wine has cleaned itself up, with a freshly shaved face and a fashionable suit of casual clothes, and is headed uptown.”

How, exactly, has wine become so dominant? I’m sure some of it has to do with modern personal aspirations, and our sense of connoisseurship and the good life. Today people crave and value sophistication. Consequently, personal choices have changed radically over the last few decades. And in ways that have helped wine and hurt beer. Who would have guessed wine would join beer at the NFL football game? During a televised match, I saw an ad for a mobile phone featuring a greying, rugged-looking man strolling through his vineyard and examining dusty bottles of older vintages in his cellar. Winning over football fans with wine! Somehow, wine had become manly? Clearly, American popular culture has come a long way since John Wayne!

Meanwhile, emerging markets like China have seen nearly 70% growth in wine consumption since 2009. And this is forecast to grow another 25% by 2018. Good news for wine producers, but bad news for beer makers. They are losing market share amongst the lucrative and growing young Chinese middle class. China is a huge consumer of red wine. Experts attribute the meteoric interest in red wine in China not only to the purported health benefits of red wine, but also to the colour’s cultural significance. In China, the colour red represents good fortune, strength and luck, making it the ideal drink to serve at banquets and parties. Interestingly, more than 80% of the wine consumed in the country is also produced domestically, placing China as the fifth largest wine producer in the world.

Another, slightly sneaky, part of wine's populist appeal, helping to give an edge in the current beer versus wine war, is that it’s shamelessly hypocritical about one particular benefit - to provide a little (or a lot of) happy intoxication. Beer, on the other hand, holds no pretentions as to its main purpose. You drink beer, but you can appreciate wine, as the saying goes. This is nothing new. Wine's cult of connoisseurship has always had a misleading edge. And I know that some wine buffs will indignantly dispute this. But, like the Victorian obsession with the ‘grace’ of the nude female form, the flowery language and ceremony of wine drinking can seem like a fig leaf of sorts, a cover for pretentious people who like to get buzzed.

Recently, I saw an obscure brand of beer marketed like a wine, its elegant 75cl. bottle pictured nestling in an ice bucket and accompanied by fine glassware. I am not suggesting for a minute that this sort of gentrification is the future for the beer business, but it does need to wake up and smell the hops. Beer may have enjoyed the number one spot for quite a while now. But in today’s competitive and fickle world market, simply by standing still, you are in danger of being overtaken. And wine is currently on course to take over the lead very soon.


Peter James


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