Just under 125 years ago, the French author Henri Murger wrote – in 'Scènes de la vie de bohème', the novel that would inspire the opera, 'la Bohème': “The first duty of wine is to be red. Don't talk to me of your white wines.”
The latest OIV report suggests that today’s wine industry is taking an increasingly different view. Red wine lost a lot of ground in the 20th century and, between 2000-2004, on average, it made up 47.6% - just under half - of the global total. In 2013, nine years after the end of this period, white overtook red and has held its lead ever since. By 2017-2021, red’s share had fallen even further to 42.6%, compared to 49.3% for white. Similarly, rosé – once thought of as a ‘summer drink’ now represents the equivalent of nearly one bottle in every 9-litre case.
These global statistics hide a number of regional variations; in some markets with declining consumption, red wine sales have simply fallen faster than those of other styles. In others, red volumes may have risen – but more slowly. In Russia, for example, red wines are now twice as popular as they were 20 years ago and they still outsell white, but the gap between the two colours has tightened significantly.
Nowhere has the disaffection with red wine been stronger than in France, the world’s third largest wine market, where its consumption almost halved – from 17.8m hl to 9m hl - over the first two decades of this century. Sales of white and rosé also fell, but by a much smaller percentage: 20% and 10% respectively. Now, M. Murger would be distressed to learn, fewer than two bottles in every five drunk in his country are full of red wine. Even more shockingly, a third are pink.
UK turns pink
At first glance, the picture in the UK does not seem to have changed very much over the last 14 years, but when one considers the overall period from 2000-2021, red wine’s share has slumped from 48% to 40%. Almost all of that loss is accounted for by a growth in rosé sales that now represent 12% of the total.
There are many ways to look at these statistics and the trends they reveal, but one that will be unpalatable to traditionalists is what might inelegantly be called the ‘beverization’ of wine: the conversion of what many still see as a product closely associated with terroir, vintages and food matching into a beverage like any other. This is especially true of rosé. How many of the shoppers in French supermarkets where rosé is now the most popular style, give much thought to where it was produced or the grapes that were used to do so.
If buyers do have a region in mind for that wine, it is likely to be Provence, but this iconic corner of France only produces 38% of its rosé. Far more comes from Languedoc-Roussillon.
Part of the success of white wine in recent years is attributed to sparkling, and, here too, consumers often treat the contents of their glasses as a beverage. Like the buyers of Pinot Grigio under the successful 'I Heart' brand which sources the same style from a range of different countries.
Of course no line on a graph ever continues in a straight line indefinitely. It is quite possible that, for reasons that have yet to be revealed, red wine will make a comeback. On the other hand, it is also possible that the shift to white and pink will continue. Chile which has low domestic consumption rates for rosé leads the world in the speed at which it is increasing production. South Africa is following this trend too. Will they help to grow the sector? Chile is also avidly boosting its white wine offer, with nearly three times as much production in 2017-2021 as in 2000-2004.
There are three other dark horses in the rosé camp. In the 1990s, Navarra in Spain, Bardolino in Italy and Portugal (thanks to Mateus and its competitors) all had a reputation for their pink wine. Today while Portugal is still associated with rosé this is not true of those other European countries – despite Spain being just ahead of the US as the world’s second largest producer of the style. Today, as the OIV figures show, both parts of the Iberian peninsula are growing their pink wine production more slowly than France. Might this change? Might Australia, with its huge stocks of unsold red wine (partly as a consequence of Chinese tariffs), also decide to use those same vines to increase the amount of rosé produced from its current meagre share of 2%?
There is no crystal ball that can offer reliable predictions of the shape of the future wine industry or trade. All we have to go on are OIV figures and market snapshots. But it would be a brave man or woman who’d place a bet on red wine regaining the dominant role it enjoyed a century or so ago in the age of the Parisian Bohemians.