New World wines have become entrenched in the UK best-sellers list and are taking advantage of established distribution to increase their investment in brand-building through consumer PR.
Branding has driven their success as labels battle for differentiation in a cluttered market, while old world wines from France, Germany, Italy and Spain continue to struggle to catch up, restrained by their traditionally fragmented approach to production and reticence towards marketing.
In fact, only one wine from the 'old world' - France's Piat d'Or - makes it into the top 20 for the year to the end of January 2004, according to ACNielsen.
While pricing, promotions, sampling and events are vital to sales success in the wine industry, those that neglect their brand strategies will lose ground, according to Wine magazine associate editor and co-chairman of the annual International Wine Challenge, Charles Metcalfe.
'Frankly they should have a look at the real world - the reality is that if you spend money on brands, you will increase sales,' says Metcalfe.
'The world of wines is incredibly complex. Every year there is a new set of wines, a new vintage and new growers. I get confused sometimes, so just think how confused consumers get. Anything that makes life simpler for them helps.'
Metcalfe warns that although people in the UK are drinking more wine, it has become harder to penetrate consumer media with wine stories. 'If anything, wine in the media has become a less interesting field,' he says. 'Editors take it as an item of shopping like a brand of soap powder.'
Consumer media will, however, play a central role in PR activity for Chilean wine brand Cono Sur, which this month appointed Shine Communications as its first PR agency as it heads into its tenth year.
The idea that wines can mean more to the consumer than its origins and heritage is a significant difference between old world and New World brands.
'The old world is product-led while the New World is very much brand-led,' says Shine associate director Mitchell Kaye. 'There's nothing wrong with taking the personality from a country - it adds charm and character - but I'm not working for Chile, I'm working for Cono Sur, and when you work for old country wines you tend to end up working more for the country.'
The country of origin is often the most powerful branding tool available, insists Alan Twigg, MD at Nexus Communications, which was recently appointed to handle four South African brands for Vinfruco, including top-20 UK seller Arniston Bay.
'Brand South Africa is such a potent offer. It's the rainbow nation,' says Twigg, adding that brands need to associate their products with the nation's weather, landscape, people and spirit, in a similar way that Australian brands have climbed to the top of UK sales charts over the last two decades.
'When there is so much choice, consumers will choose a wine with an interesting story behind it or that says something about themselves,' he says. 'Consumers want comfort in a scary moment.'
Organisations such as Wines Of South Africa (WOSA), the Australian Wine Bureau and Wines of Chile have played an important role in building the position of New World wines, which cannot devote significant budgets to consumer PR while developing their distribution procedures.
After years of isolation, South African brands are catching up, with Kumala already the sixth-biggest seller in the UK, and are set to benefit from a ten-year EU tax exemption that will see £1m a year pumped into marketing through WOSA for the next ten years. WOSA marketing manager Sophie Waggett says the organisation's PR strategies centre on sampling opportunities, roadshows and media trips.
While the body promotes South African wines generically rather than brands individually, Waggett says smaller players have benefited from the success of major South African brands such as Kumala, and insists: 'There is space for at least a couple more big South African brands.'
Australian wines have long benefited from campaigns to build Australia as a wine producer and many are now beginning to broaden their messages. Banrock Station, handled by Westbury Communications, is embarking on consumer PR that continues to play on the positive associations of Australia by using the theme 'for outside life'.
The campaign includes sponsorship of BBQ Week and publicises Banrock's involvement in wetland conservation in several markets around the world, giving it a brand personality beyond its country of origin.
Nicky Forrest, MD at Phipps PR, the agency that handles PR for Wines of Germany, as well as Chilean brand Valdivieso, believes old world countries can fight back by focusing on their strengths. She says Riesling is the one thing Germany does better than any other country. Old world wines can also turn around their image by refining their target audience. 'Black Tower targeted younger women because we found they didn't have the negative preconception and baggage the brand had carried,' Forrest says.
By positioning the brand as 'retro cool', Black Tower has caught on - to the extent that Davina McCall regularly named it during Big Brother last year, which Forrest insists is 'publicity you cannot buy'. Or afford.
The resurrection of Black Tower proves there is hope for old world brands.
WINE BRANDS ON PR AGENCY HIRING SPREE
September 2003 Wines of Argentina launches consumer and retailer-targeted campaign by its own agency, Westbury Communications
March 2004 Western Wines hires Spirit Marketing Solutions to handle a major consumer PR push for South Africa's leading brand Kumala
March 2004 Chilean wine Valdivieso appoints Phipps PR for a regional-focused consumer media campaign to support sampling
April 2004 Chilean wine Cono Sur appoints Shine Communications for consumer PR work, including a tenth anniversary celebration campaign
April 2004 Vinfruco appoints Nexus Communications to handle trade and consumer PR for South African brands Arniston Bay and Thandi
April 2004 Constellation Wines Europe appoints Westbury Communications for Australian brand Banrock Station's 'outside life' consumer PR campaign.