FIRST our houses plummeted in value, then our pensions shrank, then we were told we would have to forego our child benefit. Now, the squeezed middle is being dealt another blow, a predicted global shortage of the one thing that can be relied on to keep gloom over the economic crisis at bay.
It’s a terrifying thought to those of us who live for the moment we can lift a cool crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a mellow Chianti to our lips, but the combination of poor harvests and increased international demand, means Wine O’Clock, an article of faith for the Mumsnet generation, is now under threat.
Last week, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine warned the world was facing a 1.3 billion bottle deficit next year, with global production at its lowest level since 1975 and France and Argentina particularly badly hit. As this is the second successive poor harvest, reserves set aside for difficult years have already been raided, raising fears some vintners may be unable to meet their customers’ demands.
Just a few years ago, some wine-producing areas of France – including Languedoc-Roussillon – had accrued such vast wine lakes they were forced to turn some of it into industrial alcohol. But now the region, like everywhere else in the country, is staring into a wine abyss. “It’s historic,” Bertrand Girard, chief executive officer of Groupe Val d’Orbieu, a co-operative of 2,500 Languedoc-Roussillon vintners. “We’re short of wine. We’ve not seen that in three or four decades.”
According to Girard there’s already a scarcity of budget wines – those which retail for just under £5, account for 80 per cent of consumption and are best drunk on a Saturday night to take the edge of having to watch The X-Factor. Burgundy is also in short supply after cold, wet weather followed by a hot, dry summer which cost growers up to 70 per cent of their usual grape harvest.
The news is upsetting for suburban households, where wine is as much a fixture of the weekly shop as eggs or Weetabix. Already hit by the crackdown on supermarket promotions – the once ubiquitous three bottles for a tenner offers are a thing of the past – will they be forced to choose between olives or Orvieto, between hummus or Hock if prices soar?
Will shelves be stripped bare as thirsty fathers stockpile (sorry “lay down a cellar”) of their favourite tipple? Will incidents of supermarket rage spike as desperate mothers cat-fight over the last bottle of discounted Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay? The good news is – huge sigh of relief – consumers are unlikely to see any price rise before Christmas. The bad news is that the shortages will start to have an impact next year at roughly the same time as the duty escalator goes on, dealing a double blow to hard-pressed consumers as well as high street off-licences, who are already under pressure from online retailers.
Wine-drinking has risen steadily since the early 70s when turning up at a dinner party with a bottle of Blue Nun or Mateus Rose was the height of sophistication, but started dropping off slightly in 2009 as the economic downturn took its toll. “Over the last 20 years the idea of having a glass of wine with your meal has become much more prevalent, it’s no longer something you do only in restaurants,” says food and drink writer Jonathan Trew. “Because supermarkets are offering so much wine under £5, it’s much more accessible and people are becoming more educated. But if the price rises above £7 a bottle then I think that might be a stretch for some people. I don’t know about shelves stripped bare – that’s a sobering thought. But they might start buying two rather than three bottles with their weekly shop.”
While a shortage is unlikely to send middle-class wine buffs off to try Tennent’s Lager, it could signal a more subtle change in drinking trends. Tim Simmons, senior analyst at the International Wine and Spirit Research, says one possibility is that we will see an influx of wine from countries which have been less affected by the adverse weather conditions, such as South Africa, Chile and California. “Producer countries that don’t have huge figures at the moment could start selling more because they can afford to sell it round about the price people are paying just now,” Simmons says.
“In the UK, we import wine from all over the world – we are not reliant on wine coming from any particular country,” adds Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. “UK businesses are used to shopping around, so there’s a good chance we will ride out the problem, albeit with a small price rise on the average bottle.”
Another possibility is that drinkers will look for alternative beverages with which to celebrate the end of the working day. Simmons says cider – which is being rebranded as upmarket by companies such as Stella Artois and being sold flavoured with blackberries or raspberries to appeal to a younger market – could provide the most obvious substitute. Meanwhile Trew, who writes a blog on the 5pm.co.uk website, believes the resurgence in craft beers might also be accelerated. Tom Cannavan, the Glasgow-based editor of wine-pages.com, who is in the midst of organising a conference for 600 wine lovers in London, seems unperturbed by the IOVW’s dire predictions. “I’m not convinced this is a major problem,” he says in tones as reassuring as the sound of a cork being pulled out of a bottle. “This is one of the most competitive wine markets in the world – the prices we pay for wine are generally lower because the big supermarkets have such a dominance and a lot of them use wine as a kind of loss-leader to get people in the store. Also there’s probably still quite a lot of wine out there – the vintage before or the vintage before that – which has been kept in good condition and can be used to make up the shortfall.”
With most wine drunk within four hours of purchase, he jokes, there is little prospect of people stockpiling. Nor does he see them losing their taste for it. “Even if prices do rise, wine is one of those purchases that for a lot of people in times of austerity is still a relatively cheap way to get a wee bit of the feelgood factor.”
Well, thank heavens for that. Wine O’Clock may not stop the Bank of England making bleak pronouncements about the future or cut our fuel bills, but it does make the onslaught of bad financial news easier to bear. Fancy a top-up?