What they’re drinking in Paris

Parisians not only consume the most wine per head, they also set global trends. Sophie Kevany checks what they’re drinking.

Le Dokhan's, in the 16th arrondissement
Le Dokhan's, in the 16th arrondissement

Parisians and their insouciant wine drinking habits are a thing of myths, dreams and movie scenes. But their habits might be more than simply enviable. Studies indicate Parisians drink more wine than any other city dwellers in the world. That means their microcosm could serve as a crystal ball for global trends. All the more so in Covid-19 lockdown times. 

High consumption, two trends

Two recent studies, the first by OpinionWay, published in 2018, and the second by INSEEC Wine and Spirits Institute, published in 2016, indicate that by frequency and volume, Parisians are wine champions.  

According to OpinionWay, 59% of Parisians drink wine at least once a week, well above the French average of 54%. In volume terms, the INSEEC study found Parisians drank 5.23m hl in 2015, well ahead of Buenos Aires, London, and New York. 

Using the study, and Parisians themselves, as a springboard to the future, Meininger’s has found two standout trends. The first is ‘more human’ and the second is ‘more digital’ – and, yes, those can go together. Woven between the two trends is a range of ever-evolving wine fashions. 
Rosé piscine and frosé are good examples of the fluffier, but no less important, fashion aspect. For those not in the know, a rosé piscine is rosé in a large glass with lots of ice. And a frosé has even more ice. Crushed if possible.  

“I noticed a lot of people drinking rosé piscine last summer,” said Harry Knowlman, CEO and founder of Firsty. A member’s only app, Firsty offers to select the best Paris bars for users and provides a free drink in each one for a small monthly fee. 

Post March 17th there’s no knowing when anyone in France might see the inside of a bar again. Online rosé wine orders remain healthy, however, said Martin Ohannessian, co-founder and president of online merchant, Le Petit Ballon. 

“There’s more demand in general for whites and rosé,” said Ohannessian. Launched in 2011 the Paris headquartered company, which has two real life wine boutiques in the city as well as its online business, saw sales turnover hit a healthy €18m ($19.75m) last year. 

The sales figure for 2020 might be even higher thanks to a recent bump in online orders. “Yesterday [March 25th] our online wine sales revenue was €100,000. That’s the most in one day ever,” said Ohannessian.

Ohannessian predicts rosé and white sales will continue to grow. But, he said, the more important trend in all wine categories is the story. “The story behind the wine. The person, their engagement with the environment, with their terroir.” That desire for the story, he believes, is driven by what he calls consum-actors. In short, consumers who choose products based on their wider impact, for example on planetary and personal health.

“They want to know where their fruit and vegetables come from and how they were grown. It’s the same for their wine. So that is a big trend, the link back to the agricultural roots of a product.” And that connection is starting to go both ways, Ohannessian added. “For example, French farmers are now saying ‘Come and help us when you get out. For the harvest or any time. Come and see us.’”

Artisanal is in

Quentin Thireau, founder of bar guide app, Barnaby, which covers Paris and several other cities in France and Europe, has a similar take. But for him, wine drinker engagement and the human stories that go with that, can be summed up in one word: craft. 

“Craft beer. Craft wine. Craft cocktails. In the last six or seven years there have been more and more wine bars and boutiques opening up [in Paris]. And they are now providing the ‘craft’ wines,” Thireau said. 

As part of that search for craft, people are looking “more for provenance and traceability” he said, sometimes prioritising that over the standardised reliability that mainstream winemakers tend to offer. Putting Bordeaux and a pretty château on the bottle is no longer engaging for many, he said. “People are looking for the interesting bottle from the small producer.”

The best example of the engaged consumer’s search for the human and planetary story behind the bottle is probably found in the rise of natural wine. 

“The natural wine movement started about 10 years ago, within a smaller group of very food- and drink-centric people,” said Paris-based journalist and cocktail expert, Forest Collins. As well as her Paris cocktail guide website, 52martinis.com, Collins presents a radio programme called Paris Cocktail Talk. 

