Comment - The Losh Cause – Small world
The London International Wine Fair always offers a wide variety of exhibitors, including a healthy representation from less well-known regions. Chris Losh took the opportunity of last month's fair to investigate some smaller but clearly ambitious wine producers from India, the Pacific north-west of the US and Israel.
This year's London International Wine Fair was the 21st century wine world in microcosm. Huge businesses with vastly-expensive stands hoovered up buyers and visitors like krill, while smaller producers with more modest ambitions fed off the scraps round the edges.
For once I managed to find a couple of hours to swim with the minnows, visiting, more or less at random, producers from India, Israel and America's Pacific north-west.
Interestingly, while they all had vastly different histories, cultures and climates (not to mention being the small matter of several thousand miles apart) there was as much that unified them as separated them in the way they approached the market.
For starters, all shared a definite sense of optimism. Some of this, admittedly, may have been due to 'trade fair buzz', but there was a heartening lack of negativity around these smaller producing regions.
Of course, it's easy to be positive when things are looking good at home, and whatever the reservations about the slowdown in some key European markets, it was noticeable that all of these smaller growing regions had increasingly healthy domestic wine markets.
Israel's domestic wine consumption has risen from 4.5 litres per capita to 7 litres over the last few years and interest in wine among the population is booming; American early adopters are increasingly looking for the cooler-climate flavours and/or varietals of California's neighbours to the north; while the potential in India, as a moneyed, well-travelled middle-class emerges, remains astonishing.
While India is a 140m-case market for brown spirits, wine is currently less than 2m cases, but growing at 30% a year and her wine producers are sensing a real opportunity. "India is our fastest growing market, and that's going to be the case for the next five years," says Rajeev Sula of Sula Wines. "You're going to see a lot more women, especially, drinking alcohol now."
No wonder, perhaps, that these regions are seeing increasing numbers of small estates springing up. When Jonathan Tishbi set up his winery in Israel in the early 1980s, it was the country's first private (i.e. non-cooperative) winery. A quarter of a century later, there are 300, although most of these are admittedly tiny, producing less than 5,000 litres.
It's a similar story in the Pacific north-west, where apart from a couple of medium to large producers, Firesteed and Chateau Ste Michelle, the local wine industry comprises small family-run businesses. The average production in Oregon is only 5,000 cases per producer, which, for all its New World status, makes it more akin to Burgundy than Australia.
This lack of critical mass is probably the single biggest factor influencing the strategies of these less well-known regions. Without three or four huge producers to blaze a trail, supermarkets tend to steer clear. "'You can't guarantee level of supply," says Kate Sweet, UK representative for Oregon and Washington Wines. "It's okay if a retailer can handle small parcels, but these regions can't, for the most part, guarantee 13 container loads into, say, Tesco."
Given disadvantages of scale, it's perhaps understandable that, from America's west coast to the hills south of Mumbai, producers have mostly concentrated on bankable international varietals which at least provide consumers with something familiar to hang on to. Sula wines, for instance, claims its Syrah is India's top red wine, while Israel's Binyamina Winery makes a screw-capped Sauvignon Blanc that is straight out of the Marlborough school of design, though it does also produce a red from the Argaman grape, arguably the closest Israel has to a signature variety.
While there are occasional supermarket listings, most of these niche producers rely on doing things the old-fashioned way, which means a lot of time on aeroplanes, and effort put into building personal relationships, mostly in the on-trade. "I want to grow exports more and more, and to do that I have to go into the markets myself," says Jonathan Tishbi of the Israeli Tishbi Estate.
Present in 20 export markets, Tishbi is something of a trailblazer for Israeli wine, and recognises that even smaller operators can need help if they're to build your brand. "The key is to have a good importer, and to support him," he says, before adding: "But you have to understand what is importing and what is charity…"
Nonetheless, for most, promotional budgets remain tiny.
There is, though, one striking exception to this picture of homespun boutiquery: India's Chateau Indage Group. Established only 25 years ago, Champagne Indage produces 150m litres of wine a year, exporting to 69 countries. Last year, it bought the seventh largest winery in Australia, and two weeks ago - during the trade fair, in fact - it acquired the UK supplier and bag-in-box specialist, Darlington Wines.
This is not so much an Indian company, as a growing multinational that happens to have started in India. Built very much on the Constellation model, Indage is hungry to grow, and will doubtless use a febrile market and producers' eagerness to sell to extract the best possible price for further acquisitions.
"Buyers are heavily reliant on your efficiency," says Ranjit Chougule, Chateau Indage's managing director, "and that's the reality of the wine business; it's moving into an FMCG business."
The wine world in microcosm indeed…
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