Monday, February 27, 2023

Who drinks champagne, around the world?

Sparkling wine is often treated as the preferred drink for celebrations. There are many excellent types of Old World sparkling wine, from Prosecco (Italy) to Cava (Spain) to Sekt (Germany), to Crémant d’Alsace and Crémant de Loire (France *). There are just as many from the New World, notably from Australia, New Zealand and several parts of the United States of America. It is, however, often claimed that the epitome comes from the Champagne region of north-eastern France.

Whether we agree with this latter assessment of sparkling wine or not, it is worthwhile to have a look at which countries in the world do drink most of the wine exported from this region, as well as who prefers the expensive stuff.

However, we might first have a quick look at the World’s Largest Sparkling Wine Producers and Consumers for 2018, from the American Association of Wine Economists. This first pair of graphs shows the percentage share of world volume, for both producers and consumers.

As you can see, Italy is actually the biggest producer, followed by France; and between them they produce nearly half of the world supply of sparkling wine. Germany and Spain contribute another quarter between them. The New World lags very far behind.

In terms of consumption, the Old World and New World are a bit more balanced, although there is little evidence that the Spanish, for example, are big drinkers of sparkling beverages — the Russians have traditionally made up for this.

Sparkling wine production & consumption

Moving on, the Champagne data that I will use also come from the American Association of Wine Economists: the Top 12 Export Markets for French Champagne in 2021, which show shipment value in millions of euros. In the next graph below are the total data for the top 40 countries. Note that this refers to exports, so that France itself is not included in the list (it is the biggest consumer, keeping c. 45% of production).

It surprises no-one that the richest and/or most populous countries dominate the top of the list. Much champagne is, after all, not particularly cheap! As expected, the top of the list is dominated by European countries and their former colonies. The USA is, however, way out in front (50% bigger market than no. 2). It has been noted that it is only recently that the USA has out-consumed the UK, with a 62% increase in 2021 compared to 2020 (Massive sales surge sees US become biggest Champagne consumer after France).

Note that China is way above India, in spite of them having very similar population sizes. Perhaps India does not have a lot of global business successes to celebrate? Also, the United Arab Emirates is way ahead of the other Middle Eastern countries. On a personal note, Australia does also seem to be a long way up the list; in particular, it is surprising that it is ahead of Russia.

Total champagne exports

However, there are many populous countries that are not at the top of the Champagne list, and therefore it is also valuable to look at the export markets per capita (ie. how much is bought per person). This calculation is what I have done in the next table, based on population data from Worldometer for 2020. Things now look completely different.

Note that a bunch of rather small countries now come to the top. This actually illustrates one of the potential limitations of the calculations, as small groups of people can now dominate. In particular, the purchase behavior observed may not represent the local people at all. Indeed, in this case it is very likely that much of the champagne in the top dozen countries of the list is actually being bought either by or for tourists, rather than the locals.

Moving past this, it is interesting to note that the United Kingdom remains near the top of the list but the USA drops way down, per capita — the British are far more interested in their champagnes than are the Americans. This reduced interest also applies to the Japanese, Germans and Spaniards, but less to the Italians, Dutch and Australians. The Belgians and Swiss remain near the top of the list; and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden) also retain their positions. Similarly, two of the Baltic states retain their positions (Latvia, Lithuania), but the other one moves far up the list (Estonia).

Per capita champagne exports.

In the meantime, it has been noted (Opening the doors to the Champagne region) that: “Champagne has never been great at welcoming visitors. Now, finally, things are changing.” So, an alternative to importing their wine now appears to be visiting, instead.

* My wife and I also recently had a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Monday, February 20, 2023

A Standard Drink is not what you think it is

In last week’s post (Health and the wine drinker, yet again), I noted that a human liver is often claimed to metabolize circa one “standard drink” per hour, on average. Indeed, this idea of a “standard drink” tends to be the most common way in which the medical profession discusses such topics, and therefore also the way that governments tend to legislate.

There is only one main problem with this approach — there are many, many different definitions of a “standard drink” around the world. That is, the amount of alcohol (technically: ethanol) contained in a “standard drink” varies between countries. This obviously confounds all discussions of wine and health.

So, let’s have a look at the idea of a Standard Drink, here. I concentrate on wine, of course, but it also applies to any other alcoholic beverage.

