The buyers of Denmark

After years of suffering the economic fallout of the global financial crisis, Danes are feeling cheerful again, and this is translating into spending more money on wine. Elsebeth Lohfert meets the buyers responsible for sourcing wines for Denmark.

Gert Carl, Ib Bergkjær, Christian Philipson, Sune Rosforth
Gert Carl, Ib Bergkjær, Christian Philipson, Sune Rosforth

Since the 1970s when the Danes began to consume wine in large quantities, this one-time beer country has become a wine nation.  No less than 46% of the total alcohol consumption in 2013 came from wine – 197m L, a raise of 8% compared to 2012. For the fourth time in a row, Italy was in front with the biggest market share at 20%, followed by France (13.5%), Spain (13.2%), Chile (13.1%) South Africa (9.9%) and Australia (7,9%).

In October 2014, the Danish tax authorities had 1,798 wine importers registered. Of these, the three big multiples COOP (38%), Dansk Supermarked (32%) and Dagrofa (15%) were responsible for an estimated 75% of total retail sales. An upcomer here is the Norwegian-owned Rema 1000 chain, with a market share of 10% in 2013. There’s not much market share left for the many niche and specialist importers, but they are nevertheless important in making the market dynamic and diversified. 

After the fiscal crisis, there is once again a breath of optimism. “If you ask me how we are doing, the answer is fantastic,” says Ib Bergkjær from Sigurd Müller. Morten Berg-Stærk from AMKA agrees, saying that the Danes are once again buying big quantities of wine in the €7.00 ($8.84) to €20.00 ($25.25) category. Looking at trends, there has been a 63% rise in South African imports. The big loser has been France with a fall of 38%, but it’s possible the fall has now finished.

Gert Carl, category manager for wine and spirits, Dagrofa 

In November 2013, Per Thau was ­appointed as CEO to Dagrofa, Denmark’s biggest multiple. 

Now almost a year later, Per Thau is announcing big changes to be implemented in 2015, including  cutting down on the number of chains and establishing a new Meny and Meny-Gourmet chain, inspired by the Norwegian Meny. Part of the strategy is also to focus on discount and build Denmark’s largest discount store with KIWI. To execute the new strategy in the wine department, Gert Carl was appointed category manager for wine and spirits in March 2014. The challenge to put the ‘right’ wine on the shelves is his responsibility, although he has to consult with a tasting panel. 

“It would of course be easier if I made the final decision, right away, but having such a panel-meeting every four to five weeks sharpens my department by continually being in close contact with the end consumer,” he says. Carl explains that Dagrofa has no prejudices about what to sell customers. “If they want a Liebfraumilch at 19.95 DKK ($3.38), we are not raising our eyebrows condemning them. It is up to me to find the best possible Liebfraumilch at 19.95 DKK”.

Ib Bergkjær, CEO, Sigurd Müller Vinhandel A/S

Sigurd Müller Vinhandel has its head office in Jutland, where people are known to be of few words. This is not the case for Ib Bergkjær, who is an eloquent and humorous speed talker. “If you ask me how we are doing, the answer is fantastic. We have no crisis here, living well in our hide out.”

Bergkjær started at Sigurd Müller in 1986, at the age of 19, “sweeping the floors”. This was in 1986 – he’s been CEO since 2009. Sigurd Müller Vinhandel was etablished in 1975 by a group of restaurateurs. Today the company has 354 shareholders but Ib Bergkjær runs the business with no formal limitations from the owners. He is in charge but very open to suggestions from his main customers, the restaurateurs: “It is synergetic. They provoke us, influence our choice and selection of wines, and make us more dynamic,” he says. “We had, for instance, only a few producers from the US, but there was a demand and now we have 15. Our buying of new wines is an ongoing thing, views exchangd between us, our producers and customers.”

Sigurd Müller’s 31 employees service and supply 80% to hotels and restaurants and 20% to consumers and B2B clients. In Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city, they have a shop and sell by direct mail. The company has a long 
record of lasting relations with their producers, which are mainly family-owned businesses. “We prefer to deal with family-owned producers, like Trimbach who has been with us for 40 years. One year we sold 110,000 bottles from Trimbach, then when sales dropped to 90,000 the following year we had to explain why and make them understand that the market changes and there will be fluctuations. This would be more difficult with a big management-run company,” Bergkjær explains.

Regarding current trends, he says that many Danish consumers are “addicted to sugar” and prefer round, soft wines. “The wines from Chile peaked some years ago and now the trend is wines of typicity, like for instance, a Cabernet Franc from the Loire that’s green and supple, well suited to serve in a restaurant.” Their latest hit is Madeira. Altogether, the company has more than 3,200 wines in its portfolio. “I like to see the happy twinkle in the eye when people return and are satisfied,” says Bergkjær.

Morten Berg-Stærk, Head of marketing, AMKA Group

Amka is one of the most significant distributors of wine in Denmark, across all segments of the market: the three big multiples, most of the other chains, convenience stores, wine shops, B2B, hotels and restaurants, duty-free and travel retail. AMKA is considered to be Northern Europe’s biggest wine company with more than a total of 160 employees.

