The World Bulk Wine Exhibition or WBWE – rarely attracts a fraction as much interest as events like ProWein, Vinexpo and Vinitaly, but for the professionals who attend it every year, this trade fair in November in Amsterdam is every bit as important.
Many Change in 14 editions
This is the 14th edition of WBWE, and since its launch, the wine world has changed dramatically and not always predictably. China has been a reliable customer for bulk wine as consumption has grown there, for example, but the source of that bulk has varied widely, depending on harvest sizes, exchange rates, politics and environmental concerns.
For those who don’t follow the bulk market, the raw statistics might come as a surprise. In 2001, according to COMTRADE, New Zealand exported just one percent of its wine in bulk. A decade later that proportion (of a much larger total) had grown to 14%. In 2021, it was a quarter.
One explanation for this is the shift by the UK in particular to local bottling, driven by a combination of cost-savings and a desire to reduce retailers' carbon footprint. Britain is now the world’s biggest importer of bulk wine by value, with $731.4m being shipped there in 2020 (COMTRADE). Prior to Brexit, the UK was also a prime bottler for New World wines intended to be sold in the EU. Mainland bottling plants now aim to take over this trade.
Germany, home to some of those businesses is the second largest importer, with $538.4m, followed by the US with $333.9m and France, ($273.5m). The two European nations and Italy confuse the picture, however, by importing large volumes for use in ‘European blends’ at least some of which will be re-exported.
In 2021, France, Spain’s biggest bulk customer, shipped 387m litres, while Germany imported 286.7m and Italy 183.3m. French and Italian wine drinkers do not knowingly consume much Spanish wine.
Wine professionals – and presumably their customers – are often far more relaxed about the origin of the contents of their glass than terroir-focused observers might wish.
Even when the country of origin is declared on the label, today’s wine professionals – and presumably their customers – are often far more relaxed about the origin of the contents of their glass than terroir-focused observers might wish. Since Henkell invested in the UK-based iHeart in 2013, the brand has become a top-20 player, with sales of over 30m bottles in 2020. Its customers evidently don’t mind whether their Pinot Grigio comes from Italy, Romania, Hungary or Australia, provided that it has a consistent style and flavour.
If that commercial, brand has been successful, another key driver of the bulk market has been the growing use of private label by big retailers. In Europe, in particular, this has been accelerated by the discounters, Aldi and Lidl, most of whose wine is sold in this way, but bulk shipments to the US have also doubled over the last decade.
Estimates vary, but between 38-40% of all wine is probably now traded and/or shipped in bulk, a proportion that is likely to grow, given the objective of the Swedish and Finnish monopolies to cut the carbon footprint of their wine ranges by 50%. Rising logistics costs following the pandemic and war in Ukraine are also focusing minds on the economic advantages of shipping in larger volumes.
These trends have helped lead to the appearance at WBWE of premium wines including Ribera del Duero, Chablis and Chateauneuf du Pape that many professionals might not associate with bulk wine.
Inevitably, WBWE has spawned similar events in the US and China, but the European WBWE in November remains the ‘mother ship’ where topics like these are most hotly discussed, both at The Bulk Wine Talks conferences and in a dedicated Business Area.
This year’s WBWE will be held on the 21st and 22nd November 2022 in the RAI centre in Amsterdam. More than 100 exhibitors from over 25 countries will take part, with many entering their wines into the International Bulk Wine Competition where they are judged by a panel including key international buyers.