Collins, who has been working in Paris for the last 15 years, said (pre-lockdown) these days “it feels like you can’t open a new bar or restaurant without having a wholly or predominantly natural wine list. Even the cocktail places that used to refuse to serve wine are now starting to serve natural wines.”

In that corner of the Paris market a rosé piscine order might well be accompanied by one for a Pet Nat. For non-Parisians that translates as a ‘pétillant naturel’, or a sparkling natural wine.   

As well as being very fashionable, Pet Nat is much more affordable than traditional Champagnes. They are in the €5 ($5.48) to €15 range, said Collins, and they come in smaller more artisanal batches, an aspect that helps drinkers feel closer to growers. 

Another facet of the engaged consumer trend is a taste for evermore niche knowledge. An example? The Paris-based, Canadian-born Cynthia Coutu, an expert in Champagne made by women. Because her business, Delectabulles, was built around taking women-only clients to visit women-only Champagne producers, and teaching face-to-face women-only Champagne classes, the coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact from the start. 

“When Paris locked-down I spent the evening reimbursing clients and crying myself to sleep. My sister, who works for Oracle, was suggesting webinars and I was thinking of all the challenges of getting the same Champagne to everyone [for the tasting],” said Coutu. “I didn’t think it was going to work. My daughter overhead all this. She went into the kitchen and made strawberries with chocolate sauce and a card that said, ‘I love you and I believe in you.’ That really gave me back my energy.”

The result was Coutu realising there was no need for everyone to have the same food and wine. “So each person has their wine, or even water, and their food, and I give the class. The first one was about pairing Champagne and food. The next is the history of Champagne.”
Asked about her Paris trends, when she was still out and about, Coutu said she was seeing better by-the-glass selections, as well as better glasses. “People don’t want to drink a whole bottle. They want to try new things. People have much higher expectations too in terms of glassware.”

Drinking online

The second major trend, again noted by all and clearly boosted by the current shut down, is digital. Ordering wine online, taking classes online, drinking together online. And, most of all, paying online. As it happens, the Barnaby guide app run by Thireau has a second string to its bow: digital payments and loyalty programmes. Asked about wine payment trends, Thireau says wine bars are mostly behind the curve compared to standard bars. His guess is that Paris wine bars could be among the last to accept online payments. 

That’s partly cultural and partly because in Paris contactless payments – using credit or debit cards – are already so common. Where there might be an opportunity though, is in the €10 or less payment category, he said. Say for a glass of affordable Pet Nat. “Many bars refuse to accept credit cards below €10. This is unacceptable and, in many cases, illegal,” Thireau said. By contrast, his mobile payment system, which can be used as part of the Barnaby app, works from €1 up.

Looking ahead, and depending somewhat on how long the lockdown lasts, Thireau is considering another new service that would allow wine and other bars to easily digitise menus for takeaway orders. “A digital menu-order-payment solution is already being tested in one bar and we plan to equip seven others in the next two months,” Thireau said. 

For another Paris-based online wine retailer, the lockdown led to a different development. LesGrappes.com specialises in direct grower to consumer wine sales. Last year, about ten growers joined the traditional ‘wine fair’ discount period in March. This year, wine fair sales leapt by about 40%, said marketing manager, Anatole Paty, and the number of growers interested in offering discounts doubled. Because the surge only happened after the lockdown, in the midst of the wine fair, new grower offers were added on the fly.  

“That worked really well. It brought a liveliness to the site. Normally people order their wines and then ignore the rest of our emails. This time we reconnected with them each time we added new winemakers. That’s something we will think about continuing.”

Another trend to look out for, said Le Petit Ballon’s Ohannessian, is connecting to favourite winemakers digitally. To that end, he is creating a website space where buyers can talk directly to growers. It’s due to launch in September. “So for example we have one winemaker that also runs a music festival. He wants the people who drink his wine to come to the festival. He’s inviting them.” 

For those who like the idea, don’t hesitate to plan an infinitesimal bit of the future by making a September date to log on and book in. Even if the concert turns out to be online. 

Sophie Kevany

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available online or in print by subscription.

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