Time for a new burst of flavour

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll, author of Through the Looking Glass, from which the above comes, might have felt at home in today’s drinks world. You don’t have to look very far to find a beverage that is not exactly what one might have expected it to be. Lemonade, for example, used to be a nonalcoholic drink for children, until 20 years ago when an Australian brewer called Duncan MacGillivray claimed to have “invented” the “world’s first brewed alcoholic lemonade” and marketed it as Two Dogs. Pedants might note that MacGillivray was actually reviving an old tradition of using honey and fruits such as lemon to produce mead, but it’s unlikely that many of the people who bought Two Dogs or brands like Hooch that followed in its wake would have known or cared much about that. There has, however, been some confusion among consumers since the appearance of other recent (re) inventions such as Frank’s Alcoholic Root Beer and Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer.

Flavouring cider with fruit has a long history in Scandinavia, but until Rekorderlig and Kopparberg gained wide distribution in other countries, most consumers might have expected cider to taste of apples or pears. Today, styles like Rekorderlig’s Strawberry Lime are helping to drive the 50% growth of the global cider market over the last decade. According to analysts Mintel, sales of fruit-flavoured cider in the UK grew by 250% from 2010 to 2012.

Brewers have not failed to notice the positive trends. In July 2012, Nielsen reported an 80% annual rise in sales of flavoured beers, making this the fastest-growing sector of the UK drinks market. Tesco saw their sales of these beers triple in 2010 and 2011, increasing their range from four to 16. Distillers are notoriously good at reading trends. Europeans may think of schnapps as fruit-based eaux de vie to sip at in Germany and Alsace. Many US consumers will, however, be more familiar with examples like Teichenné, butterscotch-flavoured schnapps from Spain. And then, of course, there’s vodka. Once thought of as a sprit produced in Eastern Europe from grain, potatoes or sugar, it can now, as Diageo’s successful Cîroc proves, be a grape-based spirit from the same part of France as Cognac and Armagnac. The Spirits Business magazine recently reported that “According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), more than 40% of all spirits – predominantly vodka – now have flavoured line extensions, with over 220 different flavours from citrus to bacon…”

All of which brings us to wine. The US wine market is evolving in ways that could not have been predicted even a few years ago. Even today, there are many outside the US who struggle to understand how wines with names like Cupcake (the fastest-growing brand in 2011), flipflop (winner of the same award in 2012), MommyJuice, Fancy Pants, SkinnyGirl and Layer Cake come to be at the front of the field. Many of those same sceptics are similarly surprised at how rapidly large numbers of consumers have moved away from the Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet and Zinfandel they used to drink, and embraced unspecified red and white “winemaker blends” with substantial levels of residual sugar and oak and relatively premium prices. Alongside these, there has been an explosion in sales of what one might call “wine-based beverages” such as chocolate wine and sangria, and of brands like Cupcake and SkinnyGirl that encompass wine and flavoured vodka.

Flavoured wines are not just a US phenomenon. In 2012, French consumers drank 15m bottles of wines flavoured with fruits such as cherry, raspberry and grapefruit, with brand names such as Very Pamp and Ice Bull. This year has seen the French launch of cola-flavoured wine, and predictions of a doubling of the market, to 30m bottles. Purists may shudder at the very idea, but they should take the success of these styles in the context of a market in which 50% of French women now consider themselves nonwine drinkers. To suggest that the wine industry might have anything to learn from vodka, beer or cider producers might seem to be heresy for some. But perhaps a little more lateral thinking from wine professionals might help to keep Humpty Dumpty safe on his wall.

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