The Dutch trade up

Long known as a market where low prices rule, there are signs that the Dutch are moving to drink more premium wine. Hans Kraak reports.

Spike Huisman, manager of the wine department, Albert Heijn
Spike Huisman, manager of the wine department, Albert Heijn

As a wine production country, the Netherlands is not a giant in the world. About 100 farmers make wine on a small scale, mostly for the local on-trade and the tourist market. Thanks to the Netherlands’ history as a trading nation, however, most Dutch consumers are able to choose from a broad range of imported wines, the quality of which has increased enormously in recent years. 

A snapshot

“Yes, we are spoiled in a positive way,” says Peter van Houtert, managing director of wine distributor Verbunt Wijnkopers and chairman of the Royal Dutch Wine Merchants Association (KVNW), a 120-member organisation that represents 75 percent of the total wine volume in the Netherlands, including the largest supermarket chains, Albert Heijn and Jumbo. 

Van Houtert continues: “On the shelves of our supermarkets, consumers will find a wide range of wines from all over the world. In the countries around us the variety on the shelves has increased in the past few years, but it is not yet as varied as it is here generally.” The trend is increasingly driven by consumers. “The Dutchman has started to drink more consciously and chooses better wine.”

On average, a bottle of wine costs less than €3.50 ($4.27), though this figure includes the increasingly popular flavoured wine beverages. “If you leave these wines out, the average price for a classic wine is about four euros,” says van Houtert.

Sommelier Job Seuren, who works at the De Klepel restaurant in Amsterdam and co-runs a distribution company called Sommos, agrees. “Compared with 10 years ago, the quality of the wine in Dutch supermarkets has improved enormously,” he says. Customers demand better wine and food and beverage professionals are working more closely with suppliers to give it to them — even if it means cutting their margins slightly. 

While more than two-thirds of wine is bought in supermarkets, ING — the Netherlands’ biggest bank — has calculated that the number of liquor stores (including wine bars and specialist wine shops such as the franchised Gall & Gall chain) grew by around 100 establishments in 2017. “That is remarkable, because sales via online channels are increasing, also for wine,” says Dirk Mulder of ING Sector Banking. “The total turnover in the liquor stores fell slightly from €993m to €937m between 2015 and 2016, but apparently the consumer would still like to get good advice about quality wine from the specialist.”

More young wine drinkers are looking for both quality wines and greater wine knowledge, says van Houtert, who notes the increasing number of courses taught by organisations such as the Netherlands Wine Education Foundation, the Wijnacademie (wine academy) — where he is involved as a board member — and the Wine Institute. “The interest is enormous and we are getting more and more demand from professionals in the gastronomy industry.” 

Van Houtert believes that the Dutch have a generally good knowledge of wine, but says this is likely to “increase further in the coming years, which will benefit the demand for quality wines”.

The impact of health warnings

Since 2015, the Netherlands has had the strictest alcohol health guidelines in Europe. Citizens are advised not to drink alcohol at all, or at least not more than one glass a day — a limit that was reduced from the 2006 level that “allowed” men two glasses. The new guidelines acknowledge a favourable relationship between moderate alcohol consumption (less than one drink per day) and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, especially when drinking wine. The official guidelines state that: “However, the favourable connections found do not give any reason to advise people who do not drink to use alcohol for health reasons.” There are also specific warnings about the link between moderate alcohol intake and an increased risk of breast cancer. 

Perhaps as a result of these public health campaigns, 27 percent of adult men and 49 percent of adult women do not drink alcohol at all. Of those who do, 45 percent of men and 20 percent of women drink more than one glass of alcohol a day, but 28 percent of men and 31 percent of women drink less than that. 

But how much of this is wine? 

According to IWSR statistics, it was 25.7 litres per capita in 2016, down from 27.4 litres five years earlier. It is predicted that consumption will continue to fall, especially in the case of red wine, sales of which could fall by 3.1 percent, compared with 0.6 percent for white and no change for sparkling. Van Houtert acknowledges that “wine consumption is under pressure due to the competition from the supply and demand for special beers”.

Statistics are not entirely consistent, however. According to a 2017 study of 1,000 Dutch adult wine drinkers, 51 percent said they drank white, compared to 43 percent for red and 28 percent for rosé. Separate research by the Dutch agency SAMR, however, suggests that the respective figures for the three styles are 45.92 percent, 42.27 percent and 11.81 percent.

It is clear that the Netherlands has switched from being a predominantly red wine market to one that favours white. Retail expert Janetta Wanders, who has a strategic consultancy company, says: “Young people especially drink white wine, they are the newcomers to the wine market.” There is also a move towards drier styles, which is facilitated by the way wine is presented in shops. As Wanders explains, taste is the most important criterion for consumers. “This is why supermarkets have organised their shelves according to taste.” 

She says that white wines should not be too dark, but the darker colour is associated with sweetness. And while there is a market for sweet styles of rosé, Wanders sees a clear trend towards lighter, dry, Provence-style rosés. Regarding red wine, she says most consumers prefer “accessible flavours: round, smooth and fruity in character”. 

Wanders expects the trend towards dry, white wines to continue, as does merchant Bert Horstman, who has worked for Heisterkamp Wijnkopers for 15 years. “In general, I also see a trend towards lighter wines with less alcohol,” he says. “The variation in white wines is great and there are more moments throughout the year where white can be drunk: at home on the couch, on the terrace or with a meal. White wine is generally more widely easy to pair with food.”

