The 40th edition of the London Wine Fair, and the first since 2019, had, it was generally agreed, a very pleasant atmosphere. Many visitors with experience of the event remarked how much they enjoyed catching up with people they hadn’t seen in a long time. Others reported enjoying the opportunity to sample wines from places about which they knew little or nothing, such as Armenia, Georgia and Uzbekistan.
Very Different from Before
These positive comments, however, have to set alongside others – often from the same people – about the ‘strangeness’ of the event, especially when compared to its heyday in the early 1990s. In those days, the UK genuinely deserved its reputation as the heart of the global wine trade, when visitors flew in from Asia, North America and the Nordic monopolies to taste and explore new trends, and to discuss them with winemakers who had also often made long trips to be there. For some, the option of spending an entire day in the huge Australian area was enough of a draw in itself.
That, however, was when ProWein was still seen as a local German-Austrian event and the London International Wine Trade Fair as it was then known’s only real competitor was Vinexpo in Bordeaux, a very different event.
Eastern Europe - but little form the Rest of the World
The 2022 London Wine Fair, long-since shorn of any pretentions to be ‘International’, may have been located in the same 19th exhibition century halls – or part of them – as it was 30 years ago, but it was almost unrecogniseable from its younger self. The novelty of being able to visit generic Armenian and Uzbekistan - and even Ukrainian – stands has to be set aside the absence of equivalent efforts from Spain, Portugal, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Austria, Chile and Argentina, to name but a few. There was a small Australian booth and a few exhibitors from that country in the balcony area reserved for producers looking for UK distribution. France had a presence, but, again, when compared to the past, it was decidedly modest. Tellingly, California’s wine industry was in London at the same time, showing off its wines to trade and public – in a totally separate event of its own on the other side of the city.
Three big UK distributors - Bibendum, Hatch Mansfield and Enotria Coe – had large stands, but other significant players such as Liberty, Armit and Hallgarten had none.
In previous years, pubs close to the event were packed with exhibitors and visitors at lunch time and after the doors closed each night; not this time. Attendance was generally acknowledged to be ‘light’, but key UK buyers were present, and some exhibitors said they had met people who mattered. Overseas visitors, however, were noticeable by their absence.
To be fair to the organisers, this year’s London Wine Fair was handicapped by having had to change its dates to avoid clashing with Prowein, but that does not go far to explain the lack of buzz surrounding an event that has been losing momentum for well over a decade. The imposition of Brexit since the 2019 fair and the isolation it has created merely broadened fractures that were already far too apparent.
If the fair as a whole is not remotely comparable to Prowein and Wine Paris/Vinexpo, it did, however, have a number of elements that were successful in their own terms. Among these were the announcement of the Wine Plus Travel Awards, the strong presence of WineGB whose collection of English wine producers was probably the busiest part of the fair and the WATF – Wine Traders for Alternative Formats section where a range of cans, pouches, kegs, bag-n-box and paper-bottle formats were on show. A number of conference sessions, on subjects ranging from UK legislation to wine communication and influencers were also well-attended in what was, admittedly, a modestly-sized area.
Questions inevitably hang over the future of the London Wine Fair, as they have for several years. One logical move would be to rebrand it as the London Beverage Fair and to welcome Britain’s vibrant spirits producers, craft brewers and creators of innovative low and non-alcoholic drinks alongside the growing number of wineries. A move in this direction would help to reignite interest both within and outside the UK and reflect its post-Brexit ambitions to open new export markets. Judged by their previous response to this kind of suggestion, the likelihood of Brintex, the exhibition organisers embracing any such move is unlikely.