As I said, different countries define standard drinks differently (or their governments do) — this does not surprise you even slightly, does it? Moreover, a standard drink is often different from the normal serving size in the country in which the drink is served. This blatant contradiction helps exacerbate potential confusion. *

As an aid, I have compiled the following table from various online sources (eg. Standard drink; Standard drink measures in Europe), which (sadly) sometimes contradict each other. So, there is nothing definitive about this list, but it will give you a reasonable idea of the current global situation.

No. of
grams of
Countries using that definition for their Standard Drink
 8 Iceland, United Kingdom
10 Australia, Croatia, Estonia, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain
11 Germany
12 Denmark, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland
13.5 Canada
14 Hungary, United States
16 Czech Republic, Greece
20 Austria

Note the massive variation in the values that have been chosen, with the highest being 2.5 times the lowest. (Remember: lower values are more strict.) However, a recommended mass of 10—11 grams of alcohol covers most of the countries. You will also note that the United States of America is 40% higher than this— such leniency often seems to be the case; and I doubt that it is accidental, when it happens!

Based on these data, we can now consider the important practical consideration: how many standard drinks are there per normal bottle of wine? Obviously, this differs depending on the definition of a standard drink, as well as on the amount of alcohol in the bottle (%ABV). So, in the next table I have listed the number of drinks for a series of different %ABV, for both the common definition (10 g of alcohol per drink) and the US definition (14 g of alcohol per drink), as contained within a full 750 ml bottle of wine.

ABV (%)  No. drinks No. US drinks
 4.7 3.4
 9  5.3 3.8
10  5.9 4.2
10.5  6.2 4.4
11  6.5 4.6
11.5  6.8 4.9
12  7.1 5.1
12.5  7.4 5.3
13  7.7 5.5
13.5  8.0 5.7
14  8.3 5.9
14.5  8.6 6.1
15  8.9 6.3

As you can see, it varies quite a lot. You certainly can’t make too much in the way of generalizations — and you need to keep this in mind when you read an article published in a different country to your own. So, you need to read the label carefully, before you decide how many drinks there are, wherever you live — most labels should contain the information, by law.

There are also online calculators to help you, for example for the USA (Standard drink calculator) and for Australia (Drinks calculator).

This leads to the obvious question about how the government recommendations for safe alcohol consumption differ between countries. I am not going into details here; but the VinePair site has a very useful infographic, for quite a number of countries (Here’s how much alcohol your government says you can drink).

Such formal recommendations are based on various health considerations, of course. For example: What does alcohol do to the body? and How long does alcohol stay in your system? As examples for the USA:
  • For men, consuming four or fewer drinks in a single day, and less than 14 during a given week, is considered to be low–risk drinking (Standard drinks: how much alcohol is in your beverage?). This is equivalent to sharing a wine bottle per day, every second day.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more drinks per week for women, and 15 or more drinks per week for men. This is different to binge drinking, which the CDC defines as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion for men, or four or more drinks on one occasion for women.
Is this drinking situation becoming more serious in the modern world? The answer will be “yes”, if wines become more alcoholic, on average. In this regard, Liv–ex has indicated that Alcohol levels in wine are rising. and here’s the proof:
Our analysis is based on 13,120 ABV data points that have been verified by the Liv-ex warehouse team when handling bottles. As the data show, red wines from California, Piedmont and Tuscany saw a significant increase in alcohol levels from the 1990s to the 2000s, when they leveled off or began to pull back slightly.
No-one has said that legally drinking wine was meant to be easy!

* This is further confounded by drink–driving laws (ie. “driving under the influence”), which also differ greatly between countries (see Drunk driving law by country).

Monday, February 13, 2023

Health and the wine drinker, yet again

Okay, here we go again! I have noted before that Wine and health is never a simple topic. Indeed, I have discussed before Why we are never going to know whether wine is good for us, or not. This does not seem to stop the topic from rearing its ugly head repeatedly; and in recent weeks it has happened again.

Let’s face it — as we get older, then more and more of our health problems become obvious; and there are also usually inherited health problems that we have been dealing with all our lives. Alcohol is not usually related to any of this, in the sense that consuming alcohol is voluntary. Therefore, most alcohol–related health issues are chosen by us, not forced upon us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Drinking can definitely be a problem, for some people. But so can crossing a busy road be dangerous, or even sitting in a moving car, let alone inherited health issues. None of these activities has a minimum level below which there is no effect on the person concerned. The big question revolves around what the actual consequence is, and what effect this will have on our lives.

