It’s a quintessential 1970s exchange. Mustachioed wine waiter: “M’sieur, red or white?” Young man, adoring girlfriend at his side: “Blue!”
That TV advertisement propagated the Blue Nun message of the time. “A delicious imported white wine that goes as well with meat as it does with fish.” Even then, that was questionable, considering that Blue Nun was a semi-sweet liebfraumilch (a blend including Müller-Thurgau and a little riesling). It contained 42 grams a liter of residual sugar, whereas a contemporary dry white has less than 4 grams a liter.
Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine the slogan attracting consumers, as Armin Wagner, export director of today’s Blue Nun producers, Langguth Sichel, admits. “Then it was believable – that Blue Nun was suitable for anything – but not any more. Today, the whole wine world is different. Varietals have become the important anchor for a new generation of wine drinkers – they’re almost addicted.”
At its peak in the 1980s, Blue Nun seemed unassailable, selling 12 million bottles a year in the United States and 3.6 million in Britain. But as the wine market changed, sweet German wines went out of fashion and New World challengers – including domestic wines in America – "started heavily pushing into the market."
Blue Nun also suffered from its cheesy image, particularly in Britain. Wagner recalls that “Blue Nun was amongst three or four brands – [including] Hirondelle and Don Cortez – that introduced the mainstream British public to wine drinking altogether. It became a cliché.”
Before its decline, the brand had enjoyed a long and profitable run. It was launched by a Mainz company, H. Sichel Söhne, in 1923, specifically for export. According to Wagner, it found a ready market in the United Kingdom, including top restaurants and hotels. At that time, the words “Blue Nun” did not appear on the label; instead, it carried only "the visual of nuns in blue habits."
Exports to the United States began in the 1930s and Blue Nun rapidly gained in popularity as table wine overtook fortifieds in the 1950s. Other export markets were also introduced: Scandinavia, Canada, and later Japan and Australia – a total of 80 countries in all. Blue Nun even crept onto a Beatles album. According to George Harrison, a rattling sound at the end of “Long, Long, Long” on the 1968 White Album was a bottle of Blue Nun shaking on a speaker.
By 1976, the semi-sweet German wine was America’s best-selling imported white. At its peak in the 1980s, it was selling 30 million bottles worldwide.
Oddly, when the wine fell out of favor in Britain and the United States, other export markets did not follow suit. Blue Nun remains popular in Scandinavia and Japan, in particular, to this day. In Britain and America, however, the switch to varietals swept it aside. In Wagner's view, “The former owners of Blue Nun missed the boat in adjusting to the new trends in wine styles and the naming of varietals; it stuck with what had been useful for 30 years.”
A 1980s slogan urged consumers to “show your good taste with the taste of Blue Nun." But the message fell on deaf ears. Blue Nun had become as unfashionable as bell bottoms, fondue and Farah Fawcett hair, and by the 1990s, United Kingdom sales were down to half a million bottles a year. For wine consumers, Blue Nun seemed an embarrassing reminder of their earlier lack of sophistication.
Langguth, a Mosel-based family firm, bought the company in 1996, unperturbed by Blue Nun’s problems. “We could see the potential of Blue Nun,” Wagner recalls. “It had enormous worldwide awareness and a distributor network of very qualified partners. On the downside, it had image problems.”
A rescue plan was drawn up. “It was good-quality wine but in a style that had fallen out of favor,” says Wagner. “So we changed the blend, using [more] riesling, and made it drier, crisper and fresher. We dropped the term ‘liebfraumilch’ from the label and changed the packaging.”
Blue Nun became a Qualitätswein (QbA) – a quality wine from a designated wine region, in this case Rheinhessen – and the residual sugar content was reduced to 28 grams a liter. It’s now made from a blend of riesling (30 percent) and rivaner (another name for no-longer-fashionable Müller-Thurgau).
The changes worked. “It was not like switching a button, but sales started to grow again,” says Wagner. “We also introduced the Blue Nun varietals: a family of wines. For our worldwide partners, the brand became interesting again.”
There was more fine-tuning in 2001. “The three nuns [already cut from seven] were reduced to one and we tried to make the label more contemporary” – and again in 2011. Today, the famous blue fluted bottles carry a diamond-shaped Blue Nun label with a solitary nun, and a separate varietal label. Additionally, the marketing focus has been switched to younger consumers – not least because they’re unaware of Blue Nun’s previous image difficulties.
“We cannot turn it around, so we decided to ignore it,” says Wagner. “To produce good wine and be aware that it’s an age problem, a generation problem. We can only outgrow it. The U.S. is more diverse; it’s not one market. In the U.K., if someone makes a joke about Blue Nun, every Brit over 30 will understand it. In the USA – in Iowa, in Minnesota – 70 percent would not even know what you were talking about.”
The company’s efforts appear to be paying off, with worldwide sales up to 12.5 million bottles a year. “In our current fiscal year, we are doing very good in USA, good in Canada, and Scandinavia is okay,” Wagner reports. “What is very different is the U.K., but it is for all wine producers, because the U.K. is promotion-driven and price-driven and there is ever-increasing tax.”
Excise duty on alcohol was increased by five percent in the British government’s March 2012 Budget, taking it to £1.90 ($3.04) per 750-ml bottle of still wine; another 20 percent in sales tax (VAT) is added to the retail price. The London-based Wine and Spirit Trade Association estimates that duty and VAT together account for half the average price of a bottle of wine – a big chunk when Blue Nun is selling at around £5 ($7.79).
After the latest increase, the association passed comment that “the rate of alcohol taxation in the U.K. is now so out of step with our European neighbours that visitors to the London Olympics will face paying five percent more for an average bottle of wine than if the games were being held in Paris, and triple what they would pay in Madrid.”
The Blue Nun family now includes a growing number of varietals, ranging from pinot noir to gewürztraminer, as well as sparkling wines such as Blue Nun Sparkling Gold – "with the exciting addition of fine flecks of delicate 22-carat gold leaf.” A new, low-alcohol Delicates selection has also been launched, with “delicious fruit flavours” and “a light touch.” Today's slogan is: "Open up the good in life."
Wagner admits that the Blue Nun range is targeted predominantly at women, because they are “more open minded to experience a new style of wine.” With those consumers in mind, the company currently sponsors Britain's "Funny Women" comedy awards. However, market research has shown that Blue Nun's customers are, in fact, “pretty much 50/50.” Who, then, is the ideal consumer?
“Somebody buying wine twice a month who wants to enjoy a good bottle at a reasonable price,” says Wagner. “People don’t want to dig too deep into wine or have to worry about it. They want a couple of reliable names to turn to.”
In that respect, then, not so much has changed since the boom years of the 1980s. Blue Nun is still “a dependable companion” for those who might be nervous about choosing a wine. Just as long as no one sporting a mustache says the fatal words, “It goes with any dish.”