The wine industry is a stubborn beast. For centuries, synonymous with unattainable pricing and intentionally incomprehensible terminology, it's been anything but inclusive. But, where previously there was little middle ground between supermarket plonk and the cobwebbed investments of the wealthy, brands are now taking notice of younger, trend-conscious drinkers.
This comes at a time when studies suggest that our thirst for wine might be waning – global consumption was little changed in 2021 after dropping 3% to an 18-year low in 2020, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, a leading wine research body.
But there are a few bright sparks if you look beyond the subdued top-line figures. Organic wine is forecast to have its first billion-bottle year in 2023, with a 34% growth from the 729 million bottles we guzzled in 2018, according to analysis from wine research brand the IWSR. Park- and festival-ready canned wine is also continuing to have its moment in the sun, with sales increasing 67% between March 2020 and March 2021, according to BevAlc Insights, a beverage data resource.
Wine consumption might be plateauing overall but, either way, let's face it: the way we sip, slurp and swirl is finally changing.
Independent producers, new formats and the growing popularity of alcohol-free wines have all played a role in the rapid remodeling of an age-old industry – and a young generation of innovators seem to be spearheading the change.
Smaller, independent producers
In recent years, there's been a huge increase in the number of new, independent and organic wine producers. Recognizable for their fun motifs and laid-back approach to branding, wine businesses are communicating with their drinkers like never before, using social media to reach new and previously untouched audiences. The popularity of natural and orange wine (a type of white wine where the grape skin isn't removed) has spawned a new generation of online enthusiasts.
Before getting stuck in, though, it might be useful to consider what the industry means when it throws around the term ‘natural wine’. Part of a huge group of alternative wine types – organic, biodynamic, low-intervention and living, among others – natural wine refers to an absence of pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals during the farming process, with minimal or no sulfite intervention. Growing wine this way is more time-consuming and often leads to smaller yields of grapes than the usual process. The upside, however, is a lively and more expressive wine that's kinder to both the soil and generally more environmentally friendly to produce.
Breakthrough wine producers such as Nouveau Wine have seen huge growth in the past year, welcoming customers to sample ‘a new sip’. ‘Our mission is to introduce well-made, low-intervention wine to the world,’ says co-founder Thom Bradley. Founded in London in 2021 by Thom and his brother Charles, both in their early 30s, Nouveau Wine found its feet as an accessible figure in an often gatekept industry. ‘Younger, more discerning audiences are discovering wine through Instagram and TikTok,’ says Thom. ‘People like the idea of belonging to a movement.’
Far from the beige-trousered realm of traditional wine, Nouveau Wine is known for hosting raves and pop-up events across London, recently teaming up with pizza brand World Famous Gordos to throw a party at London cafe and event space Benk&Bo, where unlimited slices were washed down with glasses of Nouveau's newest wine, Growing Pains.
Nouveau offers a guiding hand for those graduating from craft beer into natural wine – a move happening with increasing frequency, the brand says. ‘Eventually, we'll get to the point where low-intervention wine becomes accessible to the mass market, in clubs, pubs and venues,’ says Thom. In the meantime, you'll find Nouveau ‘smashing down the walls of wine, one wine rave at a time’, he says.
Stefanie Renner, co-founder of Rennersistas winery in Austria, thinks that the new obsession with natural wine stems from ‘a desire to live closer to nature’. After leaving her parents' vineyard to study environmental engineering in Vienna, Stefanie – and her sister, Susanne, both in their 30s – longed for the countryside that they'd left behind. ‘We realized that we're not city kids,’ says Stefanie.
Founded in 1988, the Renner winery has long leaned towards organic farming. ‘Our parents stopped using yeast at the beginning of the nineties,’ says Stefanie. In 2012, Stefanie's parents made their first natural wine. In 2016, the farm became fully biodynamic after being taken over by Stefanie and her siblings, who now tend the vineyard's 13 hectares of land.
‘More and more young people tend to come visit, drink and purchase our wines,’ says Stefanie.
