B.C. drinkers are buying less wine but paying more

Vancouver International Wine Festival may enhance preference for premium wines

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Vancouver International Wine Festival executive director Harry Hertscheg believes his festival helps attendees appreciate nuances between different wines | Rob Kruyt

British Columbians are buying less wine and paying more for it – a trend that the upcoming Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF) may reinforce.

This year’s festival runs April 22 through 30, and is set to include 147 wineries from 17 countries that are bringing 1,135 wines to 36 events. 

The festival has long encouraged drinkers to appreciate fine wine, and many wines poured at its events have retail prices higher than $100 per bottle.

What might further fuel B.C. sales of premium wines is the fact that participating wineries at the festival often bring specialty wines, not normally for sale in the province, to pour and sell at the on-site liquor store. That encourages a buy-now mentality because the wines are not normally available.

South America is the festival’s theme region this year, so there will be more wineries than usual from counties such as Argentina and Chile. Brazil will be represented for the first time in the festival’s 44-year history, as its Miolo winery is expected to attend. Two Uruguayan wineries are also slated to be at this year’s festival. 

While South America is known for wines that are lower priced than comparable wines from Europe, VIWF executive director Harry Hertscheg told BIV that festival attendees are likely to notice that premium South American wines have nuances that cheaper wines from the same grape varieties lack.

That may also encourage sales of premium wines, he added.

“I’ve always found with Malbec, when you pay a little more, you get more,” Hertscheg said, referring to the grape variety that is most associated with Argentina.

He said he hopes his festival will help attendees recognize nuances in fine Malbec wine and be inspired to buy it. 

Wine volume sold in B.C. has declined since 2021

The trend of British Columbians buying less wine began in 2021, when sales in the province for all wine fell more than 3.9 per cent to more than 77.9 million litres, according to British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) liquor market reports. In 2022, that amount fell another 4.9 per cent, to around 74.1 million litres.

The BCLDB said in a statement to BIV that the drop in sales volume likely stemmed from “product availability, higher supplier costs, increase in price per litre [and] shifts in container type and format.”

Whether it is due to inflation, or more demand for premium products, British Columbians are spending more for wine. 

Buyers in B.C. spent 2.2 per cent more on wine in 2021 than they did in 2020: More than $1.174 billion at the wholesale level, according to BCLDB liquor market reports. They then spent about 1.1 per cent more on wine in 2022, or around $1.187 billion wholesale.

Wine sales account for about one third of BCLDB revenue.

The BCLDB does not publicly release data for wine sales by price category, but Marquis Wine Cellars’ owner John Clerides told BIV that a contact of his within the BCLDB recently gave him data that broke out sales for different wine price categories on a rolling three-month basis up until February. 

The only price category that saw sales growth was wines with wholesale prices between $100 and $200. Those wines saw a 13-per-cent sales increase in the three months ended February, compared with the previous three-month period, according to Clerides’ data. 

In contrast, sales of wines with wholesale prices under $10 fell 24 per cent during the same period.

Wines with wholesale prices between $12.50 and $14.99 saw a sales drop of 9.9 per cent, while wines with wholesale prices between $15 and $17.49 saw a 15-per-cent sales decline.

Clerides said he has noticed the trend toward purchases of premium products at his own Davie Street store.

Argentina and Chile to have outsized presence at wine festival

With 23 Argentinian and 18 Chilean wineries attending the festival, both countries will have a significantly greater presence than they did last year, when only one winery from each country attended VIWF. 

That larger presence could lead to increased South American wine sales at B.C. liquor stores and private wine shops in the months ahead. Wines from other countries that hosted the festival in the past decade have seen short-term sales bumps, according to BCLDB statistics.

In 2022, the volume of Chilean and Argentinian wine sold in B.C. fell by a larger margin than the 4.9-per-cent overall decline in the volume of wine sold. Chilean wine sales volume fell by 5.5 per cent, while Argentinian sales volume fell by 8.7 per cent, according to the BCLDB.

Supply-chain glitches with South American wineries are common and may have played a role in the larger-than-average sales declines, Clerides suggested. 

Chile in 2022 was expected to produce more wine than Argentina, (12.4 million hectolitres versus 11.4 million hectolitres) after producing less wine than Argentina each year until 2021, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine

Chilean wine is British Columbians’ preferred South American wine.

B.C. shoppers bought more than 3.8 million litres of Chilean wine last year, or 85 per cent more than the nearly 2.1 million litres of Argentinian wine sold.

Hertscheg, who has visited both countries, said the two neighbours have starkly different geographies that impact winemakers.

“Imagine that the Rocky Mountains of Canada are 100 miles from the coast, so around Hope,” Hertscheg said. “The Andes are twice as high as the Canadian Rockies and that’s how far inland they are in Chile.”

The result of Chile’s mountains, and micro-climates, is that Chile has more sub-regional wine-growing variations than Argentina, he explained. That enables Chile to grow a much wider range of grapes and have more wine styles than Argentina, he added. 

“Argentina feels like you’re in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but rather than wheat fields and ranches, there are vineyards.”

British Columbians tend to buy more red wine than white wine and that preference is emphatic when it comes to Chile and Argentina. 

Approximately 91.6 per cent of Argentinian wine sold in B.C. last year was red wine, while about 6.6 per cent was white wine and one per cent was rosé or sparkling wine.

Chile’s wine sales mix was more diverse, though also dominated by red wine: About 62.7 per cent red, 31.9 per cent white and 5.4 per cent other wines. 

The bias of consumers overwhelmingly wanting red wines from Argentina and Chile means that those countries’ wine sales have more seasonal disparity than do wine sales for B.C. wine, for example. 

Consumers tend to increase white wine purchases in the summer and increase red wine purchases in the winter, according to BCLDB statistics. •

gkorstrom@biv.com

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