The year ending in an odd number can mean only one thing. In June, the wine sector will be migrating en masse to Bordeaux for Vinexpo. Chris Mercer spoke with Xavier de Eizaguirre, managing director of Baron Philippe de Rothschild and chairman of Vinexpo, about the prospects for this year's show and Vinexpo's international aspirations, including a possible return to the US.

just-drinks: You became Vinexpo chairman in September of last year. What interested you about the role?

Xavier de Eizaguirre: I'm an old Vinexpo fan. I've been to every one since it started in 1981. When it began, it was an opening up of the wine world. Most French wine events concentrated only on wines from France.

j-d: What sort of improvements or changes can we expect at this year's show?

de Eizaguirre: We've tried to improve facilities, particularly exhibition areas, which have been criticised in the past. We've also looked at the air conditioning situation, but this is partly out of our control because we do not own the building.

j-d: How do you think this year's Vinexpo will be affected by the global economic downturn?

de Eizaguirre: We've had Vinexpos in difficult periods before, like in 1993 and in 2004. In 2004, everyone was predicting a gloomy show but it was one of the best. In difficult times, there is more need to talk, to discuss and to experiment. You can have a very active Vinexpo in a difficult environment, and it increases opportunities to meet new importers.

j-d: Your Vinexpo study, published in the UK today, predicts growth in wine consumption over the next four years. How much of a threat does the downturn pose?

de Eizaguirre: How big will it be? How deep will it be? I think these are things we do not yet know. Of course, it will have an impact. 2009 is going to be a difficult year worldwide in the wine industry.

Consumption will continue to grow and I believe, because people will be more cautious, they will be more calculating in their way of consuming. They will be smarter in their way of consuming.

We may hit a plateau in 2009, but winemakers always plan further ahead than only one year. The situation could get back to normal within one or two years.

j-d: In your report, the UK is forecast to become the biggest wine importer by volume. This looks like good news for the country's wine sector, which has been facing a tough time of late.

de Eizaguirre: Consumption is growing per capita and it will continue to be the biggest export market. The UK is the target of the world. I do not know of any single producer who is not looking at the UK. Every segment is growing, but especially wines in the GBP8-10 category. This is a good sign and one we have also seen in other markets. People are buying less but better. UK consumers are also really adventurous.

j-d: Moving away from the UK, interest in wine is growing in Russia and the former Soviet countries. Is Vinexpo also seeing more interest from these countries?

de Eizaguirre: There are lots of visitors from Russia, in particular, and we are discovering that Eastern Europe is a huge mine. The old Soviet countries are like sleeping giants. The Soviet-era kept consumption going, so we don't need to create customers; we just need to take them to better quality and to new products.

Of course, there is also competition from these countries because they are also producers. This is the first time in my career that nearly every country in the world is producing wine. I have never seen so many markets.

j-d: Another strongly emerging market is Asia. Vinexpo recently announced it will return to Hong Kong in 2010. Why have you chosen to return there, following last year's show?

de Eizaguirre: Hong Kong is the perfect platform right now. It is a very strong statement from Vinexpo that we are looking at the Asian market. We are going to them rather than waiting for them to come to us.

j-d: What do you think of China as an emerging market and producer?

de Eizaguirre: China will take more time to develop than everybody thought in the beginning. You don't change drinking habits just like that; it takes more than one generation. Wine production in China will certainly help to speed the process. Every country that is producing is a market for the future. There is an opportunity for all of us.

j-d: After Asia, does Vinexpo have plans for further global expansion?

de Eizaguirre: Bordeaux is the core of Vinexpo. It has an environment that is impossible to replicate. But Asia is the right move and we will continue to do that.

We experimented in the US, in New York, in 2002, but there were complaints that it was complicated, expensive and difficult to organise. A number of exhibitors got a bit disappointed, but then we were disappointed in the first Hong Kong and Tokyo [shows]. You don't create these things overnight.

A return to the US is certainly something that we still have in mind. The US is becoming the largest wine market in the world, in terms of production and even consumption. Plus, it is close to Canada and also South America, which is a big player now.

The problem is that we cannot do everything. You cannot ask big companies to become just exhibitors. So I would say possibly the US, but that's all.

j-d: Vinexpo being in Bordeaux always seems to bring reports of criticism from New World wine producers. There have even been discussions of a boycott. What do you think about this?

de Eizaguirre: For most of the countries and people, Vinexpo is still the rendez-vous they cannot miss. We have had some complaints in the past and sometimes there are real reasons for these. But I don't think this will impact Vinexpo. We have sold all of our stand space for this year.

In Chile, we have a partnership with Concha y Toro and these people are not willing to give up on Vinexpo. Would some in the New World countries be able to do other things? I'm not sure. I'm not sure how serious that is.

j-d: So Vinexpo can stay number one?

de Eizaguirre: We are unique in our atmosphere and we have the expertise. Of course, we will have to be better and smarter to stay above the rest.