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Gabrielle Vizzanova
/ 21 Feb, 2022
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[Rendez-vous with…] Gerard Barnes "Our main focus is the work of the winegrower which we aim to emphasise”

A CONVERSATION WITH… Gerard Barnes, buyer at Berkmann Wine Cellars (United Kingdom)
“One of the ideas of Brexit is to adjust taxes to the alcoholic strength of wines, which would benefit the burgeoning English wine industry”

Gerard Barnes began his career in wine some 30 years ago in London with Oddbins, an off-licence retail chain that revolutionised wine distribution in the United Kingdom. He subsequently worked as a wine buyer for a number of major companies before joining Berkmann Wine Cellars, the UK's fifth largest wine importer, six years ago. The family-owned company, founded in 1964 by Joseph Berkmann, an Austrian restaurateur, has focused solely on wine since 1970 and has based its identity on its ability to develop long-term relationships with prestigious family-owned estates, the majority of which remain in its portfolio (Georges Duboeuf, Antinori...). Berkmann Wine Cellars has 150 employees and a catalogue of several thousand SKUs, 70% of which are sold in the on-trade. Gerard Barnes is part of a team of 4 buyers who taste tens of thousands of wines each year, on the hunt for offerings that have what it takes to appeal to the English market.

Gabrielle Vizzavona: One question that has yet to be clearly answered is currently on everyone's lips - how will Brexit impact the UK wine market?

Gerard Barnes: Brexit is probably the most disastrous decision any country could have made! It will cost us dearly and is already starting to have an impact. Admittedly, the large import companies like mine will be fine, but the smaller players will probably be pushed out of the market, because many will not be able to cope with the surging costs it entails. This will have a knock-on effect on the estates these small companies work with and, more generally, will limit the choice of wines available here. I hope that London will remain the vibrant international city and one of the world's leading markets it has been for the last thirty years, even if the UK has lost a lot of credibility.

G.V.: When will we fully know the consequences of Brexit?

G.B.: We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg at the moment, but it will gradually unfold. The planned changes have yet to be implemented and are not expected to be implemented until 2023. It will take at least one to two years for things to settle down and for us to consider what agreements we can make with Europe and the rest of the world. There are still a lot of unknowns and it is difficult to separate the consequences of Brexit from those of Covid and the supply chain crisis.

G.V.: What will be the impact of taxes levied by the UK?

G.B.: In theory - at least that's what the politicians sold us about leaving the European Union – we could reduce our taxes compared to those of the European Union and in particular lower VAT. But that’s just an illusion. By the same measure, we thought we would make savings on customs duties, but in actual fact the reductions are marginal and will be completely engulfed by the increase in transport costs. Trade will therefore be comparatively easier with our close neighbours than with New World countries.

G.V.: Does the State intend to promote the English wine industry?

G.B.: The idea is to adjust taxes based on the alcoholic strength of the wines, which I think is a fairly protectionist decision. In addition to our already well-established sparkling wine production, we have a burgeoning English wine industry which will be promoted if we use this tax system, as our wines are always below 14% (because of our climate), which is less frequently the case in other producer countries. We have also made huge strides in quality. For the first time last year I tasted an English Chardonnay, in the Chablis style, which I actually really enjoyed! Similarly, we are starting to include English Pinot noir in our catalogue.

G.V.: Will the English be prepared to spend more money on a bottle of wine?

G.B.: Joking aside, they will have to in the coming months, because we are facing a price hike the likes of which I have rarely seen in my career. The last time I saw this was in the early 1990s, when frost hit France hard. But this time it's global.

G.V.: What are the factors fuelling this price hike?

G.B.: Several factors are combined: the increase in the cost of fuel, dry materials, glass and transport. But also the significant rise in the price of wine caused by the small 2021 crop. Adverse weather conditions caused significant drops in production which are pushing up prices. In some cases, spiralling prices are also caused by strong demand, as for Prosecco in recent months. Customers don't like these sudden price hikes, and it's our job to try to keep prices reasonable without penalising our suppliers. We have to find a balance. Inflation is a big concern. In the UK it is estimated to be just under 6%. We haven't seen that for 30 years...

 G.V.: What major trends are you witnessing in the English market at the moment?

G.B.: Half of the UK market is made up of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Malbec from Argentina. Prosecco, Picpoul de Pinet and Gavi are also very popular. Aside from these dominant categories, there are several trends. In supermarkets, there is a move towards lesser-known native grape varieties from southern Italy, France or Spain. In the on-trade market, we are seeing a trend towards Eastern Mediterranean wines, such as wines from Greece, Turkey, Lebanon or Georgia, which have been under the radar for the last 20 years. The other trend that started to gain traction a few years ago is low-intervention and natural wines, even if it seems to have made fewer inroads than in Paris. There are some fantastic wines, some of the best in the world, which advocate a hands-off approach but without becoming fundamentalist and retain the freedom to intervene if there are any problems. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the trend for natural at all costs, even if that implies releasing faulty wines. There are too many disappointing natural wines that get away with it because they are fashionable. The risk is that consumers who are becoming wine literate will turn to cocktails or beer if they don’t enjoy a wine served by an advisor who explains that this is the right taste. The competition between wine and other drinks has never been so great. The problem is that, without sulphur to reveal varietal characters on a given terroir, natural wines all end up tasting the same...
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