Success in bulk

If you want to really understand the wine world, suggests Robert Joseph, you need to pay a visit to the World Bulk Wine Exhibition, held in Amsterdam each November.

The exhibition area may not be beautiful, but it´s an effective trading area.
The exhibition area may not be beautiful, but it´s an effective trading area.

The opening of the first World Bulk Wine Fair in Amsterdam in November 2009 caused few ripples in the wine industry. The debate over must-visit international exhibitions for most trade visitors was still essentially between Vinexpo in Bordeaux and Hong Kong, and ProWein in Düsseldorf, with a few votes still going to the London Wine Trade Fair.

Those who did make their way to Holland that year found a modest collection of shell-scheme exhibition booths, and a catalogue that came in the form of a sheet of paper. What many of them also found, more importantly, were the kind of wines they were looking for.

Over the following decade, the show, rebranded as WBWE, has quietly grown to the point at which the 2018 event attracted some 250 exhibitors and 6,000 trade visitors from 60 countries. Apart from the shell-scheme booths – which, despite the addition of picture-walls, have mostly retained their utilitarian style – the exhibition has developed other attractions. 


Snapshot of available wines  

First, and most essentially, there is the silent tasting area, where attendees can sample hundreds of wines without having to go through the time-consuming niceties of visiting the individual booths on which they are on show. “Tasting a range of wines from the same region or grape side by side like this gives buyers an incredibly useful snapshot of what’s available,” said former supermarket buyer Jon Woodriffe, who is now with South African specialist Origin Wine.

Second, there is a bulk wine competition, the first of its kind, at which about 200 wines are judged by a panel mostly made up of international journalists. This competition could arguably be improved. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine rules under which it is run prevent the tasters from knowing the grape variety or origin of the liquid in their glass. Assessing a Georgian Rkatsiteli alongside an Italian Trebbiano and a Spanish Airén does not necessarily make sense, especially when the awards are targeted at professional buyers looking for specific types of wines. 

There is also the question, implicit in bulk wines, of whether the liquid in the glass should be judged as a wine, or as a possibly useful ingredient in a blend. Even so, the contest is a potentially valuable initiative for producers like Agresti from Italy, Entremontes from Spain and Anagram from France, all of which were able to show off the Grand Gold certificates they had respectively won for their Puglian Nero di Troia, la Mancha Tempranillo and Côtes du Rhône.

Above all, however, the Amsterdam fair offers an annual snapshot of the ‘real’ wine world –the 38% of each vintage that is traded in bulk – rather than the froth of Bordeaux en primeur, Napa wineries and natural wines that so often attracts the attention of the wine media. In 2017, the exhibition perfectly reflected the perfect storm of short harvests in Spain, Italy and South America. Producers at the event had mostly sold a large proportion of their wine before getting on the plane to the Netherlands. Those who failed to do good deals for the remainder were either being too greedy or had wine that simply was not commercial.

This year was different, although the tanks may not have been overflowing. “We have many more options to offer this year,” said frequent exhibitor Viktoria Szovenyi, import-export manager of Cantina Cortecchia in northeast Italy. “Good quality and at fair prices.” Among these options, for example, was Italian Pinot Grigio whose price had softened to as low as €0.70 or €0.80, though as was generally acknowledged, anyone who cared about the way the wine tasted needed to pay more than a euro.

New and old world attractions

As in previous years, traditional production countries like Italy had to compete with increasingly attractive offerings from newer producer countries including Moldova, Australia and South Africa. And that’s not forgetting Argentina, whose booths occupied a larger than ever proportion of the hall. As the buyer for Belgian retailer Delhaize, Jonas de Maere, said: “The quality of the wines from Eastern Europe has to be taken seriously, with steady improvement of styles like Pinot Noir.”

Since that first Amsterdam fair, the bulk wine market has spawned rival exhibitions in London and the US, but now the Spanish organisers of WBWE are responding with a new event of their own. This year will mark China’s first bulk wine fair in Yantai in Shandong province, home to giant producers like Changyu.

So now those wine producers puzzling over their travel plans have yet another destination to add to Düsseldorf, Bordeaux and Hong Kong.

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