Florian Ceschi says that he still has to explain bulk wine basics to wine students, 20 years after he first joined the industry.
“Most of the time they come to the wine industry because they like the top icon wines,“ he says. Ceschi tells them it’s great they’re working with a product they’re passionate about, but that bulk wine is the reality for most of the wine industry. “It’s not coming from the vine as a finished bottle. When you visit a cellar, you see bulk wine most of the time, and only a few cases of good wines.”
But although most of the students don’t think they will ever end up at the bulk end of the business, Ceschi says it’s coming back into fashion. “Many people are rediscovering bulk,“ because they want to be sustainable, as shipping in bulk can lower the carbon footprint.
Ceschi, the Director of Ciatti Europe, was speaking at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam, held in late November 2023. And, indeed, there were fine wine buyers from Britain present at the fair, keen to understand how to ship wine in bulk in order to be more sustainable.
At the moment, says Ceschi, bulk wine — meaning wine that’s shipped in flexitank or other such containers — makes up around 70% of the total global wine market. This wine is generally commodity wine, though it can be branded wine destined to be bottled at source.
Bulk wine is traded by three groups
Ceschi says there are three kinds of players on the bulk market: producers, buyers and the middle men.
- “You will have straight producers. That can be either co-ops or wine estates.“ Producers use the bulk market to sell their excess, but sometimes they also need to buy, if they’ve “had a short crop or a higher demand from one of their clients.”
- There are the buyers, or négociants. “The bottlers, who are answering to supermarket chains. Their job is to transform the bulk into bottles, or other kind of format.”
- And then there are businesses like the Ciatti Company — founded in California in 1971 as a broker of grapes, concentrate, wine and wine spirit, it’s now the world’s largest such broker — who act as middle men between suppliers and buyers.
“The one paying us is the seller, so our commission is charged to the supplier, but in general we are dealing with both parties,” says Ceschi. Not only do the brokers know what’s available on the market, but they can also offer advice on the best components for blending, and in what ratios.
“Most of our staff have either an oenological background or a commercial background, but most of them are really good at the oenologist level.” Which means if a client wants a specific level of sugar, acidity and alcohol, or very specific aromas, the Ciatti staff can find the right wines. “We are used to tasting with our buyers and know what they want, so we can also offer that kind of advice.”
Once someone has chosen a wine, they need a physical sample to show their client, “but if he relies on the suppliers to prepare the sample on time, it’s going to take forever.” The brokers can speed things up by collecting the samples, preparing them, sending them, and making sure they arrive in good condition.
Shipping in bulk can be better for the wines
Ceschi says many people believe that shipping wine in bulk will damage it, but “it’s totally the opposite. When we are making deals, 90% of the time, the final quality is delivered is better than the initial sample that was sent.”
While fine wines are moved in temperature-controlled reefer containers, most bottled wines are being shipped in dry containers that aren’t lined, subjecting them to dramatic variations in temperature and humidity. “Anything with a natural cork has a risk of retraction and oxidation. There is zero risk of this happening when moving in bulk,” because the wine is protected by three inner layers. “It’s in a bag similar to the liners for pools, which are compatible with moving food products, so you don’t have any transfer of taste. Most times, the quality of bulk is better than bottled.”
The bulk wine market also has fads
Ceschi says the bulk market can be driven by fashion, which makes it just as risky as every other segment of the wine market. He gives the example of Moscato, which briefly sold well in the US market. “Everything that was a Moscato that could be found anywhere in the world was absorbed by Gallo or Treasury. It was not a trend — for me a trend is over a longer time — but a fashion.”
The craze for Moscato only lasted four years, and then it was over. Buyers suddenly didn’t want it any more, leaving the growers who had shifted to Moscato in the lurch. “It became ‘Anything but Moscato’,” says Ceschi.
The craze for Moscato only lasted four years, and then it was over.
Unfortunately, Moscato has such a distinctive set of aromas, it’s poor blending material. “So we are working with oenologists on ways to neutralize the Moscato profile and find another way to sell those wines.”
The lesson here is to hold off planting anything until it’s clear that what’s happening is a real trend and not just a fad.
Criteria that make a region an ideal place for bulk wine
Ceschi says physical location is just as critical to the bulk wine market as it is in the rest of the wine market. He ticks off the variables that make a region a good source of bulk wine:
- “Are they doing the top 10 international varieties? Is it more or less the same that the general international consumer is expecting? Or are they only growing autochthonous varieties?
- What is the price point that they can achieve? Is there a Free Trade Agreement in this area?
- What is the volume that they can do and how close are they from a port?“ A country like Hungary, for example, is most likely to supply countries around it, as it’s too far from a port to make shipping by vessel economic.
Bulk clients are price driven, so when they switch origins, it’s generally because they can get a better price.
But bulk clients are price driven, so when they switch origins, it’s generally because they can get a better price. For European customers, buying wine from Europe generally offers the best deal, because wines shipped into Europe attract a tax of around €0.10 per Litre.
“This is why it’s so hard at the moment to find new homes for Shiraz from Australia, even though they are probably the cheapest.” Ceschi says moving wine from Australia to Europe costs €0.20/l for transport, and then attracts the €0.10/l tax. “So somehow you end up with a wine that has more costs,” than the wine itself is worth.
China will not save the wine market
Any Australian — or other — producer banking on a rebound from the Chinese market should think again. Ceschi says he was in China in the middle of the year, but “unfortunately I haven't seen signs of a massive restart of the market.“ There are huge wine stocks still in the country, because Covid lockdowns meant there was no consumption. Not only that, but there are no market signals that the Chinese want more wine — so it will take five or six years, at least, before China is buying at their old levels, if they ever do.
Ceschi noted that buyers from China were absent from the Bulk Wine fair (WBWE).
Current trends in the bulk wine market
Ceschi says he’s currently seeing six notable wine trends.
'No and low'
“The first is the ‘no and low’l.” But, he says, that does not only mean no and low alcohol, the trend also means no- and low-sulphites, no pesticides, and a no- or low-carbon foot print.
“We see clearly that rosé is hitting a plateau. We are convinced that when many consumers are fed up with rosé, they will start considering red wines.”
But these won’t be the big fruit bombs of the past. Instead, people are seeking out easy-to-drink reds without much tannin, or even partially fermented reds.
'Faster and stronger'
“The second trend is what I call ‘faster and stronger’,” meaning red blends with high levels of alcohol, colour and sugar,” he continues. “It’s something making a lot of money at the moment.”
'Similar but different'
And the third trend is what Ceschi calls “similar but different”: consumers are looking for alternatives to their favourites, but which have many characteristics of the varieties they like. Think Rhône white instead of Chardonnay.
In addition, he thinks that wine coolers or vermouth-like products are on the way back, because they crossover with the mixology category and offer emerging and young consumers something easy to understand. “Sometimes the wine business of too complicated for new consumers,” he says. “This new generation don’t want to read the history of wine before drinking a glass. They want to have something easy.”
He also sees the rise of new formats, like cans. “People are not drinking wine during the meal, because the quantity of food sold through delivery has been growing,” he says. “You are not sitting there with your family any more spending three hours on dinner and not looking at your phone.” That means people want convenience, like cans.
Finally, he says that the question of alcohol is becoming more of a flashpoint, as individuals care more about their health — or governments begin to crack down on alcohol sales and promotions. He foresees more zero alcohol products coming to market. “If I had to recap and say just one thing that’s changing, I would say alcohol.”