• Indigo’s Ben Henshaw: out to satisfy trade’s thirst for novelty

    Yes, there are still supply and currency issues to fret about, but the market could not be better for a small, specialist importer such as Indigo Wine, claims founder Ben Henshaw. He says the combination of consumers being more interested about what they eat and drink, and restaurants and bars being more willing to change their lists and try more ‘unconventional’ wines is ideal for what they offer.

    Yes, there are still supply and currency issues to fret about, but the market could not be better for a small, specialist importer such as Indigo Wine, claims founder Ben Henshaw. He says the combination of consumers being more interested about what they eat and drink, and restaurants and bars being more willing to change their lists and try more ‘unconventional’ wines is ideal for what they offer.

    mm By January 24, 2018

    There have never been more opportunities for adventurous wine importers like Indigo Wine to offer restaurants, bars and sommeliers a constantly changing menu of different, off-beat wines to try from around the world. But you still need to get the basics right, warns founder Ben Henshaw. Try their wines for yourself at their London tasting on February 21. 

    How do you see the market going into 2018?

    When the Brexit result came out, and exchange rates went haywire, many in the industry braced themselves for a trapdoor opening under their feet. That hasn’t happened, but the continuing uncertainty and lack of a clear direction on what March 2019 might look like, makes anyone who depends on imports slightly circumspect.

    Consumers have become increasing engaged and curious about what they eat and drink, they’re hungry for knowledge and open to trying new things. We see our customers reacting to this by changing their lists more often, offering more wines by the glass and adding slightly more ‘unconventional’ wines to lists. Especially in tasting menus or as suggested pairings for dishes.

    This is great for us as we have such a diverse portfolio, and it really gives our sales team something to capitalise on, including selling some wines that are only made in small quantities.

     What were the big breakthroughs for you in 2017

    We continued to take on new agencies throughout 2017. We added significantly more depth to our South American range, including our first Argentine Malbec.

    The influential Argentine winemaker, Gerardo Michelini, is now making wine with Indigo Wine
    The influential Argentine winemaker, Gerardo Michelini, is now making wine with Indigo Wine

    Some of them were recommendations and introductions via growers we already worked with, and part of it was serendipity. One of our sales team was working the harvest with Raul Perez in Bierzo last year, and he met Gerardo Michelini – the Michelini brothers are working on numerous projects in the Uco region, and have been a driving force behind the fresher style of wines we’re now seeing coming out of Argentina. Their focus on the vineyard, and hands-off style in the winery are just the sort of things we look for. 

    We were delighted to add Evening Land, the terroir-focused Oregon project from super sommelier Raj Parr and winemaker Sashi Moorman, to our list in the autumn, and are looking forward to having Raj here for the portfolio tasting in February.

    Closer to home we’re excited about Portugal, both the fresher table wines coming out of the traditionally fortified Douro region, and areas such as Dao, Bairrada and Portalegre where young winemakers like Antonio Madeira, Márcio Lopes and Vitor Claro are working with the diverse varietals native to Portugal and coming up with some wonderful, fresh, food-friendly wines at good prices.

    Even closer still we picked up our first English vineyard, Hoffmann & Rathbone in Sussex, which has been flying out the door.

     

    Have you found it harder to source wine and get wines at a price you need because of the 2017 shortage?

    No doubt it’s been a stressful year for some of our growers, they’ve faced frost, drought, hail and the other meteorological disasters, as well as fires in north-west Spain, Portugal and the US. Although volumes are down in some cases, most are reporting that they’re pleased with the quality of what they’ve harvested, and thankfully few have suffered devastating losses. 

    We build long-term partnerships with our growers, they’ve been very supportive of us over the last year to mitigate currency rises as much as possible, and we’re working with them on pricing and allocations for the coming year. We have a wide-raging portfolio which gives us flexibility to increase volume in some areas if we can’t source what we need in others.

     

    What do you see as being the trends driving the on-trade in 2018?

    There’s no typical consumer in the UK, especially in London and other urban centres. The common thread is that many – particularly those who buy via our restaurant and independent retail customers – are increasingly well informed and open to trying things. Natural wine seems to be reaching a tipping point: the success of consumer events such as RAW have really driven that. Customers are asking for organic and biodynamic wines.

    One of my team came back from a recent customer tasting commenting on the number of times she’d explained biodynamics – not an easy task at a busy Christmas tasting! They’ve read about skin-contact wines and Pet-Nat and they want to try  them – which can only be good news.

    In terms of countries or regions – Spanish whites are finally gaining some of the recognition we’ve long argued they deserve. Austria is increasingly popular for the fresher food-friendly wines it can offer – we recently started to work with Birgit Braunstein, a fantastic biodynamic producer in Burgenland. 

    Ben Henshaw is now making some of the wine Indigo imports like this collaboration, Mother Rock, with Swartland winemaker Johan Meyer
    Ben Henshaw is now making some of the wine Indigo imports like this collaboration, Mother Rock, with Swartland winemaker Johan Meyer

    In South Africa I’ve been working on Mother Rock, my own project in Swartland in partnership with talented young winemaker Johan Meyer, for a couple of years now, so I visit regularly. The scene there is just getting more and more exciting, as anyone who attended the New Wave South Africa tasting in October will tell you – prices are rising but it still without doubt represents incredible value for the quality and diversity available.

    Convenience is a huge trend: several of our suppliers are working with apps like Deliveroo or even setting up their own platforms such as Drop from the guys behind 10 Cases. It’s great to see the independents offering a quality alternative to the abysmal range found at many of the multiple convenience stores.

     

    Tell us about your tasting on February 21. What have you got planned?

    The portfolio tasting gives us our own space and the chance to show the breadth and depth of our range. It also gives us an excuse to bring our producers to London. They are the engine behind what we do, and with over 40 passionate winemakers in the room the buzz is going to be unmistakable!

    Our customers are mainly sommeliers and trade buyers, they know their stuff, and they know their end customers. I applaud the creativity of some of the recent consumer tastings, but our customers aren’t necessarily looking for an experience, they’re looking for a convenient location, room to swing a cat (or at least a clear pathway to a spittoon!), decent glassware and an exciting selection of delicious wines that they can sell to their customers.

    It’s important to get those basics right. That said, tasting and discussing the wines with the winemaker and hearing their stories really helps bring their projects alive.

    As in previous years we’re joining forces with our partners Biercraft, who work with exciting small craft breweries based in the railway arches of Hackney, the kellers of Bavaria, Adelaide Hills and a few other places in-between.

    What would be your elevator pitch to buyers about why they should attend

    Such a unique, top-quality gathering of the artisanal wine and craft beer worlds is rare – come and meet the brilliant people behind the wines and brews.

     

    Any personal ambitions for 2018?

    I have travelled a great deal last year, and would ideally like to slow down a little in 2018, but I think that is unlikely. There are just too many good projects and opportunities to explore, not to mention wine-related events, festivals and parties to attend all over the world! 

    I do also think it will be a year to keep a close eye on getting the basics right, and that means listening to our customers, and continuing to look after them as well as we possibly can.

     

     

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