Wine’s inside information

How will consumers react to back labels that list wine ingredients? A group of researchers went and asked them. Felicity Carter reports.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

As of 2017, the European Commission has, once again, called for ingredient labelling. Its report makes interesting reading — the push has come, in part, from beer brewers. Members of a voluntary organisation called the European Beer Pledge have already agreed to give consumers the full nutrition information on beer on their labels.  

The World Health Organisation also wants labelling, as part of its plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. 

As a first step, the Commission has decided that “current voluntary initiatives should be allowed to develop further” and has asked the wine industry to present it with a self-regulatory proposal.

It may be a long time coming. One of the sticking points will be the question of what an ingredient is. Is a processing aid an ingredient, for example, even if it dissipates? This question make ingredient labelling a fraught topic inside the wine industry. Recently the debate has exploded both inside European bodies and in the international media. 

But what do consumers themselves want? Two researchers from Geisenheim University in Germany asked them.

What do consumers care about?

Researchers Evelyn Pabst and Professor Dr Simone Loose devised a study, in conjunction with colleagues from Italy and Australia, to look at how consumers react to ingredients labelling. They were also interested to see if media reporting on the issue would have any impact.
They recruited 745 Australians, 716 Germans and 715 Italians, and presented them with three different types of back labels.

One offered sensory information about the wine, plus ingredients, plus the price; one had sensory information, a food match and the calorie count, and added that it contained sulphites; the final label had no sensory descriptors but a full nutritional table showing information including calories, fat, carbohydrates, sodium and so on, plus a full ingredient list. The consumers weren’t shown the front label, to ensure they weren’t swayed by brand information. 

The results differed across markets. The Germans and Australians were most influenced by the sensory information — “A dark and oaky wine, with a lovely texture and taste of blackberry and capsicum” — whereas Italians were most influenced by region. They were also more interested in the nutrition information than their peers in Australia and Germany.

As the report says, “if consumers are not actively confronted with the issue, ingredient lists for wine have a very low influence on wine selection”.

Media coverage

While consumers may not be very interested in the back label, they are interested in what the media has to say. One of the issues about ingredients labelling is what will happen when newspapers or online outlets start writing about it, especially if the message is that the wine industry is being secretive because it has something to hide. 

The researchers tested whether media discussions about wine ingredients would have any impact on consumer buying behaviour. They divided their consumer groups into three. The first third was given a negative article that talked about chemical additives and accused the wine industry of misleading consumers; the second third was given a positive article headlined “how different ingredients benefit wine”, and the third group wasn’t shown anything.

What the researchers discovered is that consumers will pay a lot more attention to the ingredients list after being exposed to a media discussion on the subject, and they will care less about the sensory descriptions. “Furthermore, in Germany and Italy, some consumers would rather not buy any wine after being confronted with negative information,” said the paper.

Interestingly, the Australians were less bothered by the media coverage, which the researchers speculate may be because New World winemakers are more open about the innovations and technology used in winemaking, while Old World winemakers speak almost exclusively in artisanal terms.

The researchers concluded that ingredient labelling by itself will probably not have much impact on consumer behaviour — the real impact will come from how the media reports the issue. “The short-term effects of widespread negative media coverage… should not be underestimated,” the report concluded.

Given the problems involved in creating an ingredient list for wine, label legislation might be a long time coming. But the issue is already roiling the wine media — the wine industry needs to think about how it will react when it finally breaks through to the mainstream media.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available online or in print by subscription.

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