Our own evolution had something to do with alcohol, because our ancestors ate fruits in all stages of ripeness, including ones so over-ripe that the sugars were already being converted to ethanol. All we have really done is learn how to control this process (How we evolved from drunken monkeys to boozy humans). In that sense, alcohol is a social issue that may be communally acceptable or not (The history of alcohol’s social acceptance).

For the individual body, on the other hand, the issue is more complicated (What does alcohol do to the body?). Indeed, alcohol can have both short– and long–term impacts on health and well-being (Your body on alcohol: how it affects your heart, liver, weight and cancer risk). Short–term, the liver can usually metabolize one “standard drink” every hour, on average (Neurosurgeon reveals how long it really takes for alcohol to leave your system). At the other extreme, as far as the effect on our longevity is concerned, we have even had this recent report: World’s oldest known person, who enjoyed a glass of wine every day, dies at 118.

In the past, things were different, of course: No more than a litre of wine a day, recommends a 1950s French sobriety poster.

By way of making this personal, let me tell you a simple, but true, story.

When I turned 50 (15 years ago), the university that I worked for at the time offered its employees a free “getting older” health check–up. As part of this, a nurse checked my blood pressure. She looked a bit non-plussed, and then checked it again. She then became Nurse — “Come with me”, she said, and peremptorily walked out the door. She went to the doctor’s office, knocked and walked straight in, without waiting for a reply. She handed him the equipment, and basically said: “Here, you check this.”

So, he checked my blood pressure, and then said to me: “How did you get here, today?” I said: “I walked.” He said: “Don't walk home. I'm going to give you a prescription. Get someone to *drive* you to the pharmacy; and do not do anything until you have taken the pills.” I got the message.

As he was writing, he asked: “Does anyone else in your family have high blood pressure?” I replied: “Yes, all of them — my father, my mother, my sister, my brother.” He nodded, and said: “You will be taking these pills for the rest of your life.” That is, the condition is inherited, and there is nothing that can be done to alleviate that situation.

Now, he was only partly right. I am still taking blood–pressure pills, but not the particular ones he prescribed (there was a complication with a side effect). Incidentally, I am also now taking pills for Type–II Diabetes, which I also inherited from my father.

My point here should be obvious — I have bigger health problems than a tendency to drink “too much”, whatever that may mean. My wife and I usually share a bottle of wine once per week, and sometimes twice. Any possible health effect of this behavior is the least of my problems. *

Anyway, here are some of the articles that I mentioned, which have recently returned to the topic that even small amounts of alcohol can be bad for you:
To counter-balance these, there are alternative points of view, of course:

We do, also, sometimes get information from people who do have alcohol problems, even in the wine–blogging world. Consider these two heart–felt blog posts, which were the final ones from Fringe Wine, nearly a decade ago:
Clearly, the problems here went way beyond the possible effects of alcohol alone.

My summary:
There is a Risk–Benefit Analysis at work here. If having a glass of wine helps make your life enjoyable (indeed, worthwhile), then it is a good thing, even if you die a bit earlier because of it. If you are over 60, most industries aren't interested in you anymore, but the wine industry still loves you. Wine drinking is by and large an old person’s game!

* As an aside, the Swedish health–care system recently offered me a “65 year old” check-up for the possibility of an aortic hernia (for which there are usually no early warning signs, without the check–up). Early detection is always the key to the healthiest life you can have.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Pay to Play in the wine industry — not breaking news!

Everybody seems to “know” what Pay to Play means; unfortunately, not everyone agrees on its potential pros and cons. Therefore, governments have created legal definitions, and courts of law have had to interpret those laws in practice. For the rest of us, it seems to be trial-and-error, finding out what we can get away with and what we cannot. Let's have a look at this topic, as regards wine.

After all, this applies to the wine industry just as much as anywhere else. For example, producers, wholesalers and retailers can all get into trouble, when they try something on, and it then turns out that the customer does not agree on its acceptability. Let's start with the sellers.

The most common violations, by sellers in practice, seem to be ones that compromise the retailer’s independence. Such behavior might involve payment to an operator to increase sales of specific products, or to obtain preferential shelf or promotional space within a store (which might lead to greater sales). This also includes inducing a retailer to purchase certain products to the exclusion (in whole or in part) of other brands’ products; or requiring a retailer to buy a product that it doesn’t want in order to receive a particular product that it does want (politely referred to as a “tie in” sale).