Supermarket leader Albert Heijn, part of Ahold, together with its sister company Gall & Gall, is the Netherlands’ biggest wine distributor. Spike Huisman, who manages the wine department, takes pride in the improvement in the supermarkets’ image among wine drinkers.

“We are looking for the best possible wines for our customers at an affordable price and we want to be at the forefront of quality and innovation,” he says. “This means we are looking for new areas and grape varieties.” Affordability might be key, but Huisman is also ambitious to sell premium and super-premium wines. “We also have special wines of which we only buy a few pallets, about 1,000 bottles,” he reveals. “These are not available in all our stores. Cos d’Estournel 2nd Grand Cru Classé Saint-Estephe from 1998 is the most expensive example, but we also have wines from around €10.00 to €15.00, such as a Coyam from Chile.”

Iconic brands sold in the stores include Guigal, Antinori, Cono Sur and Duboeuf, but Huisman likes to introduce unfamiliar options, such as a Divino Nordheim Silvaner Kabinett Trocken at €6.79. “That was a risk, because many consumers have the perception that German wine is sweet, but this wine has been received very well and received glowing reviews from the trade press.” Another innovation has been the introduction of Albert Heijm’s own AH Excellent selection brand. “Customers have picked this up well and the branding works well too.”

Wine trends 

Acknowledging the trend to white wine, Huisman points to Rueda and Sauvignon Blanc as recent successes, while he sees demand for “big” Chardonnays as being on the decline. Pinot Grigio will also be a “climber”, from such varied origins as South Africa (Welmoed), Australia (Lindemans, Jacob’s Creek) and Italy (Antinori and Settesoli). “It is the moderate acidity and fresh aromas that appeal to many consumers. I expect a lot from these wines.” At the more esoteric end of the scale, Van Houtert says consumers are also seeking “wines from relatively unknown grape varieties, such as Picpoul or Godello”.

When it comes to red wine, the Albert Heijn consumers traditionally opt for supple wines that are often based on Merlot, but Huisman also sees an increasing demand for some heavier wines to go with a meal. He expects sparkling wines to grow further, partly thanks to the “slipstream” of the increasingly popular fresh, dry whites and partly because of the reduction in Dutch excise duty in early 2017. 

As Van Houtert says: ‘That saves €1.30 per bottle and is a considerable cost reduction.” Cava or Champagnes can be priced more attractively in line with the increased demand for Prosecco in recent years in the Netherlands, the share of sparkling is likely to increase even further.

The origins of wine

France still has the largest market share wine in the Netherlands, at 25 percent, followed by South Africa (20 percent), Germany (12 percent), Chile (12 percent), Italy (10 percent), Spain (10 percent), Australia and Argentina with four percent each and Portugal with two percent. However, Van Houtert warns that France’s wine promotion needs to improve and must adopt a more national approach if it is not to lose ground. “Some classical regions such as the Loire and the Rhône are threatened to be cut completely out of the picture in the Netherlands, because they no longer have a good promotion from their region and that is unfortunate.” He has even raised the subject with the French ambassador who “recognises this problem”. The French, he says, should follow the lead of Germany or California.

Wanders expects Chile, with its “accessible, smooth wines”, and South Africa to remain “interesting” suppliers to the Netherlands, while others are expecting growth from Eastern Europe. Van Houtert says that more good-quality wines from new European countries such as Slovenia, Moldova and Hungary are emerging. 

Bert Horstman of Heisterkamp Wijnkopers has traditionally focused on France, Italy, Spain and Germany, supplying HoReCa, business-to-business and private customers. He too has begun to look eastwards. “In recent years we have been looking more and more at the wines that come from Eastern Europe. Countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania produce higher-quality wines compared with some years ago, and now they can offer something new for the consumers who are searching for just that.” He has also, he says, “been promoting our range of Austrian quality wines for years”.

Other growing trends include organic, biodynamic and natural wines — categories Horstman believes “will grow even more in the near future”. Job Seuren agrees. “In our restaurant we are looking specifically for good, organic wines. That’s what customers ask for. In addition there are customers, but not the majority, who ask for natural wines.” He is not yet aware of a major trend towards more Eastern European wines in restaurants. 

Huisman brings up another trend that the classic wine world must take into account: wine beverages infused with an aroma or flavour. While the German market is much more advanced in this respect, the category chief from Albert Heijn believes that newcomers to the Dutch wine market will increasingly opt for something simple and tasty.

He bases this on the spectacular growth in the number of beer-soda radlers, or specialty beers and flavoured (fruit) wines. “Many people want something new and not too complicated,” he says. “Traditional conventions belonging to the wine world become less interesting for a large group of people. This year we have included a Chilean red wine with a smoked flavour (Jacked Smoked red blend) and a white wine with ginger (Jacked Ginger Sauvignon Blanc) from Concha y Toro. I understand that this can be an insult to the classic winemaker and connoisseurs, but it is a trend to be reckoned with.”

As Huisman concludes: “Young people do not necessarily choose an area or country. They want taste instead of origin.” Quite how the Netherlands’ 100 winemakers feel about this lack of interest in where a wine comes from is another question.  

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