Greek wine exports to the US are on the rise and the word about their quality and uniqueness seems to be increasing in tandem. Just last week Eric Asimov published a thoughtful and striking article about New Greek red wines from indigenous grapes that represent “a new wave of Greek wines now available in the United States.”
In stark contrast to the US, there a few signs of a built up of similar interest taking place in Europe. Greek wines have experienced an extremely low penetration rate in the UK market. There have been some promising developments over the last 12 months or so, but these are infant steps. Germany has traditionally been the most important market for Greek wine exports, yet little fresh progress has been made. Sales have only just stabilized after years of decline, and literally no exciting new winery or even new grape variety has been able to break through.
Very little is reported about Greek wines in both countries. The written word is eerily absent, even more so in Germany than in the UK. Given that many more wines from Greece are available in Germany compared to the UK, this begs further investigation.
There are some marked differences between the three markets that might lead to insight as to why Greek wines fare so differently at this point in time. I will summarize them below, keeping in mind that this is no scientifically proven data, but rather my personal observations:
Wine hub: Both the US (New York, San Francisco) and the UK (London) have cities that form the centre for sales and wine related activities. It is here where wine trends are shaped. Competition from other countries is intense, but a meaningful breakthrough will result in success. No such hub exists in Germany, where eighty cities have populations of more than 100000, and only four of them break the one million mark. The cities are spread across the country and vary widely in terms of wine consumption. There are thousands of wine merchants and only a modest number of large players.
Influencers: The US has a high number of influencers, coming from different backgrounds. Wine critics, wine writers (print and online), Sommeliers, even some importers belong to this group. Some of them are particularly influential with the younger generation who have become the strongest growth category for wine consumption. It is no accident that the mostly young Sommeliers are called the rock stars of wine, nor is it that some of the emerging wine writers are only a few years above the legal drinking age.
There are a number of influencers in the UK, but this group is perhaps not quite as versatile as in the US. They are typically respected wine personalities who might as a whole not be quite as accessible when compared to some of their US counterparts. The UK wine market is dominated by supermarkets, whose customers are likely less easily targeted by the influencers. However, the second most important force in the UK wine trade are the wine merchants; and it would be no surprise to me that the influencers do play a key role here.
In Germany, there are only a limited number of wine critics/journalists who might be able to exert some influence. The role of the Sommelier is by far not as evolved as in the US. Given the importance of Germany as a wine consuming and importing country, the size of the active wine community is surprisingly small. The German wine market is fragmented and it will be interesting to see if and what role the Internet might possibly play to bring along changes.
In general, I feel that the influencers in the US are genuinely inquisitive about new emerging trends, whereas in Europe there seems to be more reservation.
Consumer: The US wine consumers, at least the younger ones who reside in one of the wine hubs, are keen on expanding their palate, they are open-minded and love to explore. Tyler Colman aka Dr Vino, one of the leading US wine bloggers, recently wrote an insightful article for The World of Fine Wine, Issue 34, titled “When local becomes global”, where he highlighted the flip side of globalization. He states: “…younger drinkers tend to be more experimental… (They) will try anything once. The Wine Market Council survey had younger respondents praising the joy of discovery.”
European palates also start opening up towards new discoveries, yet this process seems to be lagging behind. So far, I believe only in the US will you find consumers complaining when they can’t get random Assyrtiko or Gruner Veltliner. But Tyler Colman is right when he points out that “The tectonic plates of the wine world have shifted…” See also this post by a 20-something wine geek, which shows how the younger generation approaches wine in the US.
Restaurants and wine bars: When considering Greek cuisine, the US has a huge advantage over Europe. Greek restaurants in the major cities are high class and up market, being perceived as Mediterranean food havens. The impressive wine lists are dominated by, and in some cases limited to Greek wine.
The opposite is true in Europe. Greek restaurants are far too often anglicised or germanised, thereby losing their authenticity, offering cheaply priced, uninspiring food. The wine lists consist mainly of cheap, mass produced wine that match the quality of the food. Those restaurants that do not fit into this category should be actively supported in order to raise awareness.
International (non Greek) restaurants in the US are increasingly turning towards food friendly Greek wines, while this is still the exception in the UK and Germany.
Wine bars in the major American cities are trendy, hip, and crowded by young customers who seek out wines that are off the beaten track. By the glass pours often reflect this.
In London, wine bars are still being perceived as a part of the “old” city/finance culture, where bankers go after work. This is the feedback I received when asking some younger wine consumers in the UK. Looking at Jancis Robinson’s recent listing of some favourite wine bars on her purple pages, the following quote speaks volumes: “Our definition of a wine bar is that it has a decent wine selection and that you are allowed to order no more than a glass of wine, i.e. you are not forced to order food as well.”
As for Germany, there are a few serious wine bars located mainly in Berlin, but this is an emerging niche.
Old baggage: By this I simply mean the overall quality of the imported wines that consumers have been exposed to in the past. I think it is fair to say that Germany has seen dull quality for many years. Not only, but mainly. It requires more effort to change the image of Greek wine in this country. The US has had a larger share of good quality wine, and it is easier to build on this momentum. In the UK, some exciting wines are also now making an appearance. Given how little Greek wine has been imported in the past, the notion of baggage does not really apply.
Promotional and educational activities: Over the last few years, the focus from the Greek wine industry and the official bodies has been heavily on the US market. Very few activities have taken place in the UK or in Germany.
All of these factors feed on one another in a continuous manner. Some are static, others keep evolving. Some can be influenced directly – promotional and educational activities would be an obvious example. Others need a much more concentrated effort. Looking at the above observations, it becomes more obvious why Greek wines are making headway in the US right now: They are extremely well positioned given the prevailing circumstances. The UK market is less ready, but might well surprise on the upside if the right efforts are made (UK wine merchants, I’d love to hear from you :) Greek wineries often cite Germany as the market with the highest untapped potential. The predominant circumstances do not support these expectations, and might help to explain why this potential has not yet been unleashed.