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Germany considers place in growing low alcohol market

The first Riesling Summit organised by Wines of Germany considered the opportunities available to Germany as consumer tastes continue to move towards lower alcohol and lighter style wines.

The panel at the debate included Maria Troein of Wine Intelligence, Helena Conibear director of Alcohol in Moderation, Nicky Forrest of Wines of Germany and consultant Gerd Sepp.

Forrest began the debate by asking what Germany’s role in the low alcohol category could be and what opportunities it opened up for German wine.

Troein joined the debate by laying out the background for low alcohol wines’ growth using data compiled by Wine Intelligence.

It was clear, she said, that there are two aspects to the low alcohol category: 5.5% and below and the 6% to 11% category.

Both sectors have two of the essential conditions for growth in this area, namely that the government and trade are fully committed to supporting such products as part of the responsible drinking drive and many consumers are increasingly looking for healthier or at least less heavy styles of wine.

However, the sector in biggest growth is 5.5% and below, which was largely driven by the cheaper prices that resulted from a tax break due to the lack of alcoholic content.

The panel recognised that the relatively poor taste and quality of many of these products did put consumers off, with some having bought the product merely on price having not realised that it was low alcohol.

Those wines in the second sector do not benefit from the tax break and so have seen slower growth but they have the advantage of usually being better in quality, something Troein said the consumer considered essential, as wine is an indulgence for most people.

Conibear stressed the importance of the government’s responsible drinking drive and the trade’s promise to remove 1 billion units from consumption by 2015 – something that will be effected across beer, wine and spirits.

Conibear also considered the development of the low alcohol category as “very exciting” and considered it “Germany’s best chance in years” as consumers are after lighter styles – something, of course, that Germany does very well.

Sepp meanwhile concluded that styles around the world had grown progressively riper over the past two decades and it was no surprise to see a return to more moderate levels.

He did acknowledge that perhaps, “riper styles have helped the category and made people buy more wine,” but “now it’s gone too far in some cases; it’s too rich”.

He made the point too that while technology has improved to allow better low alcohol wines to be produced through reverse osmosis and so on, the danger was “the authenticity of the product is in question if technology takes over”.

As he said: “Winemaking is always in conflict. There’s what’s technically possible and then there’s what’s good for the wine.”

Far better from his point of view, was the ability of certain countries and regions to produce lighter, less alcoholic wines naturally, which as a result would retain the all important sense of balance between acidity, sugar and alcohol and lead to a better tasting, higher quality wine.

“Naturally low tastes better,” he concluded.

A lively floor debate followed, where several of the attendees were quick to ask whether this trend really did exist among consumers.

Furthermore, it was questioned whether Germany really wanted to engage in a growing category so firmly rooted in volume and styles where the country is losing sales.

All agreed that the trickiest aspect of pushing low alcohol wines was communicating the fact to consumers without compromising the increasing respect for quality that German wines have so painfully clawed back.

There were numerous suggestions and warnings connected with how this might be achieved.

Words such as “light” warned Troein do sometimes have negative connotations with consumers who will tie it to other commodities such as Diet Coke, whereas, she argued, wine is a luxury.

Troein also offered the surprising feedback that consumers reacted more positively to blue bottles, which appear to convey that the liquid within is light and refreshing – if not necessarily lower in alcohol.

Troein also cautioned the use of proclaiming a wine as being low alcohol as “the overall feeling is that if it’s lower in alcohol it should be lower in price, whereas if it’s pushed as being merely a lighter style of wine then that is less of an issue.”

Ultimately perhaps the crucial fight remains in persuading people to drink German wine at all.

In the end, the debate came up against the usual stumbling block of labelling German wine, lack of consumer awareness about the wines and the complications involved in explaining the full range of styles that Riesling is capable of producing.

While many seemed unconvinced that pursuit of the low alcohol market would suit Germany, it is difficult to argue against the idea that Germany should seek to capitalise on the trend towards lighter wine styles by pushing the message that it naturally produces less heavy and alcoholic wines.

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