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Bigger tasting for Berkmann at 60

Published:  21 February, 2024

Berkmann Wine Cellars celebrated 60 years of tastings in its biggest venue of recent times at London’s Guildhall yesterday (20 February), where throngs queued out of the door to taste brands like Antinori, California’s Ridge Vineyards and Vega Sicilia.

Following a trend of packed portfolio tastings recently, Berkmann welcomed expanded numbers through the doors of the Guildhall yesterday, taking the leap from its usual home at The Brewery.

A larger than usual tasting also took place in York on Monday (19 February), where the company saw an approximate 30% uplift in visitors to its northern event, which switched from its usual host city of Leeds.

Alex Hunt MW, Berkmann’s purchasing director who has been with the distributor for 18 years, told Harpers that the choice of London venue was partly symbolic.

“Compared to the Guildhall, which dates back to 1440, Berkmann is patently celebrating a more modest milestone. So I like to think we’re still young and sprightly at 60 years, and still in great shape, just like the hall. We don’t want this to be a purely retrospective event. It’s really about looking ahead to the next 60 years,” he said.

Berkmann’s 60th anniversary year does indeed seem to be shaping up well for the company, which has added several top names to its armoury of late.

This includes wineries like Vega Sicilia, which was able to tap into satisfying synergy with Berkmann earlier this year. Having joined back in 2021, the iconic Ribera winery celebrated 160 years of winemaking in tandem with Berkmann’s “more modest 60” last month. The result was a special gala dinner, where MD Rupert Berkmann explained that the anniversary evening also served to flag the importer’s recent move to steer more icon estate wines into top restaurants (and away from the comparative anonymity of private cellars).

More on that front… the company is indeed pushing ahead with its programme to expand the number of vintages of top wines held back from the likes of Vega Sicilia, Antinori, Masi and Ridge, to the benefit of the on-trade.

Although this type of cellar programme is sometimes perceived as “storage heavy, cash intensive and old fashioned”, Hunt says, he also insists that shying away from it would “be against our ethos of championing wine culture” and making these wines “available in reasonable commercial quantities”.

The Vega Sicilia wines perhaps are the newest and most exciting of those now making their way into the Berkmann cellars, partly because of the Spanish approach to releasing wines while they are semi-mature. The result is that the winery has currently little to offer in the way of library wines, though that could be about to change.

“We’ve just launched the Único 2014, so we will be putting part of that allocation aside to release in ten years or so. But we know it can age much further,” says Hunt.

Elsewhere, the top ranking items on Hunt’s wish list for 2024 include “more Burgundy”, thanks to the widespread shortages, plus orange wines. The company is also continuing to “dip a very fussy toe into the low & no space”, with three wines on show at yesterday’s tasting. One is still yet to properly join the portfolio – a still variant of a sparkling 0% Riesling already in place.

For now, Hunt echoes the suspicions of many others in the trade when he says the conversation around low & no for wine “is more noise than sales”.

More boldly, he says “wine is particularly ill optimised as a category to be adapted to no alc. Frankly, 95% of what I tasted is utterly terrible”.

The best of the rest: Dog Point from New Zealand joined the portfolio last year, offering standout Marlborough Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs.

Also fresh for 2024 is Scala Dei, often cited as the birthplace or ‘founding winery’ of Priorat, which is one of the more notable additions to the Berkmann dossier.

“I’ve always really admired the style of the winery and of Ricard Rofes the winemaker, who imbues his Priorat with much more than the usual dose of elegance. These are Priorat that a Burgundy lover can enjoy: they’re not about muscle; they’re about grace and energy and transparent terroir expression. So they’re a very, very good fit for the Berkmann ethos,” Hunt concludes.