Monday, 1 January 2018

The USA imports more expensive wines than anywhere else

Best wishes to everyone for the new year.

This is a season when many people take a drink or two, irrespective of whether they do so at other times of the year. However, many countries make either no wine or very little wine, in which case they need to import whatever wine their people require. Other countries make only certain types of wine (often for climatic reasons), and they need to import the remainder. Alternatively, some very populous countries currently have almost no requirements at all for wine, either home-grown or imported, at least relative to their population size, including India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

However, there is also one wine-producing country that nevertheless still imports a lot of wine: the United States of America. The data that illustrate this come from Comtrade, the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database, as reported on a couple of American Association of Wine Economists' Facebook pages (here and here).

The data are shown in the first graph below, where each point represents one of the 20 countries that imported the greatest volumes of wine during 2016. The horizontal axis is the volume imported (in thousands of tons) and the vertical axis is the average price per liter in US dollars. I have labeled the four countries that imported the greatest volume, as well as the four that paid the highest average price. As you can see, only the USA is in both of these top-four groups.

The 20 largest wine-importing countries by volume

The UK and Germany import lots of wine, because they have large populations but make only certain types of wine themselves. In both cases, they specialize in producing white wine, as it is hard to make high-quality red wine in their marginal grape-growing climates. So, they import wines across a wide range of prices, which means that the average price is in the middle. Germany, in particular, does not need to import expensive white wine, as they have plenty of their own. However, they are the world's biggest importers of bulk wine, principally from Italy, Spain, France and South Africa (see Top bulk wine routes in 2000 and 2015).

Japan, Sweden and Switzerland make very little wine at all, although all three do have commercial wine producers. So, they import almost all of their requirements, from the cheapest to the most expensive, The graph suggests that they focus on higher-priced wines, rather than on the cheapest stuff.

The presence of France as a big importer of cheap wines often seems odd, because the French have plenty of inexpensive wine of their own. It has been pointed out that "tanker trucks [might] explain how France 'produces' much more wine than Spain despite having a lot less vineyard acreage" (Is some French wine really from Spain?). Behind only Germany, France is actually one of the world's biggest importers of bulk wine — it used to import most of its bulk wine from Italy (and before that from Algeria), but it now relies predominantly on Spain (Top bulk wine routes in 2000 and 2015).

However, in most other cases the wine volume imported presumably depends on the population size of the country, rather than the number of tanker trucks — countries with more people are likely to have a greater requirement for wine. After all, the USA is the world's third most populous country (after China and India), and even a small amount of wine per person would add up to a lot of wine. So, we should also look at the wine volume imported per person.

The 2017 population data can be taken from the WorldoMeters web page. The next graph shows the same data as above, but now the horizontal axis is the volume imported in liters per 1000 people (ie. total volume divided by population size). The pink dashed lines simply divide the horizontal and vertical axes into three sections, thus creating nine segments, to aid discussion.

The 20 largest wine-importing countries by volume / person

Note that two of the nine squares are empty — none of the big importers focus solely on the cheapest wines (the bottom-right corner), nor does anyone in this group import middle quantities of average wine price.

With this re-calculation, the UK remains as a big importer of wines across all price ranges, but it is now joined by Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands. Like the UK, the latter three countries also produce only small amounts of wine, and so they must important almost all of their requirements for all wine types.

Sweden moves up into a middle position as a wine importer of expensive wines, while Switzerland moves well ahead into first place. Presumably, the Swiss simply consume more wine per person than do the Swedes. We may need to also compare their beer and spirits consumptions, to get the full picture here. Canada joins Sweden in the middle position, as they make only a limited range of wines.

Japan remains as a small importer of expensive wines, and is now joined by the USA, moving well down the list. Presumably, the USA needs to import foreign wine only at the expensive end of the market— there is no real need to import the cheap stuff, as the market for inexpensive and middle-priced wines can easily be met by the local produce.

It is, perhaps, interesting to note that this basic idea (supply the cheap stuff locally and import the expensive stuff) cannot be assumed for all alcohol products. For example, the USA is the world's biggest market for Cognac brandy, by volume. However, the key driver in this market is VS Cognac, the cheapest sort, where sales are reported to be dominated by African-Americans. The biggest market for Cognac by value, based on a preference for the luxury products, is China (see Global Cognac sales set to continue growth trend).

Returning to our graph, Germany drops down the list as an importer of cheap wine, and is joined by Czechia (see Czechia has won the Czech Republic name debate) and Portugal. The Czechs are reported to drink more beer per capita than any other country (see Wikipedia), and so maybe they are not great drinkers of wine of the expensive type.

The position of Portugal is more problematic, because they produce a lot of inexpensive but very good wine of their own. Indeed, Portugese wine is among the best value-for-money in the world. So, why do they need to import any cheap wine, at all? Answering this question is not easy, because almost all discussions of Portugal and wine are about its exports, not imports (eg. the Wine by Numbers data collection).

Finally, China is the fastest growing market. It is currently ranked 6th for price, but is the 5th biggest importer by volume, although that shrinks dramatically when recalculated per person. Until recently, French wine was the most popular product, but Australia is now the front runner by value (Australian wine imports make further gains in China). Indeed, China is now Australia’s highest value export wine market. The distinction between value and volume is important here — until surpassed by China, the USA was Australia’s highest value export wine market, while the UK remains the biggest volume market for Australian wine, Yellow Tail not withstanding (China now Australia’s great wine hope). The British import plenty of bulk cheap Australian wine (Top bulk wine routes in 2000 and 2015), and bottle it themselves, while the USA and China are more interested in the top (already bottled) end of the market.

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