The national gastronomic culture is young, reflecting a hunter-fisher culture with roots in Lapland and Karelia in the northwest of Russia, and Prohibition from 1919 to 1932. The way Finns eat and drink owes much to Sweden, Germany and Russia.
The wine boom arrived in 1987 when the father of Finnish wine culture, Juha Berglund, opened a wine accessory shop called Decanter, created the first and still only wine magazine, Viinilehti, two years later, before purchasing Ch. Carsin in Bordeaux in 1990. This led to an initially slow but growing interest in wine and the people behind it. In the early 2000s, magazines were filled with stories of wines, sommeliers and wine & food pairing, and even a Friday morning TV wine spot by your correspondent.
From the turn of the century, a general trend towards health-consciousness has influenced the alcohol market.
Younger people consume less alcohol than the baby boomers and the overall consumption per capita has been decreasing sharply since 2004 - from 12 litres of alcohol per capita to close to 9 litres in 2020.
Wine has enjoyed a relatively stable share of around 7-8 litres of wine (averaging 12% of alcohol content) per adult while the decrease in spirit consumption has been more dramatic. Beer still holds pole position but has had a mild decrease in sales over the ten years.
The Buying Channels
Finland has an alcohol monopoly – Alko - but, unlike other monopoly-run countries, following recent – 2018 – legislation, all alcohol with a strength of 5.5% or less can now be bought from independent retail stores. Previously the limit was 4,7%. Such a small change might appear unimportant, but it transformed the market. Practically 90% of beer & alco-seltzer sales moved from the monopoly to the independents. Now 64% of all sales come from retailers with only 13% from the monopoly.
The pandemic closure of almost all HoReCa inevitably affected sales. Travel retail also suffered the same fate with virtually zero passenger traffic. This helped both Alko and the independents in 2020-2021 as their sales grew. But from 2022 the situation has been returning towards 2019 figures. Currently HoReCa has a 13% market share, but it has far greater importance in the sale of more premium wines, the creation of trends, and the growth of Finnish wine culture.
Personal imports have always had a big role in our market, thanks to the proximity of Estonia and frequent ferry traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn, with millions of yearly trips. For many, the motive has been to save money by buying in countries with lower duty rates and this sector now represents 10% of all purchased alcohol. Inevitably, this has created a big hole in Finland’s tax revenues.
The Alko Monopoly
Alko consists of 364 shops and 2,454 employees. It is a state-owned private company like Sweden’s Systembolaget and Norway’s Vinmonopolet. All of these rely on tendering processes when decidi ng what to list.
However,Systembolaget and Alko seem to differ in how they see themselves. Alko can be compared to a state-owned supermarket chain focusing on sales, while Systembolaget is more of a pipeline between producers and consumers. Alko’s margins are around 35%, twice as high as Systembolaget’s. Sweden’s lower duty rates have an effect too. Commercially, Norway’s Vinmonopolet is closer to Systembolaget, but its alcohol tax policies are closer to Finland.
Alko has three different product listing categories: Regular, Ordering and Special Listings. It has 11,378 products. 4,943 (3,109 wines), in Regular 5,453 (3,711 wines) in Ordering and 890 (718 wines). in Special Listings. All the major brands and countries are represented and competition for tender listings is fierce.
A typical shop is placed close to, or inside a shopping centre. It has 1,500 to 2,000 products, 60% of which are wines. Close to 90% of all products are chosen from the Regular Selection.
Although the monopoly has a big Ordering Selection, these wines are not often seen in the shops. It is effectively an addition to Alko's web shop selection which as to be ordered and paid for in advance, and picked up within 5-7 days. Alko’s shops are forbidden by law from delivering directly to consumers.
Wine Sales in Alko Shops
Alko’s wine sales are split between red and white wines, followed by supported by sparkling wines and rosé. Champagne represents 8.2% of total sparkling wines sales and 1% of the total wine sales.
Finland’s alcohol tax on wine is second highest in EU, at €4.21 per litre and, unsurprisingly, it has an impact on wine sales. As in the UK but even more so, the lower the retail price, the higher the proportion that is represented by tax, and vice versa. In addition to the tax, there is a packaging tax of 0.51 per litre and a relatively high VAT rate of 24%.
