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Why do some wines fly off the shelves, while others move slowly?

Many factors influence whether a consumer will buy a wine, e.g. availability, price point, discounts, accolades and recommendations. In a study conducted in the USA, the researchers found that most consumers (79%) drink wine, because they enjoy the taste.1 The sensory experience connected with a wine is one of the biggest drivers of repurchase and subsequently brand growth. In the same study, it was found that price (80%) and brand (69%) were also big drivers of purchasing for consumers. Consumers’ are reluctant to take risks in buying wines, so if your brand is not associated with great taste, it has a detrimental effect on trial and repurchase rates.


What is sensory benchmarking?

The central purpose of every fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, including wineries, is to meet the wants of their consumers.2 Benchmarking is the practice of measuring the performance of a product relative to the competition to determine which is the best offering and why.3 Sensory benchmarking is an essential tool for wineries to determine how their product stacks up against its competitors in terms of sensory experience.


Why should wineries invest in sensory benchmarking?

Benchmarking is all about gaining a competitive edge. With the ever-evolving global market and consumers’ desire for customised products, brands must continuously adapt to stay competitive in the current market, as well as in the changing market of tomorrow.4,5 It’s important to know how your wine performs relative to your competitors, as well as relative to your potential for quality. Potential for quality refer to the maximum quality that you can obtain considering your resources. Benchmarking helps to improve competitiveness and value to the consumer. Furthermore, benchmarking helps to develop strategies to improve product quality. Improved quality leads to increased market share and growth.4 The strategy is to determine the definition of quality, closing the gap by addressing winemaking practices to ultimately maintain superiority in your target category.4


When should wine sensory benchmarking be performed?

The ideal time for wine benchmarking is before launching a new brand or varietal in an existing market or a current brand/varietal in a new market. However, benchmarking is not a once-off exercise. The market and consumers’ mindsets change constantly and it is important to keep track of who is the best and why, and how you can improve to be relevant and competitive throughout your products’ lifetime. The quest to be the best should be an integral part of your business.2 The best timing for annual wine benchmarking is the sweet spot between the release of new vintages and the start of the next growing season. This gives winemakers and viticulturists enough time to create a strategy for the best practices to achieve the desired results.


Practical considerations for wine sensory benchmarking

There are two options for benchmarking your wine. The first is a simple benchtop or in-house exercise where wines are stacked up and tasted by the winemaking team and perhaps a few other experts. This should ideally be done blind. While this is the most cost-efficient option, there are several disadvantages to the approach. The first is that while the tasters may not be able to see the brands, there is still a considerable amount of bias. Panellists’ expectations prior to sensory evaluation influence results.6 In addition, the cellar palate phenomenon is a reality and winemakers often subconsciously choose their own wines as the best, as that is what they are used to and what they like. Furthermore, if a large quantity of wines is tested, serving order effects are a concern as the order in which the wines are tasted can influence sensory perceptions. For example, if a delicate wine is tasted right after a bold wine, it can be perceived as insipid.

The second option is to use a scientifically proven sensory analysis approach performed by a sensory science professional. While this may be more costly and may seem excessive to some, there are many benefits. Sensory best practices ensure that all bias is eliminated, while the independent results from a third party provides a more objective view. Furthermore, this approach is quantitative and can provide clearer guidelines for product improvement based on empirical evidence.

In terms of sensory methodologies, rapid sensory profiling is recommended for benchmarking. Its cost-effectiveness is appropriate for repeated studies and the methods are well suited for wine experts, as well as trained panels. Some examples include the Check-All-That-Apply (CATA), Polarised Sensory Positioning and the Pivot Profiling methods. Each method has advantages and disadvantages and the appropriate test, or combination of tests, should be selected according to the objective of the benchmarking exercise. CATA is especially useful for benchmarking as the results are easy to compare on a year-on-year basis.

The final word is that sensory benchmarking is an essential tool for ensuring that a wine delivers on consumers’ demands. Great taste is a strong driver of repurchasing. A positive taste experience reflects well on a brand and facilitates growth both through repurchasing and word-of-mouth product recommendations.



  1. Thach, L. & Camillo, A., 2018. Snapshot of the American wine consumer., December, 10, 2918.
  2. Dembowski, F.L., 2013. The roles of benchmarking, best practices, and innovation in organizational effectiveness. The International Journal of Organizational Innovation 5: 6 – 20.
  3. Watson, G.H., 1993. Strategic benchmarking: How to rate your company’s performance against the world’s best. Wiley, New York.
  4. Camp, R.C., 1998. Best practice benchmarking: The path to excellence. The Management Accounting Magazine 72: 10 – 14.
  5. Taschner, A., 2016. Improving SME logistics performance through benchmarking. Benchmarking: An International Journal 23: 1780 – 1797.
  6. Louw, L., Oelofse, S., Naes, T., Lambrechts, M., Van Rensburg, P. & Nieuwoudt, H.H., 2014. Trained sensory panellists’ response to product alcohol content in the projective mapping task: Observations on alcohol content, product complexity and prior knowledge. Food Quality and Preference 34: 37 – 44.


– For more information, contact Hélène Nieuwoudt at


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