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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 May, 2004, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Grape time at leading wine & spirits fair
By Guy Robarts
BBC News Online business reporter

Bottles galore at the biggest liquid lunch in the land

Seasoned drinkers will tell you never to mix grape with grain, but that has done little to discourage the hordes of visitors to the London International Wine and Spirits Fair.

It does not take much to tempt oenophiles into the same room to sniff, spit and debate over the virtues and aromas of various tipples, and this event is no exception.

The fair is a mega happening with over 1,200 exhibitors clinking glasses and making merry business with around 16,000 industry punters.

Some of the top experts, as well as major distributors and producers in the wine and spirits field, all squash together in what is, for three days, the world's biggest wine selling cellar.

For those old pros who have wisely learnt to regurgitate not swallow, chest-high dustbins labelled 'spittoon waste only' mark the corner of every stall.

For those in the trade, the UK has a unique place in the global wine market - it is the largest non-producing import market in the world. (The UK is classified as such, even though there are some British vineyards).

Down the hatch

Britain's reputation as a nation of boozers means the Wine & Spirits Fair is the place to make big bucks if you're a wine producer.

Close to one in every three bottles exported from the US and one in every two bottles from Australia are consumed in the UK.

Every year, new exporting countries are jumping on the bandwagon to offer their wares to the thirsty British palate.

The UK is a difficult market at moment because of pressure from retailers who are driving prices down
Charlotte Hey
The Drinks Business

This year has seen new exhibiting countries, including China/Hong Kong, while the US's presence has expanded to include wines from New York and Missouri.

The Spirits Zone offered tantalizing tipples from a number of first-timers to the event, armed with exotic names like Cristall Moscow Distiller, Arteska and Wildcream.

New ways to mix the ultimate liver-quiverer Absinthe into cocktails named 'Bull Rush' and 'Whip Me Beat Me' were there to satisfy the hardcore.

And to nourish the intellect, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the Institute of Masters of Wine dished out a plethora of courses for the future connoisseur.

The 'spirits foundation' competed with gin seminars as 'blind tasting challenges' gave visitors the chance to drink themselves all the way to a grand prize and an even grander hangover.

Vintage year

England is not famed for its wine industry, yet there are 430 vineyards scattered across the southern parts of the UK.

Since the late 1970s winemaking in the UK has flourished, but has always missed out on the fanfare that other new wave winemaking countries such as Australia, South Africa and Chile enjoyed.

Of course, the unpredictable English weather has given the industry a rollercoaster ride, but the last few years have been excellent for the home grown grape.

Picking grapes in Tuscany
Heat wave in the UK gives Tuscany a run for its money

Last year's long, sultry summer left much of the country resembling Tuscany, and wine makers confidently predicted that the 2004 vintage would be the best ever.

Grapes ripened up to a month earlier than normally and some English winemakers have called it "the vintage of their lifetimes".

A bumper crop will rarely boost profits, however, it will only improve the taste.

For UK vineyards to compete successfully with Californian, Australian or continental rivals they can't price themselves out of the market.

For English wines to be financially viable they need to be priced above 5 or more, but a quality foreign wine can often be bought for less.

"The UK is a difficult market at the moment because of the pressure from big retailers who are really pushing prices down, so achieving margins is hard," Charlotte Hey, publisher of the industry magazine The Drinks Business told BBC News Online.

"Wine is an agricultural product. It's not like vodka where you can turn the tap on should consumption go up. You're rather dependent on vintage. And it is a low margin industry in comparison, so the industry faces some tough years."

Click 'n sniff

The sensitive snout of the traditional wine connoisseur might be under threat too - from a cyberspace rival.

Computers may be about to develop olfactory talents to sniff out the finest vintages.

A pioneering device from France, on show at the Fair, claims to give wine tasters the ability to pick up the subtle aromas of wine from the comfort of their home computer.

Wine buffs turn their noses up at "perfumed" websites

Piloted by the Bureau Interprofessional des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB), the technology enables people to smell Burgundy wines over the internet.

A hand-held diffuser called the 'Olfacom' is connected to a computer and the user links up to a cyberspace wine cellar where fragrances can be selected and inhaled from the device.

The technology is part of France Telecom's Exhalia project which aims to add a "fourth dimension" to internet use by adding a sense of smell.

Booze culture

As thousands gathered to celebrate the fruits of Bacchus, the government has been more concerned with sobering up the nation with its clampdown on the UK's binge drinking culture.

The public would expect us to act if the industry does not play ball
David Blunkett, Home Secretary

A series of measures to combat alcohol related crime were outlined last month after figures showed an 11% rise in violent crime, with nearly 50% of the cases linked to drink.

This summer police will target shops and pubs which sell alcohol to minors.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has warned that further stringent powers to tackle the problem would be adopted if the alcohol industry does not behave responsibly.

Wine drinkers are seen as less prone to anti-social behaviour

The drinks industry has come under fire from the Home Office for its profit-based approach with "irresponsible" promotions that ignore "social consequences of alcohol misuse".

Mr Blunkett said partnership with the alcohol industry, education policies and sensible use of family pressure were needed to end the "scourge" of alcohol abuse.

"The public would expect us to act if the industry does not play ball," Mr Blunkett said.

However, wine makers are bound to have an easier ride than the beer and spirits industry., Charlotte Hey told BBC News Online.

"Wine is a lifestyle product. It has health associations and it lends itself more to moderation. If I was a Bacardi breezer producer I'd be a bit more worried," she said.

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