It began in 1978 when Karsten and Anna Marie Søndergård returned to Denmark after having lived in Germany. Anna Marie began importing wine as a hobby but sales boomed and Karsten left his job and joined her. The time was right; consumption was increasing every year and the supermarkets were expanding their wine selections and competing in making the best offers to the consumers. AMKA, which is the combination of Anna Marie and the first two letters in Karsten, her husband’s name, began their expansion. In the early 1990s, politicians considered banning the trade embargo against South Africa. With this in mind, Karsten Søndergård went to visit Stellenbosch Farmers Winery in 1991 and bought containers of South African wine that he shipped to Hamburg. Here it waited until the Danish government officially lifted the blockade on 18 March 1992. Two weeks later, Søndergård’s first South African wine crossed the German-Danish border. “It was like Beaujolais,” he said in an interview. “Everything was sold within 24 hours – some of the greatest fun I have ever had.”  

Head of marketing Morten Berg-Stærk closely follows trends and one of them, he is happy to announce, is optimism. “The Danes are again spending more money and the demand for wine from 50.00 DKK ($8.50) to 150DKK has increased, a price category that had difficulties during the financial crisis,” he says. Another trend is sugar. “Wines with residual sugar are very popular. This sweet trend is part of the succes for Italian wines on the Danish market, because they are both able and willing to supply these types of wines.”  Conservatism is something he has also experinced: “We look at the English market to spot new trends, but very often when we try to implement them in Denmark it is not a success. We tried, for instance, a new Champagne cocktail, very popular in Great Britain, but in Denmark it soon disappeared from the shelves. We also tried a new Port version and the same happened.”

Christian Philipson, CEO & owner, Philipson Wine

Christian Philipson began selling wine from his grandparent’s garage in 1987. He had been CEO of a steel factory in Burgundy, where he fell in love with wine, which he was later to import. An entrepreneur par excellence, he was appointed ‘Gazelle of the year’ six times running by the financial newspaper Børsen, and in 2007 his company was ranked as the ninth-biggest wine company in Denmark. In 1992 he introduced the ‘cash and carry’ concept of selling only cases of 12 bottles. For a time, he was one of the 50 biggest advertisers in Denmark, which was unheard of for a wine company.

He bought big quantities of classified Bordeaux at very favourable prices from the Norwegian and Swedish monopolies, which had bought more than they could sell – and became famous nationally when he sold 1.Cru Classé Château Latour 1987 for 199.00 DKK ($33.00) in 1993. During the Christmas of 2009 he drove his wife crazy working on a deal with the Sogevinus Group that eventually was finalised with more than 700,000 bottles of Burmester Port, mostly old Colheita,  changing hands: “Rather wine in stock than money in the bank,” as he says.

Bordeaux is part of his fine wine portfolio, but with Bordeaux’s high prices and Asian focus they turned their back on the European market. “The wines became so expensive that they were impossible to sell,” he says, noting that the bubble has now burst. “There is an old saying:  ‘A wine is not sold before it has been paid for and consumed and the consumer has been to the toilet’.” Now he can sell the 2010, and some of the better 2011 that he bought with a strict focus on value. Italian wine is the most sought after at present, such as good buys from Brunello and Barolo. 

Seventy percent of Philipson’s sales are to the private consumer, where the younger clientele is increasing. Here, the biggest sales are in the 80.00DKK to 100.00 DKK range, with a considerable drop in sales once price exceeds 200.00 DKK per bottle. After 27 years, Philipson is happy to conclude that he has not turned into a museum, having among his 31 employees a perfect blend of knowledge and age. And then of course he still arrives in his Ferrari and never enters unnoticed.

Sune Rosforth, CEO & owner, Rosforth & Rosforth

What Noma and Redzepi has been to gastronomy worldwide, Sune Rosforth has been to wine in Denmark. Natural wine has played a role in the success of the New Nordic Cuisine, and here Sune Rosforth is the anchor-man, the avant-gardiste. And like Redzepi he has fostered proselytes, establishing the avart-garde. Rosforth went abroad on a wine adventure in 1993, picking grapes in Cahors and Saint-Émilion. He had just finished high school and wanted to learn hands-on what he had read in Hugh Johnson’s ‘The World Atlas of Wine’. From Bordeaux, he continued to Anjou and Loire and here he discovered new, unknown highlights. He returned to Copenhagen, established Rosforth & Rosforth in 1994 (named for himself and his father), and began knocking on restaurant doors. Once hooked, the restaurants wanted wines from other districts and the company grew. 

In 2005, during the annual inventory, he realised that not a single of his bio-wines were left in stock. It struck him that he himself only drank the organic and biodynamic wines, “so why sell what you did not drink yourself”. He made the decision to say goodbye to his conventional producers, although he suggested that if they changed to organic farming, “he would sell even more of their wine.”  Rosforth “wants to honor his growers’ many hours and efforts in the field – all their care so finely unfolded in the glass.” Instead of subjecting the wines to bumping along roads in the back of a truck, the casks and 12,000 bottles from France are loaded into the sailing vessel Tres Hombres, and then sailed by wind power from Brittany to Knippelsbro quay in Copengagen harbour.

The year after Noma opened in 2003 the Swedish-born sommelier Pontus Elofsson bought many wines from Rosforth & Rosforth for the menu.  In 2011 Pontus left Noma to join Rosforth; today they represent more than 100 wine producers selling their wines primarily to restaurants in Copenhagen, Malmø and Stockholm. But online-selling to the private consumer is growing from their website

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