Chardonnay remains the top-selling wine in US
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Recently released ACNielsen statistics for retail grocers’ sales in 2005 in the US, set to become the world’s biggest market by 2008, show that the next most popular wine is Merlot, news that might be a blow to all those who relished in the dissing of the varietal in the film Sideways. (But those same moviegoers will be relieved to hear that the star of the movie, Pinot Noir, is garnering massive support with sales in food stores rising 70% on 2004.

Third in line is White Zinfandel, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Reds are marginally more popular than whites, accounting for almost 42% of sales, and whites, 41%. Blush or Rosé wines make up the balance of 17%. But could it be that there are red or white blends individually more popular than Chardonnay or Merlot?

Not so, according to Rory Callahan, who is the US agent for Wines of South Africa. He says that apart from Rosé wines, considered in a category of their own, blends have not assumed the popularity in the US they have in other markets.

The picture for the UK, still the world’s biggest wine market, is rather different. According to figures presented by Jonathan Butt of the Thresher Group, who was recently on a visit to South Africa, for the 12 months to August 2005, just over 10% of wine sales through the multiple grocers were of what are rather blandly described as “unidentified reds”. This term includes all red blends unless otherwise specified (more about that in a moment).

Next up are the “unidentified whites” with just under 10%, while Chardonnay comes in third, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and then Shiraz/Cabernet blends (not to be confused with Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, rather lower on the list). Regrettably no such statistics are available for wine sales in South Africa. But a look at the sales of bottled wines in the premium category and above produced by Distell, the country’s biggest producer of wines, tells a story that to some extent mirrors what is happening in the UK.

By far and away the most popular wines are dry red blends, with Nederburg Baronne a front ranker. Dry white blends come in second, followed by Rosé, with Nederburg in the lead once again. The single most popular varietal, however, is Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon is right behind, and then only Chardonnay in sixth place, followed by Pinotage and Merlot. Says Misti Fowler, who is Nederburg’s brand development manager: “Since the start of the decade South Africa has shown itself capable of producing world-class Sauvignon Blanc in the flinty green and fuller, tropical styles, both drawing praise internationally.

This has given producers the confidence to expand their offerings and now there are excellent Sauvignon Blancs across the price spectrum. Because many of them are easy-drinking, crisp and refreshing, they are ideally suited to our climate and partly the reason for their local popularity.

Michael Olivier of Pick ‘n Pay agrees. “Although not our single biggest seller – red blends and white blends take precedence - Sauvignon Blanc features quite prominently for us. I think it’s zippy, crisp freshness works very well for local consumers. But, interestingly, Cabernet Sauvignon is a more popular varietal than Sauvignon Blanc in our stores. During the festive season, we also find sparkling wines sell exceptionally well.”

Caroline Barton, Makro’s national wine buyer, believes the reason for Sauvignon Blanc’s popularity is threefold. “Yes, it is very well suited to the South African lifestyle but it is also very fashionable right now and is buoyed by major marketing spend from the leading producers.” Makro’s biggest sellers are also red blends, followed by white blends, a situation echoed at Tops at Spar. Says Barton: “The status of blends is based largely on price. Red blends under R25 and white blends under R20 are bought most frequently because of the value they offer.

In our experience, sparkling wines occupy third position. Most of these wines tend to be in the sweeter-tasting spectrum and they are enjoyed by consumers widely, not just for celebratory occasions. They have become a year-round phenomenon. But Sauvignon Blanc is our single most popular varietal, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a good old stalwart and has long been a part of the South African wine landscape.

"A representative from another leading grocers’ chain, who asked not to be named, said the company’s best sellers were also red and white blends with Merlot becoming increasingly popular. Rosés too are a great favourite and the way South Africans like them is “sweet, sweeter, sweetest”, which is a very different story from the UK market, where the drier style is gaining wider currency.

Ray Edwards points to the increasing popularity of Shiraz at Tops at Spar. “It is running neck and neck with Cabernet Sauvignon and could overtake it. It will be interesting to watch this race but I don’t see Pinotage providing any real competition.”

So, ABC Club members can take heart that for South Africans buying from the grocers’ chains at least, Chardonnay, while still a very big seller, is not among the big five. Says Fowler: “Wine is as susceptible to fashion as food. Trends come and go.

In my parents’ day Grand Cru was the flavour of the month. Then it was Blanc Fumé, followed by Chardonnay. That is part of the evolution of wine and five years hence, the popularity rankings will probably be very different from how they currently are.”

This article was first published in the Nederburg E-letter, May 2006. Reproduced here with permission from Distell and as part of the brand's sponsorship agreement with WineNews.

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