Miles Beale, head of the UK Wine & Spirits Trade Association – WSTA – told the BBC Today Programme last week that, while his members who supply supermarkets and specialist drinks retailers, restaurants and bars have done very well to ensure they’ve got wine coming into UK ports, they now have a real problem getting it from those ports to the bottling plants and warehouses where it’s processed – and then to the supermarkets where people buy them.
There is a severe shortage of truck drivers in many markets, but in the UK, where the shortfall is estimated at 100,000, the issue has been made far worse by post-Brexit restrictions that prevent Europeans from simply crossing the Channel to fill vacancies. Deliveries are taking up to five times longer than 2020.
Gavin Quinney, the British-born owner of Château Bauduc in Bordeaux, who – unusually - supplies UK customers including Rick Steyn restaurants directly rather than through an importer or agent, supports Beale’s view of distribution problems. As he revealed on Twitter, “We stopped shipping wine to the UK six weeks ahead of normal, pre-Christmas, because the wine couldn’t be booked into our customs bonded warehouse near London in time for any deliveries out to trade or private customers before Christmas.”
Similar Brexit-linked shortages of abattoir workers and veterinary surgeons are facing farmers who have already had to cull over 14,000 pigs that did not go into the food chain. British consumers started to buy their Christmas frozen turkeys in October to avoid the risk of not being able to get one in December.
The UK government acknowledged these problems by launching temporary visa schemes for abattoir workers and truck drivers, but in both cases, the short duration of the visas has reduced their appeal to EU applicants. The drivers’ visa runs out at the end of February 2022
The WSTA, in a letter to the UK transport minister Grant Shapps, co signed by 49 companies, including Pernod Ricard and the Wine Society, has asked for the visa scheme to be extended to at least a year. Beale believes that this “would send a strong signal to the drivers and would mean that many would come back immediately.”
Even without this move, Beale expects Christmas to be rather different. “We don’t want to see panic buying of wines and spirits, but consumers will see fewer offers of the sort you expect to see before Christmas and smaller ranges on retail shelves.” They will, he continued “also maybe see some new brands and have trouble finding the ones they’re used to.” In short, there won’t be “the level of offer you’d expect to see in the run up to Christmas.”
Questioned about Brexit more generally, Beale was similarly bleak. "None of the benefits of Brexit have yet accrued. Tariffs coming off wines from Australia and New Zealand will bring a saving of 7-10p per bottle and the abolition of import certificates might do something similar. But we are very worried about new taxation proposals based on alcoholic strength which would wipe away at least the gains we might see from wines coming in from Australia and NZ.”
In any case, he said, the majority of wine consumed in the UK still comes from the EU, and there are no changes there… and we’re not entirely clear over whether arrangements with the EU will stay tariff free as they are now.“
However good their sales over the festive period, as Britain continues to try to renegotiate the Northern Irish elements of the Brexit deal and argues with France over fishing rights, wine professionals on both sides of the Channel have no reasons to feel complacent as they look forward to 2022.