UK faces battle to maintain its share of seedless grape volume

Agrimessina packhouse

Agrimessina has invested in the latest Marco packhouse system

Agrimessina Carlo Berardi
Berardi: we have a good amount of grapes and can accommodate our customers' needs...they can trust us to do a good job

The UK may no longer be the sole preserve for seedless varieties of grape but Agrimessina srl believes there is enough fruit to go round as trends in varieties and pack sizes change. Produce Business UK investigates

It was not so long ago that continental European consumers turned their noses up at the UK’s penchant for seedless grapes. Our neighbours across the English Channel were quick to point out the intense flavour and juiciness we were missing out on in their traditional varieties, all because we found their seeds a nuisance.

But the consumer’s voice has spoken and as a host of other countries cotton on to seedless grape developments, uptake and competition for volumes is intensifying.

Seedless demand grows

“World demand for seedless grapes is definitely increasing,” says Carlo Berardi of the UK office of Italian producer-exporter Agrimessina. “A few years ago ours was one of a very small number of packhouses in Italy working seedless grapes. But now Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, for example, are all starting to consume a lot more seedless grapes and the German market is close to 80% seedless. The UK has been in a favourable position as a large consumer of seedless, but it will find it tougher now to get the volumes it wants.”

Partnership challenge

Berardi believes that the challenge will be for retailers to find their supply partners to meet this demand. “Italy has always played a small role in the supply calendar, compared with other countries such as Spain,” he says, “and the Italian mentality has always been to supply seeded fruit in wooden boxes. But if you look closely, those retailers with a good offer of Italian grapes have done well over the past five years or so.”

Agrimessina is a third-generation producer-supplier to the UK market and grows its fruit in Puglia from where it is able to supply from mid-July until early December. Some 75% of its grapes are its own production while 25% comes from associated growers to give it a total of 700ha under production in this southern Italian region.

The company dates back to the 1960s and is the largest supplier of Italian grapes to the UK market. Berardi believes the fact it has been able to be so flexible and adapt to market demands is what still holds it in good stead today. “At the beginning all our volume was sold through the wholesale markets,” he says. “But over time, we developed our supermarket business. Now we deliver a very high proportion of our volume directly into supermarket depots because we pack into punnets at source.”

Systems investment

Agrimessina has invested in the latest Marco packhouse system packing directly into punnets and has installed a new heat-sealer – one of the few European grape packhouses to do so. It delivers to Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Aldi. “We have a very good transport network across the UK and when customers deal with us directly we can cut down a lot on road time and they can get their product even fresher,” explains Berardi.

With trucks leaving Italy daily during the season, Agrimessina is in a position to deliver small volumes to particular clients if required. “We have a good amount of grapes and can accommodate our customers’ needs,” says Berardi. “We have a direct relationship with them and they can trust us to do a good job.”

Special New Fruit Licensing

The company offers all the traditional seedless varieties such as Thompson, Crimson, Superior and Autumn Royal but over the past year has teamed up with Special New Fruit Licensing (SNFL) to grow its speciality varieties and Agrimessina has Timpson, Magenta, Allison and Timco in production. “We now have 100ha of SNFL varieties in production and had our first commercial crop last year,” says Berardi. “We spent a long time looking at different varieties and we feel that the SNFL portfolio is the most suited to our needs in terms of yield and saleability. Traditionally in Italy, producers have focused on producing large-sized bunches but because we pack directly into punnets, we want smaller bunch sizes.”

Here Berardi has noticed a shift in what consumers are looking for in the UK too. “Shoppers are not so picky about the variety – they want their grapes to look nice and taste sweet, but they definitely want to buy in a pack and not loose,” says Berardi who has seen punnet sales climb to hold a 96% share.

“Pack sizes are getting smaller, down from 250g to 170g,” he explains “and although more packs are being sold, not as many kilos are being sold”.

Agrimessina was at the London Produce Show and Conference at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, on June 3-5. “I visited the show last year and really liked it – it is small and focused and for us it is fundamental to exhibit because the UK is so important to our business,” says Berardi. “It is a good meeting point for us to see our customers and to find some new ones.”
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