Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Gen Z and millennials are drinking wine like grown-ups, while their parents are drinking like teens

You know you’re growing up when your parents buy you The Wine Atlas for Christmas and friends can suddenly pronounce Pouillac with breezy confidence

Carignan,” a friend said, staring into the middle distance, “is an unfairly maligned grape.” I zoned out and my mind raced back to university: a flash of pubs with sticky floors, shots and big glasses of cheap and sweet alcopops. On mere stylistic grounds it couldn’t be further from the high stools at the counter of this wine bar in Hackney. “Err, yes ... sure,” I responded, feeling ancient. When did I become a person who had opinions on Carignan?

My favourite wine writer, Jay McInerney – who is to wine what the great AA Gill was to food – recalls reading The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway many years ago. It was the first moment in his youth where he developed the sense that drinking wine was “cool” (they certainly drink a lot of it in the novel). That “wine had no place” at McInerney’s parents’ suburban dinner parties only enhanced this cosmopolitan allure. And it was all reinforced by Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte’s proclivities in the cellar of Brideshead. I would add The Secret History: the wine was always more compelling to me than the centrepiece murder. A good thing, I suppose.

This is all very romantic. But I was briefly worried: is it just my friends and me that are ageing into such bourgeois affectation? Thankfully, as it turns out, no. A column in the Financial Times this week gestured towards a general trend: Gen Z and millennials combined might make up only 26 per cent of the wine drinkers in the United Kingdom. But while they drink less, they drink better-quality stuff. Richard Halsted, chief operations officer of Wine Intelligence, tells the FT that this cohort is “happy to spend more on a bottle of wine than Boomers”. All of a sudden, it seems, the children are drinking like adults, and the adults like teenagers.

Learning to drink good wine is an adjacent process to learning how to drink fewer glasses of it: the logic of bank accounts demand this conclusion

The trend is two-pronged. First, yes – young people drink less than they used to and less than their parents. In the UK those least likely to drink are aged 16-24. A staggering 26 per cent of that group are apparently teetotal. And in Ireland that number is even higher, at about 28 per cent. Psychology professor Jean Twenge thinks this has something to do with the cultural dominance of smartphones. Plenty suggest it’s thanks to a generational obsession with so-called “wellness”. As always someone has managed to blame a TikTok trend (#SoberTok).


In any case, the world is split: hurrah for this mindful and health-conscious generation who would rather drink fermented tea than Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay; or, look at these worthy prigs, too addicted to their phones to have fun; no wonder why they’re all so anxious and pessimistic. The reality, as usual, is probably somewhere in between.

Far more interesting is the second observation of the trend: that young people seem happier to spend proper money on wine. Anecdotally this rings true. The local pub’s acrid and warm battery acid does not appeal as it once used to; friends eschew the vaguely labelled “Sauvignon Blanc from America”, far more interested now in detailed provenance; the “buzz delivery system” (as McInerney refers to low-grade Pinot Grigio) isn’t hitting the same notes any more. I had a glass with a friend last night (research) and we agreed.

In London we might blame all of this on the booming industry of identikit wine bars: short menus, small plates, natural wines in little glasses, where you are more likely to see three types of arancini than a bar fight. They aspire to be cool and refined; many are staid and boring. But they are popular. Then there are the online sommeliers: André Hueston Mack is helpful and unpatronising on YouTube, for example. We shouldn’t be quick to forget that many millennials are middle-aged now. And they have the purchasing power to prove it (they might be able to buy the good Burgundy but it’s certainly out of the knowledge and price range of most of society’s young drinkers).

Perhaps this is just the normal course of things: you have fun on the cheap at university; quickly realise that going to a club on a Wednesday is not a sustainable means of living; you learn how to make a convincing ragu; your parents buy you The Wine Atlas for Christmas; friends can suddenly pronounce Pouillac with breezy confidence; you start spending more and drinking less; and all of a sudden the party is over.

But in this trajectory, something far better is beginning. First, learning to drink good wine is an adjacent process to learning how to drink fewer glasses of it: the logic of bank accounts demand this conclusion. This economic imperative is straightforwardly beneficial for the general health of the nation. But it is important spiritually too. An expensive glass or two – rather than a cheap four or five – is like reading one novel instead of a hundred Mr Men books: endlessly interesting, far more stimulating; probably better for the soul. I already feel less embarrassed about the Carignan conversation.