She hopes to create an environment where you ‘don't need a WSET’ (an often expensive and time-intensive wine qualification) to learn and talk about wine. Despite being an open door for anyone looking to learn more about organic wine, Rennersistas doesn't want to lose itself in the trendy connotations of natural wine. ‘We care about farming in a sustainable, honest way – we want this to be appreciated,’ says Stefanie.
If you're buying wine, the chances are it'll be in a 750ml glass bottle. Although familiar, the container isn't without its impracticalities, often leaving people with an intimidating amount of wine to drink. Forward-thinking brands are now seeking innovative solutions to rebrand and repackage your favorite wine. Boxed wine might still be associated with cheap and low-quality options, but trendier alternatives are beginning to cause a splash in the mass market.
Take canned wine, which is making the transition from a product that you have to ‘convince people of buying, to being actively looked for’, says Oliver Purnell, co-founder of The Copper Crew. Founded in 2021 in Cambridge, UK, by Oliver, Theo Gough and Sam Lambson, The Copper Crew champions canned wine as a convenient, sustainable option. By packaging wine in recyclable cans, The Copper Crew hopes to reduce its environmental impact.
‘When people open a bottle of wine at home, they'll often end up finishing it just because it's there, or they worry about it going off,’ says Oliver. By tapping into customer psychology and drinking habits, The Copper Crew has created a product centered around ease and convenience. ‘Our 250ml cans are the same size as a large glass of wine in the pub,’ says Oliver.
NICE, a UK-based, independent wine company founded in 2019 by Jeremy May and Lucy Wright, believes that canned wine presents an opportunity to introduce wine to younger people who would otherwise be intimidated. ‘There are over 5,000 different wine products in supermarkets alone in the UK – the amount of choice is just completely overwhelming,’ says Jeremy. Using ‘simple to understand’ packaging, NICE hopes to reach previously unrepresented audiences in the drinks market.
Jeremy predicts that disruption in the industry will continue, both in packaging innovation and the wine itself. ‘The 75cl glass bottle is still an amazing format for so many occasions – it's just not the only option any more,’ says Jeremy.
The no- and low-alcohol wine market is also catching up. Founded by Millie Gooch and later joined by Talia Wolfe, Sippers is aimed at mindful drinkers. ‘Wine drinkers seem to be the most discerning when it comes to no and low drinking,’ says Talia, which could explain wine's slow rise in popularity in the alcohol-free market. ‘Alternatives are often the first tool people utilize when they're trying to give up alcohol,’ says Talia, who emphasizes that the key to gaining approval with the wine crowd is to offer drinks that don't taste like juice or are too sugary.
Profile: Leisure, London
To many people outside of London, Old Kent Road is just a fixture on the Monopoly board game. Those more familiar with the historic Roman trackway will be tapped into the wealth of Colombian, Nigerian and Lebanese diaspora restaurants that adorn its 1.8 mile stretch.
A short walk from McDonald's, you may be surprised to find a biodynamic winery, where Puglian grapes undergo carbonic maceration (a technique using whole bunches of uncrushed grapes) in huge steel fermenters before being crushed underfoot.
Leisure, founded in 2020 by wine and spirits enthusiasts Vangeli Moschopoulos and Samuel Jackson Garbutt (of spirits brand East London Liquor Co), set out to explore if sustainable, low-intervention winemaking was possible on a main road in London. After the pair's successful cocktail night at Doodle Bar in London's Battersea, the collaboration felt natural.
‘We decided to figure out exactly what was needed to start a low-intervention winery,’ says Vangeli. What it boiled down to was organic grapes, a steel fermenter and a space. After reaching out to friends in the industry and ‘reading an enormous amount online’, the pair had everything they needed – except a space for their winery.
‘Paying [for] a space in London for a whole year while we waited for the wine to be sellable seemed a huge ask,’ says Vangeli. Instead, the pair reached out to some friends in Edinburgh who were running a sustainable farming project called The Free Company. ‘We asked if we could set up in a corner of their barn, for minimal rent, and they said yes,’ says Vangeli.
