UK supermarkets losing their stronghold

Friday, 23 January, 2015
Judy Brower
International wine critic and journalist, Jancis Robinson and her equally erudite husband Nick Lander shared their thoughts on the wine and restaurant market at the latest Rootstock meeting at Allee Bleue on 20 Jan 2015

Getting your wines into the restaurants is where the business is. No longer are restaurants ripping people off with 300% markups. Young people in the UK cannot afford to buy property, so instead they are spending their hard-earned cash on eating out and drinking good wine along the way.  They are discerning and want something with a story, something different and unconventional.

And funnily enough, the sommelier is becoming more powerful.  I believe strongly that our wine service professionals are more and more important as we progress, and Jancis & Nick's opinion is exactly that.  The gatekeepers are becoming more versed and they will be the ones you will have to convince to try and buy your wines. This too in the USA, where sommeliers are becoming even more prevalent and powerful. Long live sommeliers... long live!

In the short time Nick & Jancis have spent in Cape Town, Nick was most impressed by the good young enthusiastic black wine waitering staff and if he could, he would take them all back to London with him!  Let's keep training these wonderful people and take South African Wines to new heights!

Supermarkets were the superpowers of the UK wine market but they have squeezed the life out of so many wine producers that it really is not worth their while selling to them as the profits are minimal if any at all. In the old days in the UK, you would find a plethora of high street wine shops. Sadly these have mostly died off and their staff have moved on with many of them starting real specialist and enthusiasts' wine shops, some brick and mortar, some online. These are taking off right across the UK, with Bristol and Manchester booming.

Jancis & Nick's son has 2 restaurants in London, and Nick has been writing restaurant reviews for the Financial Times in London for over 20 years, and recently penned The Art of the Restaurateur, which won the Book of the Year for the Economist.  Nick's sage advice is that restaurants will give you business if you give them business. It is a 2-way street. Make sure you make time for them and they will make time and business for you. If you can make your wines available by the glass at good price points, you should be able to make a good gross margin of 60-65%

So if you make good and interesting wine, have a personality or character that is noticeable and you can travel to the UK every year, you can certainly find a space for your wines on the shelves or in the cellars of these top restaurants. There is a new breed of importer who are looking for these wines and if you make yourself available to them, you are likely to sell your wines with a reasonable profit.

"Should South Africa pin our hopes on a single Cultivar or a Ward?" - was a question posed to Jancis, and it was very clear that she did not agree with this and that we should rather use our diversity and individuality - of our people, wines & terroir.  She certainly thinks we make the best value white wine in the world, but perhaps this was just because South Africans put their energies into make red wines and did not really take notice that their whites were really good!  Jancis really likes our Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and hopes we don't pull out our Semillon!  Although not really wanting to be drawn on the Pinotage question, she did say that of all her tastings she had had since in South Africa, she had not tasted a Pinotage she did not like!

And if you are selling your wine into the UK, according to Mr & Mrs Robinson, it seems closure is really not important. As long as the wine is good, it is easy to open, screwcaps are totally acceptable.  However, in the USA there seems to be more resistance to screwcaps with an old-fashioned tendency to cork closures!

Packaging is another interesting aspect of the UK market. The UK consumer is more open to drinking every day wines from plastic or tetra packs, even though the USA again is not. Even the very popular Prosecco is now in tetra pack!
Marks & Spencers in the UK are leaders in different packaging, and importing wine in bulk to re-pack in tetra packs or plastic bottles, as they are concerned about the sustainability of the product and the earth and by not shipping tons of glass across to the UK, they feel they are doing their bit for the environment.

I am not so sure about this being as sustainable as they think, as it means that the producers get considerably less for their wines, their farms make less profit and their staff on the farms are not likely to benefit in any way. Origin has recently changed the way they operate and in fact bottling in South Africa, for the precise reason that they want to uplift the staff on the farms. So, an interesting question to debate...

In closing, in the last 7 years since Jancis was last in South Africa, what has she noticed most?

  • The Swartland has certainly made an impression.
  • Greg Sherwood, UK Wine Judge, has spent quite a bit of time in South Africa and is arranging for many tastings in London of top end wines and making great waves there.
  • The UK Trade just don't really seem to get South African wines... and Jancis is not quite sure why. 
  • High Timber, Gary & Kathy Jordan's UK restaurant on the Thames in London focusses largely on South African Wines has certainly raised our profile.

Many thanks to Edo Heyns for arranging this session and to Ansgar Flaatten from Allee Bleue for hosting the event and providing interesting and delicious delights.

I am looking forward to the next instalment from JR at the VinPro day on Thurs 22nd January at the CTICC. 

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