It was so inevitable. Just as tongues were wagging about how the London Wine Fair had lost some of its Mojo, the event organisers delivered a knockout show that had attendees up by 17%. Those UK importers who did take a stand reported brisk business. Chris Wilson was there and reported back for The Buyer, saying how new innovations across the three days really did draw in the crowds and deliver the results.
Once again, Esoterica was one of the many highlights and could arguably stand as an event in its own right.
From an organiser’s, exhibitors’ and punters’ point-of-view the 2018 London Wine Fair has been hailed as a success with new life breathed into an event that many thought was on its knees. So what worked this year to make it so, and what did we learn from three days at Olympia? Here’s five things to take away.
1 – Small (and Busy) is Beautiful
The London Wine Fair used to sprawl into another hall at Olympia, with dozens more big-name importers, generics and brands boasting grand stands. Comparatively the 2018 edition was a much more compact affair, with just the main hall used, and even then the gallery level wasn’t fully occupied.
Wandering around the gallery on Tuesday morning, tasting and chatting in the Esoterica and Wines Unearthed zones, if felt a like a ghost town… but then the flood gates opened and within the space of 60 minutes it was rammed; elbows, tasting booklets and wine glasses everywhere.
For the rest of the day and the following day there was a palpable buzz at the Fair and it felt incredibly busy. Official stats say that footfall was up 17% from 2017 with more than 14,000 trade punters through the doors across all three days, and apart from first thing on Tuesday morning you could certainly tell.
The exhibitors I chatted to were – on the whole – impressed not only with the quantity of attendees but also the quality, with many buyers, decision makers and journalists actively seeking new wines and new opportunities.
2 – English Wine is Enjoying its Moment in the Sun
Downstairs at the back on the hall adjacent to the excellent Innovation Zone was Drinks Britannia, a haven for all things British. As well as wine (much of it sparkling) there were British gins, whiskies, pre-mix cocktails and vermouths on show. This was the place to come to enjoy some of the most talked about wines at the Fair.
Following in the footsteps of the recent Wines of GB tasting, this showcase of still and sparkling wines from England and Wales opened even more eyes to the quality, diversity and passion of an industry that’s on the up-and-up. There’s real confidence here among the producers and every time I visited this area people were consumed by the stories being told by enthusiast winemakers, and of course by the drinks too.
This zone showed an industry that’s focussed and proud of its unique product, and can stand toe-to-toe with any of the other larger countries making a play for attention at the Fair.
3 – Large Importers Who Did Take a Stand Were Rewarded
It was noted in the run-up to the London Wine Fair that a handful of big name exhibitors from previous years (chiefly medium-large UK importers) had pulled out of attending this year leading to a fear that as a result visitor numbers and therefore business opportunities would be down. As we know footfall was up, and speaking to importers who were there it’s clear that business was being done on the floor.
So it was a win-win for those who decided to support LFW, more potential customers and fewer competitors showing their wines. The likes of Hatch Mansfield, Louis Latour, Seckford, Treasury Wine Estates and Accolade all had stands that were busy and buzzing. It’s a shame that fewer of the big names were there (as much for the producers they represent as anything), but maybe more will return in 2019 having seen what the competition is up to.
4 – It’s All About Masterclasses, Briefings and Tastings
This year’s Fair offered more opportunities than ever to sit down and listen to industry figures chewing over the issues of the day or get stuck into a wine-tasting masterclass. With the Industry Briefing room, Innovation Zone stage, Walk-Up Tastings area, Education Zone and Premium Masterclasses room you were spoilt for choice when it came to tutored tastings or robust discussions.
On top of this there were pop-up tastings all across the Fair as well as sessions at the WSET and generic country stands.
Highlights included the ‘Wines For Not Your Ordinary Joe’ tasting where Joes Wadsack and Fattorini teamed up to chat through some of the weird and wonderful wines they’d recently encountered, including a Japanese Zweigelt, and The Benevolent-hosted roundtable discussion on the topic of mental health in the workplace featuring The Buyer’s Mike Turner, who championed this cause on these very pages last year.
It’s clear from the sheer number of talks and discussions and how well they were attended that London Wine Fair is about a lot more than tasting wines and doing business, it’s also about connecting with the rest of the industry, getting to grips with the industry’s big (and small) issues and making plans for the future… whether they be about safeguarding against industry-wide mental health problems or sourcing esoteric Japanese wines.
5 – Esoterica Rocks
Last year my focus when writing about the London Wine Fair was about how exciting and engaging the Esoterica section is. Nothing has changed. This remains the most vibrant and interesting part of the Fair where some of the UK’s best wines, best people and most dedicated importers can be found.
Where else can you find the head honchos of two dynamic importers having a Pigato-off to see whether their Aussie or Italian versions of Vermentino are best, and all done in the spirit of promoting two equally good and off-the-radar wines. I tasted both and they are wildly different in style, but if I was a restaurant-owner I’d be very interested in both for my list.
Elsewhere on the Esoterica gallery there was some out-there wines from Germany, Romania and Greece up for grabs as well as more on-the-beaten-track takes from the old and new worlds, but every table had something worth finding out more about, and those doing the pouring were always more than happy to oblige.
I’ve said it before, but such is the strength of this group of importers than an Esoterica Fair in its own right would be a fine thing indeed, just house it somewhere more fitting. I’d be there in a flash.