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THE LONDON INTERNATIONAL WINE FAIR - EXHIBITOR PERSPECTIVES
Walking into the London Wine Fair at the cavernous Excel Centre to explore the hundreds of exhibitors showcasing thousands of wines is always an exhilarating experience - and this year was no exception. Now in its 31st year and boasting total attendance figures of 13,745 over the three days of the 2011 event (slightly up from last year), the London International Wine Fair (LIWF) is one of the key events in the world wine calendar. Producers from around the world use the LIWF as an opportunity to expose their wines to thousands of buyers and press from the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
The LIWF attracts a diverse range of visitors from every area of the industry; from UK independent wine merchants and supermarkets, to German importing agents, to restaurant chains, to prominent members of the wine press. This makes the LIWF an ideal place for a producer or exporter wanting to launch new products, meet customers, look for agents, engage the press, or win new direct business. International Director for Distell, Don Gallow, commented that LIWF provides an established producer with a unique opportunity to meet with all their agents throughout Europe and the UK in a very short space of time, meaning that the LIWF represents a very cost-effective use of time and resources for the producer. "Being able to hold key tastings with key buyers from across the continent and spend one-on-one time with them is a rare opportunity for any producer."
As in past years, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) exhibited a large pavilion showcasing South African wines as well as providing a number of individual producer booths. However, for WOSA, 2011 marked a departure from the traditional set-up of one producer per booth, showcasing only his or her wines. Instead, WOSA launched the Great South African Variety Show concept whereby 240 wines were showcased together on a large stand and arranged into self-pour "pods" - circular tasting tables with wines arranged according to a theme. The themes ranged from the geographical (Swartland, Wellington), to the cultivar-based (Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz), to the more esoteric (Stars of Tomorrow, Black Owned Brands, Biodiversity Champions). Producers paid R3,000 (around £270) per wine to have them included in the pods (approximately one tenth the cost of a traditional booth), meaning that smaller wineries were offered a uniquely affordable opportunity to introduce their wines to an international audience.
Petra Mayer of WOSA (Germany) commented that everybody to whom she had spoken had been tremendously positive about the new concept. According to Petra: "The structure of the pavilion allows one to do an in-depth tasting and to discover the hot trends in South African wine making, all in one place and within a relatively short space of time." Comments from visitors had included the fact that WOSA was "thinking out of the box", adding value for visitors, and leading the way with a new approach to promoting wines. People had really enjoyed discovering regions outside the well-known Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek areas with Swartland being a particularly popular pod.
Lana Sinclair of wine exporters Robinson & Sinclair is a regular exhibitor at LIWF as well as at shows such as Prowein (German trade fair) and Vinexpo (French trade fair). She says that last year the difficult economic situation had a negative impact not only on visitor numbers at LIWF but also on visitor spirits. "Last year it was just too quiet - there was no buzz, no enthusiasm - but this year the buzz is back. The fact that the FIFA World Cup was held in South Africa has created a huge surge of interest in South African wines." Lana also noted that there were a number of new people visiting their booth this year, and that there seems to be a growing trend for restaurant groups in the UK approaching producers and exporters directly to purchase their wine in bulk.
Robinson & Sinclair was one of the 19 exhibitors that had a booth of their own as well as having some of their wines on the WOSA pods, a system that Lana felt worked synergistically. "I could keep an eye on the WOSA pods, see who was tasting our wines, then go and invite them back to our booth for a more in-depth tasting." Lana was very enthusiastic about the WOSA wine pods concept and saw it as a way of building "brand South Africa", allowing people to discover the kinds of South African wines they want to taste but may not have been familiar with.
Wine journalist Jamie Goode of the Sunday Express newspaper was spotted taking his time and tasting his way uninterrupted around the WOSA pods. According to Jamie: "The Variety Show concept is innovative; the selection of wines interesting, and the choice of themes suitably quirky." He noted that the system made South African wines more accessible to journalists as it allowed them to taste various examples of a single style or cultivar side by side; and to taste more wines in a shorter time as there was no need to interact with the producers. He also loved the stack of business cards available with each wine, listing each wine's producer and essential info.
Chenin Blanc Association manager Ina Smith supervised the two Chenin Blanc pods and was on hand to provide information and receive feedback from visitors. "They love the new system", said Ina, "because the pods allow people to taste at their own pace". She also noticed that visitors were keen to give her unsolicited feedback on the Variety Show concept and that it was almost all positive. She did, however, add that although footfall on the WOSA stand had been good over the three days, it was hard to tell if any new business was being done when producers were not actually on the stand.
Jeff Gradwell, Brand Director of KWV, another major player in the South African wine industry who regularly exhibits at LIWF, commented that he had the impression that a lot of new business was being done this year. Although KWV was one of the producers able to have their own booth as well as having wines on the WOSA pods, Jeff mentioned that one of the main advantages of the pods was that it made the LIWF more affordable and therefore accessible to South Africa's smaller and emerging producers. He also commented on how busy the WOSA stand had been for the duration of the LIWF, and that the system was a great way of showcasing South Africa's versatility as a wine-producing country.
Perhaps the only negative comment on the Variety Show was that it did not look at all African. Su Birch, CEO of WOSA, explained that the look and feel of this year's WOSA pavilion took its cue from the Variety Show theme. The UK has a long history of Victorian entertainments (think Brighton Pier in its heyday) and this concept was carried through to the signage and visuals on the pavilion. Although Su concedes that not everybody immediately made this connection, the new look certainly got LIWF visitors talking about South African wine - and that in itself can only be a good thing. "Now that the Variety Show has been successfully introduced we will probably adapt the visuals to the traditional DNA for South African wine at future shows."