in association with AC Nielsen Aussies tilt the French crown Jim Budd says French wines' dominance looks shaky. Just £3.2m stood between them and Oz's offerings at Christmas Heavyweight promotions on their wine brands have brought the Australians within striking distance of the French for the Christmas period. The French still take the biggest slice of the market year round but they have lost ground over the festive period. At Christmas 1997 the value difference between the two countries was £75.5m. At Christmas last year this had shrunk to £13.2m. Safeway category buyer Phil Edwards says: "Australia will overhaul France very soon." Mark Davis, head of research and planning at First Quench, agrees: "Australia could catch up by the end of 2001 and nose ahead in 2002." In an expanding market, sales of French wine were 0.7% down on those of Nov/Dec 1997. The fall in Chile's and Argentina's Christmas share (-13% and -22% respectively) is not seen as a major problem. "A promotional blip," says Edwards, "We didn't have a South American promotion which was partly due to the increased value of the dollar." California, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and, in particular, South Africa all grew, while Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and the Balkans fell. The decline of both the multiple specialists and the independents has continued. The specialists had a particularly disappointing Christmas with still light wine sales down by 11.2%. And it is difficult to see who has been hit. "If you allow for the shops we have closed, our wine sales were down by less than 1%," says Davis at First Quench. Unwins reported sales at the same level as last year. Given First Quench's size, part of the explanation may be that their rationalisation is yet to generate new sales volume from its remaining stores. Over the year the multiple specialists' wine sales have risen 3.2% by volume, although that should be set against a 5.1% increase for the multiple grocers. Sales of champagne and sparkling wine have fallen back after the last year's millennium celebrations by 25% and 18% respectively. However, they were above the 1998 figure so they held onto some of their gains. The trends in fortified wines show no sign of changing. Overall the category is down by 4% with only Port (2%) showing any growth. The two leading fortified brands, Harvey's Bristol Cream and Croft Original, have grown by 7% and 4% respectively. Taylor's LBV grew a dramatic 246% helped by a special promotion at Safeway. Brands continued to grow in importance. Five wines were among the top 20 drinks brands in November and December. Increasingly New World brands are dominating. There are 15 in the top 20 wine brands. "We may be seeing a handful of brand leaders emerge," says Bill Rolfe, group marketing and public relations director for Unwins. Banrock Station, however, in eighth place is the fastest growing (108%). "Its success has been due to being Gold Medal Wine of the Year and having one of the big players backing it," says Rolfe. Hardy's other brands, Stamp, and Nottage Hill, make them a strong force. BRL Hardy marketing manager Bryonie Grieveson said: "The fact that Christmas sales outperformed the millennium period is particularly impressive and shows that consumers are becoming more confident about branded wines year on year. "This is because brands such as Hardy's have generated consumer trust as they deliver on all levels ­ quality, price and consistency ­ satisfying consumer expectations every time." Although 2001 will see brands consolidating their positions, they still have a long way to go. "Remember, despite recent growth Gallo, the largest, still only accounts for 2% of world production," says Rolfe. {{FEATURES }}