After 30 years of steady growth, Poland’s wine market continues to perform. Although the country’s per capita consumption is still EU’s lowest, at approximately 6 litres per year – notably due to a strong beer market – the sheer size of the population, 38m, means Poland now consumes more wine than Sweden or Denmark. A recent study by the University of Geisenheim, done on behalf of ProWein, showed Poland as one of the world’s most promising wine markets, alongside China and Russia, with categories such as Prosecco growing by more than 50% per year.
The structure of Poland’s market is similar to that of other Northern European countries: discounters and supermarkets control more than 80% of retail sales. However, since 2017 premium wines and independent merchants have bounced back, lifting the average price to almost $4.40 a bottle, fuelling a renewed interest in white, rosé, sparkling, New World and niche European wines. The on-trade is also growing dynamically as the buying power of the population grows and the food scene diversifies. This makes buyers particularly relevant as players in all distribution channels. Lower- and middle-tier wines, especially in key categories such as Rioja Crianza and Prosecco, are often still purchased purely on price but, increasingly, buyers look to brands of higher quality and shape their own distinctive wine ranges, a must in Poland’s extremely competitive market, which has more than 700 importers.
The top two
Biedronka, a chain of 3,000 discount stores owned by Portugal’s Jerónimo Martins, is Poland’s largest retailer, with an estimated 30% market share for wine ($199.7m). Since it started listing wine in 2009, Biedronka has been responsible for an explosion of Poland’s wine consumption, especially in rural areas. Its success has come by focusing on a narrow range of carefully selected varietal and appellation wines at very competitive price points, often as low as Z11.99–Z14.99 ($3–$3.86). Proactive marketing and a regularly rotating system of themed offers further sparked interest. Back then, buying focused on aggressively selecting the least expensive supplier for each category to consolidate Biedronka’s comfortable margins, offering room for further investments in the category. In the past two years, changes in the company’s senior management have triggered a new approach to wine. Buyer Marek Szach now focuses on a more stable offer centred on Portugal, Spain and France. While offering less excitement to the consumer, this has benefited suppliers, some of which, such as Alentejo’s João Portugal Ramos, now sell more than 100,000 cases a year.
The second-largest share of the Polish market belongs to Lidl. The German hard discounter has 1,000 shops throughout the country and positions its wine range at a higher level than Biedronka’s, with premium offerings including Bordeaux classed growths and Champagne. Its everyday wines are often priced at the same sweet spots of Z15-Z20 and it offers easy-going styles including semi-dry whites and reds, but the overall feeling is of a more explorative, premium range. Lidl branches in various wine-producing countries select extensive shortlists of local wines that are then made available to buyers from other countries. For example, Lidl Poland’s Hungarian range, on special promotion once or twice a year, shows exciting depth and expertise, having been selected by local consultants in Hungary. The buying team in Poland tailors this global offer to the needs of the Polish consumer. The team notably includes Agnieszka Zezula, a former buyer for Biedronka who is now responsible for expanding the company’s dynamic online wine shop.
Other outlets of scale
Until 2017 it seemed lower-end retail was doomed to be dominated by the Lidl/Biedronka oligopoly, but some traditional hyper- and supermarket chains have fought back. None more so than Auchan, Poland’s fifth-largest food retailer with more than 100 shops across the country. Buyer Nicolas Idkowiak has really shaken up the wine range here, working closely with local distributors at a time when most multiples focus on direct imports. This has allowed Idkowiak to list innovative wines from Greece, Croatia and Slovenia which he would not have been able to source directly. “The strongest price band is still between Z15 and Z30, but increasingly shoppers are willing to spend more on an interesting bottle,” Idkowiak says. He has rethought the approach to diversity, replacing the classic hypermarket ‘wine wall’ of endless iterations of the same categories with more regional breadth, notably within France, where Sud-Ouest, Beaujolais and Provence rosé now cohabit with classic Bordeaux and Alsace brands. Idkowiak faces his own struggles – including inertia from Auchan’s local managers who do not share his flair for innovation – but he has gradually made Auchan, which has an estimated turnover of more than $35.5m, the most interesting chain in which to shop for wine in Poland.
Makro Cash & Carry might not spring to mind as a leading wine distributor but it is relevant to the Polish market as a one-stop shop to purchase food, wines and spirits for a plethora of smaller restaurants and grocery stores across the country. Wine buyer Tomasz Fijał selects an eclectic range of wines from Polish distributors such as CEDC, Jantoń and Bartex as well as direct imports, including premium brands such as Pesquera and Zenato. “With over 1,200 SKUs, we may have the largest selection of wines in the country, which is definitely our USP for the on-trade,” says Fijał. He singles out Italy and Spain as the origins with the strongest following, and bag-in-box as a dynamic trend: Makro now offers more than 40 different brands.
With a $5.5m turnover, Winkolekcja is one of Poland’s key distributors, selling 95% to the on-trade. Initially specialising in traditional French wines, particularly Bordeaux, under the buying guidance of veteran expert Sławomir Chrzczonowicz, the company has gained momentum since enrolling senior executives from competitor Centrum Wina, including ex-CEO Piotr Kamecki, who now manages a semi-autonomous fine wine arm, Wine Taste. Kamecki has brought with him former Centrum Wina agencies such as Gaja, Vega Sicilia, and Musar, while the Polish market’s latent conservatism has toned down Chrzczonowicz’s romantic approach (he is known as a proponent of the wines of Corsica). “Although overperforming in retail, Portuguese wines are notoriously hard to sell to restaurants,” says Chrzczonowicz.” Primitivo, Bordeaux and varietal Chile remain bestsellers, although we are seeing growing demand in new categories such Polish wines and premium California. We now list Ridge and Paul Lato and they are very popular, despite high prices.”
Both on- and off-trade
The on-trade is also a strong focus for the Ferment Group, uniting five top restaurants in Warsaw, including Rozbrat 20 with its Michelin-star ambitions and the trendsetting Kieliszki wine bars. Wine buying is overseen by owner Beata Gawęda-Pawełek and former champion sommelier Paweł Demianiuk under the Vini e Affini brand, which also distributes to independent shops and restaurants and operates three retail shops. Initially an Italian specialist, the company now also imports from France, Spain and Germany as well as Croatia and Hungary. With its enviable portfolio of fine dining venues and an extremely profitable vertical integration of imports and sales, VeA can boast impressive results selling high-end wines such as Barolo from Vajra and Burlotto and natural wines from Bressan and La Castellada. “Orange wine is definitely a big thing with us: people love them when they first taste them and we strongly believe in the category. On the other hand, traditional Bordeaux is dead,” says Demianiuk.
Traditional distributors to the off- and on-trade, with a wide portfolio across all price points, have suffered from the pressure of discounters on one end and independent specialists on the other. Even so, the largest company of this type, Ambra Brands (formerly known as Centrum Wina), is in good health thanks to its own wine and spirits production, extensive list of private wine club clients and 25 specialist wine shops. The cash cows here are the entry-level El Sol multi-origin brand and Cin & Cin vermouth, but the fine wine range, under the guidance of buyer Monika Pawłowicz and team, includes Graham’s, Antinori, Drouhin and Masi. The company’s latest innovation is a wide range of premium spirits under the Distillers Limited brand, aiming at tapping the huge growth in demand for whisky, gin and rum.
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available online or in print by subscription.