In one sense, change in wine comes slowly — new vineyards take years to yield usable fruit; vintages come but once a year, and the time from crush to retail shelf is achingly slow compared to industries where products are manufactured. And yet, looking back 15 years, the U.S. wine market seems like a whole new world, especially in terms of imported wines. Consider that in 1990 the status of French wine was irrefutable, Australia was nowhere near the wine-producing juggernaut it’s become, Chile was merely a source for bargain wines, and who really thought of New Zealand as serious wine country?

With America on track to be the world’s largest consumer of wine by 2008, based on a recent study by the organizers of the biannual trade show Vinexpo, it is more important than ever for retailers to view wine globally.

If there is one thing we can learn from looking back, it is that the world of wine in the eyes of the American consumer is far broader than ever. Generally speaking, wine drinkers know more than they used to — and they are willing to branch out further — but leading them in one direction or another has never been more complicated, especially when it comes to imported wines.

This is an important issue, since imported wines increased their U.S. market share to 25.1% in 2004, compared to 23.0% in 2003, according to the Adams Handbook Advance 2005. Total imported wine sales volume increased by 8.6% (compared to a 1.8% increase for domestic wine), to more than 67 million 9-liter cases, and total imported wine revenue increased by about $40 million, to more than $3.34 billion. The largest gains were posted by Australian wines, with Yellow Tail accounting for a 2.2 million case increase all by itself. Indeed, Australian wine revenue climbed by about $73 million last year. On the other hand, French wine revenue fell by about $95 million in 2004. But that country is still tops in the U.S., selling more than $1 billion worth of wine, followed by Italy, at just over $937 million.

The first key to success selling imports in the current market can be summed up in one word: translation. Because Americans are most familiar with New World wines — i.e., labels based on grape varietals — a modern merchant is often in the position of translating the myriad regional imports into terms that Americans can easily grasp. In other words, in order to walk the walk, you literally have to talk the talk.

The following guide is by no means exhaustive (after all, entire books have been written on single regions of Europe). And we regret that because of space requirements we were not able to include some interesting wine regions, such as South Africa. Still, we do hope to help put the world of imported wines into a context that allows you to better serve your customers, whether they are seasoned collectors or just busy people who simply like wine and want to drink more but think less.

In addition to the regional profiles that follow, here are some points that apply to imports in general:

Know Thy Grapes — But Remember Style. In many cases, there is no faster way to help consumers get it than to point out straightforward grape parallels between Old and New World wines. Bordeaux is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot…ding-ding-ding! But even when the grape-type connection is not as direct, it is always possible to characterize a wine’s style, using terms that work for wines from all over: light vs. full-bodied; un-wooded and crisp vs. soft; tannic vs. smooth; fruity vs. earthy. When you can talk the language of wine style, grapes and even origins are less important and less daunting.

Pricing is a Hot Potato. Value remains a constant concern (witness the power of $9.99, for instance). Pricing of imported wines can be volatile due to fluctuations in exchange rates. Right now, imports are hurting in that regard, as the cost of simply getting the wines onto U.S. shelves is making imports comparatively more expensive than they have been in recent years. At the same time, as always, the reality is that imports will be available at multiple prices, so a customer should still be able to find options whether he/she is shopping for $7 wine or $70 wine.

Keep Food in the Picture. Especially in the Old World (Europe), practically every established type of wine has evolved in the context of complementing foods of the same region. It sounds elementary, but this basic truth can make recommending wine fairly simple when customers are seeking specific bottles for specific meals. (And don’t be afraid to extend this principle, as in suggesting French, Spanish or Italian wines for Mediterranean cuisine.) Perhaps more important, for customers who are looking for wine “for dinner tonight,” it is worth noting that Old World wines tend to show better with food than without. Why? In a nutshell, the wines are usually lower in alcohol than same-grape New World counterparts, thus making for better natural balance, and the “structure” (tannin and acidity) in Old World wines tends to mellow and be less obvious when people enjoy the wines with food.

Vive les differences. Oui, French wines are all about terroir — that slippery concept that ties the character of every wine to the unique soil, climate, exposure, rainfall and drainage of the respective wine’s vineyard. This is a concept that most people can grasp, and the many wines from numerous villages becomes less daunting when presented with grapes as reference points. Incorporating simple grape identifications into signage for French wines is one fairly simple way to make the complexity of all the wine names easier for grape-trained Americans. On the other hand, terroir is of little or no importance to the casual wine drinker. However, the principle that certain grapes grow better in certain parts of the world is not only easy to “get,” it is the foundation on which most imports are based. So caring about “terroir” in a basic sense remains fundamental to helping customers.

Recognize the Hierarchy. One common thread that runs through wine regions of the world (and is particularly strong in Europe) is the idea of hierarchy within a given area. Appellation systems often have a built-in hierarchy that explains why some wines are rare, more expensive and (theoretically) better than others. In essence, the more specific the official designation, the more distinguished the wine. For instance, in Italy, Chianti Classico Riserva is “better” (and rarer and more expensive) than Chianti Classico, which is “better” than Chianti.


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