This high rate of taxation which was increased in 2021, has reduced the sales of wines below 8€ especially reds. Wine previously selling for 8€ have slowly become 9-10€ wines. According to the statistics, the red wine market is mostly in the 8-15€ bracket, which reflects ex-cellar prices of €1.40€ to €5.00.
Regarding countries of origin, Chile takes top place, followed by Italy, Spain and Portugal. Chile has lost volumes recently, however, and pricier freight costs will increase this trend.
The range of white wines is wider, with more lower-price wine. As with reds, there is little volume at premium-super-premium levels . Once again, Chile is the leading country, followed by Germany, Italy and then South Africa.
Prosecco has been as successful in Finland as elsewhere. This has helped Italy overtake Spain to become the biggest player. Third comes France.
Rosé wines are a small but growing group. France is market leader, followed by Italy and Spain.
BIB vs Bottle
Alko is a relatively open to innovative packaging. They are interested in all new concepts and the monopoly’s shops have various packages from cans to pouches.
As in Sweden, BIBs challenge bottled wines and share the market 50/50. A typical BIB is an Apassimento styled red wine or a slightly sweet white wine.
Importers work with the monopoly offering products in response to tenders, but also in HoReCa, selling alcohol to licenced customers. They also sell ≤ 5.5% alcohols to retailers, either directly or via wholesalers.
The leading importer is the new Anora Group which was created out of the 2021 merger between the Finnish Altia and Norwegian Arcus ASA. Anora has both production and import companies. According to its own estimates, Amora has a 40-55% market share in Alko. Another conglomerate was created that year with the purchase by the brewer Hartwall of Quantum beverages.
Company M €
Anora & subsidiaries (then Altia) 342,4
Brown Forman 83,9
Cisa drinks 69,9
Quantum & subsidiaries 67,2
Pernod Ricard Finland 48,0
Interbrands & subsidiaries 36,0
Vinetum & subsidiaries 27,6
For wine producers producing wine retailing for above 15€ ( 5€ ex-cellar,) there are numerous smaller importers that also focus on HoReCa. These include Viinitie which employs two Masters of Wines (Heidi Mäkinen & Pasi Ketolainen), Vindirekt Finland, which has a long history of fine wine, Nordalco and Brukett with their Estonia based web shop Bottlescouts. Finally, there is a monopoly-focused but creatively dynamic importer called Domaine Wines.
Finland is currently an EU Pilot handling concerning e-commerce. Online selling of wines to Finland is legal, if the taxes are paid. This is despite the state officials having for a long time stated that it was ‘non legal’. This policy is now under scrutiny.
Juha Lihtonen (of FINE magazine) shared his views of the current status of wine journalism in Finland.
A good food and especially wine journalism in Finland has never been on a par with Sweden and it has relied heavily on few passionate wine connoisseurs for decades. These people have retired or retreated from the wine scene and no successors from passionate new generation have appeared which is unfortunate. This has led to a situation where ambitious food & wine journalism with relevant and inspiring content seems to shine with its absence in Finland.
The paradox is that the lack of wine personalities with a strong voice, makes for less interesting reading, and fewer readers. To please advertisers there is a growth in advertorial which also reduces interest in the publication. The risk is that the wine journalism will slowly shrink to the point at which it is a form of advertising.
However there’s been a new rise of investigative journalism in the Finnish media which hopefully will affect wine journalism.
For a long time, now, there’s been talk of bloggers taking over journalists’ jobs, but there has not actually been any sign of it happening. Nor are there any independent well-known, non-corporate wine bloggers. After contacting several importers to find a blogger with an impact, I got informed of none. Of platforms Tik Tok interests 18-25 yrs. old only via packaging, and Instagram is quite unused.
- FINE The Wine Magazine / Juha Lihtonen
- Helsingin Sanomat / Jouko Mykkänen
- Ilta Sanomat / Pekka Suorsa
- Kauppalehti Optio / MW Essi Avellan
- Maku / Ilkka Sirén
- Viinilehti / Iina Thieulon / Antti Rintahuumo
- Viisitähteä Media / Petri Pellinen