This issue can involve individuals, companies, and even whole countries. The Australian wine industry, for example, has been dealing for some time with a Chinese accusation against them of Pay to Play (“if you want this wine then you must also buy that wine”), which resulted in punitive import tariffs being imposed nearly two years ago. This is a serious problem, because China was Australia’s largest wine market at the time (How Australian wine lost its major export market in less than 12 months), and Australia was one of China’s largest suppliers (Australian wine in China: Impact of China’s anti-dumping duties). The ice is only now just beginning to thaw, apparently (Inside Labor’s plan to rebuild Australia’s relationship with China).

At what might be the other extreme, there is the matter of payment associated with wine reviews, which I have looked at before (We all know that there is Pay-for-Play in wine reviews). * There have sometimes been suggestions that wine magazines can arrange things in the manner described in these examples (Wine media is broken: A case study):
  • a PR firm alleged that one of their clients —a popular Italian region— was told by a wine magazine that its wines would not be reviewed unless they made advertising buys.
  • a firm pays “about $25,000 a year” to a certain influential wine publication. This was not for advertising purposes ... instead, this fee was “to ensure that our clients’ wines are reviewed” and to make sure “poorly reviewed wines aren’t listed” in critics’ tasting reports.
Similarly, there are often suggestions about individual commentators (Is “pay to play” wrecking wine criticism?), who might use:
“pay to play journalism”, where wine, beer, and spirits writers take samples, free trips, free meals, and who knows what else — and then write exactly what will make the producer happy. Because they want to keep getting the free samples, free trips, free meals, and who knows what else.
Even subscription–based wine reviewing has long been a contentious issue in this regard (The war over wine); and social media is apparently another culprit (Buying influence in the wine world).

One response to this situation has been for independent critics to charge an explicit up–front fee for reviewing any given wine, notably in New Zealand (Update — winemaker criticises paid wine reviews). This has generated negative press from some wine–makers (Mahana Estates winemaker Michael Glover rejects ‘paid for’ reviews), although the media themselves seem to recognize the need to get paid a salary for their work (Winemaker criticises paid wine reviews ; Glover takes his gloves off). This issue has been discussed for at least a decade (Pay To Play wine reviews ... It’s all good).

Returning to suppliers and retailers, where I started this post, this seems to be where some of the biggest action occurs (Pay-to-Play scandal exposed): “We know shady dealings are going on in the wine and spirits distribution business. The question is, how widespread are they?” The discussion, in this particular example, involved Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the largest alcohol distributor in the United States, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which has an alcohol retail monopoly in the sixth most populous U.S. state. The list of reported SG gifts to the PLCB is quite long (see also: Digging deeper in Pay-for-Play scandal).

This sort of thing is not limited to shops, of course. Restaurants also sell wine, and so gifts can change hands there, as well. A recently cited discussion is from South Africa (The great South African pay-for-play wine list rip-off):
A listing fee is an amount of money the restaurant deems fit to charge a winery for the winery’s privilege of seeing one or more of its offerings appearing on that specific restaurant’s wine list ... The occurrence of listing fees is growing in abundance as this becomes assumed standard practice among many trading as restaurants in the hospitality industry.
There is also an older cited example from the USA (Bribes, backdoor deals, and pay to play: How bad rosé took over).

I noted in a recent post (If you are American, then the TTB might be after you) that in the USA it is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) whose Trade Practice Program is responsible for addressing these issues. Apparently, the list of illegal financial offenses that have been committed by alcohol suppliers and wholesalers is a long one. Some advice has been offered as to what suppliers can do to rectify this (How to avoid pay-to-play violations).

Of course, not everything is illegal in the world of providing things to U.S. retailers:
There are some exceptions. These permit a brand to offer point-of-sale advertising material; consumer and retailer advertising specials; product displays; combination packages; consumer tastings and samplings; coupons and sweepstakes or contests; educational seminars; and stocking, rotation, and pricing of the brand’s own products. Brands that operate legally will work within these exceptions.
Sticking to the rules is presumably the best way to move forward, commercially. However, stepping your way carefully through the financial–incentive minefield is also required. In the commercial world, the buck is the primary goal, but you need to take your eyes off it occasionally (When just focusing on the money works — and when it doesn’t).

* This particular sub-topic has recently been extensively covered in: Buying influence in the wine world. There is also extensive coverage in: Why no fame for the wines of Spain?