Using vans from rental company Zipvan to transport grapes from Essex to Edinburgh, Vangeli and Sam routinely had to empty out swarms of grape-thirsty ladybirds and spiders. ‘We're sure Zipvans have been used for some odd things, but transporting a ton of chardonnay grapes to Scotland has to be up there,’ says Vangeli.
After crushing their grapes in a barn that was ‘basically open to the elements’, the pair decided it was time to house the winery in a more permanent location. ‘There seemed to be a weird poetry to a wine made on Old Kent Road,’ says Vangeli.
Inspired by the poetic labeling of French winery Anders Frederik Steen & Anne Bruun Blauert, Vangeli and Sam take a British tongue-in-cheek approach to branding, with names including I Saw Custard Creams Fall Like Lightning, a chardonnay, and This Is Not a Wine, a low-alcohol wine made from nero di troia and sangiovese grapes. ‘It's wine, so it should be fun, no?’ says Vangeli.
‘Low-intervention winemaking has been around forever,’ says Vangeli, referencing growers in rural France who've been enjoying sulfite-free wine since the fifties. While he doesn't expect low-intervention wine to be hitting supermarket shelves any time soon, he's noticed a shift in the types of people that consume wine. ‘Young producers, vibrant labels and experimentation’ have undoubtedly attracted new audiences to wine, he believes. ‘There's still an aggressive separation between the old-school wine crowd and the world where Leisure exists, but that's good, I think. There's space for everyone.’
Profile: Vinhos Aparte, Portugal
‘We literally camped in the cellar for two months,’ says Diogo Yebra, the 29-year-old co-founder of Portuguese wine brand Vinhos Aparte. ‘We ate there, slept on the floor or in tents.’
Along with his friends Luís Mendes and Guilherme Maia, Diogo founded the business in 2018 with a pooled budget of €3,000. Together, they collected a ramshackle assortment of begged and borrowed wine equipment and got to work in a garage in Lisbon's countryside.
‘The equipment was so old,’ says Diogo, ‘it took us hours to process quantities of grapes that, today, take us minutes.’ Spurred on by equal parts curiosity and naivety, the three persevered and their first wine, Ambar, was born. What would come to be known as ‘the wine that started everything’, Ambar is an orange skin-contact wine that uses Moscatel Roxo grapes, which are grown in the Setúbal region in Portugal. After a little refinement and gentle shaping, a wine that found life in a garage is now Vinhos Aparte's flagship bottle, nestling itself comfortably among a catalog of seven wines.
Despite producing 24,000 bottles of wine annually, Diogo, Luís and Guilherme still juggle full-time jobs as a sommelier, nurse and farmer respectively. ‘It's not easy, but it was the only way to remain fully independent,’ says Diogo, who can sometimes be spotted crushing grapes in a suit and tie after work.
In 2021, the trio purchased the brand's first vineyard and winery, located in the Setúbal district – about an hour's drive from Lisbon. ‘The proximity to Lisbon has always been important to us,’ says Diogo, who plans to build what he describes as an ‘urban winery’, boasting ‘halfpipes, turntables and a space that can host other producers and artistic residencies’.
Artist collaboration and community have been central to Vinhos Aparte's business model from the very beginning. ‘We've collaborated on hand-painted tile labels, launched an NFT [non-fungible token] collection and hosted wine raves,’ says Diogo. ‘We want to create a community around Vinhos.’
Inspired by the street culture that they grew up around, Vinhos Aparte offers subtle and not-so-subtle nods to graffiti, skateboarding and rave culture in its branding, with graphic images of genitalia, balaclava-clad faces and neon bats on the bottles. ‘We were born and raised in the city, but we're also part of the young generation who are returning to the countryside. It made sense to combine everything we do,’ says Diogo. There's an unmistakable energy to Vinhos
Aparte's wine that could come only from radical young winemakers.
Diogo thinks that the problem with traditional winemakers is their fear of the public's reaction.
‘Try one of their top range wines that are limited to 1,000 or 2,000 bottles and you end up finding very creative wines,’ he says, which he believes is a symbol of the wine industry's unwillingness to deviate from the tried and tested.
In many ways, Vinhos Aparte summarizes everything that a modern trio of swashbuckling winemakers should be: young, chaotic and nothing short of revolutionary.
Q&A With Luke Hemsley
Founder of alcohol-free wine brand Wednesday's Domaine.
Why has wine been slow to pick up on the alcohol-free movement?
A. ‘Two reasons spring to mind. First, the wine market is fragmented and less brand-led, unlike beers or spirits. You lack those big recognizable brands making inroads into the market and raising awareness in the way that Heineken and Guinness have done in beer. Second, wine is far more rooted in tradition than other drinks categories and, as such, there isn't the same acceptance of the alcohol-free movement – although this is slowly changing.’
Do you imagine there'll be more non-alcoholic wine brands in the next few years?
A. ‘Yes, and I welcome that. But, for me, there are two blockers to growth. The first is awareness – most people don't even know that alcohol-free wine exists. The second is recognition – those who do know it exists largely think it's terrible. As more quality entrants join the space, I do believe it's a case of a rising tide lifting all boats.’
Briefly run us through the production process…
A. ‘When I first considered this as a business, I naively thought it couldn't be that hard. It turns out it's really, really hard. Options in the market currently split two ways: traditionally de-alcoholized wines and complex non-wine drinks (eg, kombuchas) that target the wine occasion. We believe that when you want a glass of wine, only a glass of wine will do, so we've taken de-alcoholized wines and used them as a base, blending in natural flavors and other elements to reintroduce the body, flavors and aromas lost during the alcohol removal process.’
When designing the brand, what were the main things that you kept in mind?
A. ‘The overarching sentiment was creating a bottle that you'd be proud to take to a friend's house. Wine's secret weapon is its shareability and we wanted to create something you open, enjoy and discuss with those around you. We also wanted to imbue the brand with a playfulness. We took cues from the natural wine space, where design, brand and illustration sit alongside great liquids.’
Making natural wine more accessible and equitable
Ward Four Wines is a Californian micro winery specializing in minimal intervention winemaking practices, sourcing from vineyards that honor ethical labor guidelines and use sustainable farming methods. Its first vintage of four wines will launch in spring 2023. Here, founder Justin Trabue, a winner of Courier's Fresh Fund 2022, talks about opening the wine industry to all.
On her inspiration:
‘I founded Ward Four Wines to pay homage to wines I grew up [with] at the dining-room table. When I was in high school in Washington DC, my parents had a black sommelier [a wine waiter] come to my house. That skyrocketed my interest in wine – [I studied] in the wine business program at [California Polytechnic State University], eventually transitioning to wine production. Wine is what gives me joy.’
On opening up the wine industry:
‘I've had the opportunity to share my ideas with like-minded individuals, working to create the first for-profit, worker-owned winery and farm co-operative focused on BIPOC, LGBTQ+ [people] and womxn. The group is called The Bathing Collective, which started in California. It aims to help the food and beverage industry better adapt to climate change and work more sustainably. The Bathing Collective also provides platforms for social reform justice by creating and promoting profitable social enterprise, as well as acquiring quality equity for under-represented people.’
On designing the brand:
‘Without my family, I never would have known [that] wine, food and hospitality could be something I could invest [in] myself. Growing up in DC, I'm so excited to be able to pay homage to my city through Ward Four Wines. I aim to be very intentional with who I choose to create my logo and labels. I'll connect with a DC artist who can create what I've thought of. I want to be able to introduce BIPOC and queer communities in the region to lesser-discussed [wine] varietals – [then] they can they go to local shops and see what other styles interest them and continue to find new things they like, spreading it forward.’
Article written by Marcus Brown.
A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 49, September/October 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.