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MERCHANT AWARDS

Every year a number of submitters stand out from the crowd. These awards recognise those merchants who have put in an extraordinary performance in this year’s Sommelier Wine Awards.

MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - BIBENDUM

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Andrew Shaw and Ants Rixon with Chris Losh

Picking up this award for the second time in three years, Bibendum put in a truly powerhouse performance in 2017, nearly becoming the first-ever merchant to break through our equivalent of the four-minute mile: the ‘50 Golds’ barrier. But the Merchant of the Year Award isn’t just about numbers. Last year we made the point that you could have made a great wine list purely by picking from our Merchant of the Year winner (Liberty)’s Golds, and the same was undoubtedly true again here. Where other merchants had one or two Golds in a category, Bibendum had entire ranges: a Malbec and Torrontés from Argentina; Clare Riesling, Margaret River Cabernet, Tasmanian Chardonnay and Yarra Pinot from Australia; Alsace, Provence, Burgundy and the Loire; Napa Cab and Chardonnay, and Russian River Pinot; and pretty much any style of champagne you care to mention. This was an impressive across-the-board selection, but there were still a few highlights for our judges. We’ve already mentioned champagne (which brought in an astonishing – and record – six Golds), but the eight places on our Gold List for South Africa was, if anything, even more eye-popping. No one has ever achieved such a wealth of top medals – or such a wide range of styles – from the country before. And if it’s quirky points of difference you’re after, how about the succulent Uruguayan Albariño from Garzón, P&F’s outrageously cheap Slovenian Furmint/Pinot Blanc or Bolney Estate’s Bacchus from Sussex?

EUROPEAN MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - LIBERTY WINES

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David Gleave MW with Chris Losh

It was asking a lot of Liberty to bring home the Merchant of the Year award two years on the trot, but it put up an impressive defence, increasing its number of medals (at every level) from last year. Typically, Liberty’s strength in this competition lies in Europe, and so it was again this year: two-thirds of all of its medals (in every colour) were from the Old World. Pretty much all of the big-name regions were here: Champagne, Bordeaux (red and white), Germany, Barolo, Soave and Rioja, plus a raft of impressive ports and sherries. Head down into the merchant’s huge number of Silvers (the biggest of any submitter this year – even Bibendum) and you find a real treasure trove of amazing European wines, too, with Burgundy, Alsace, pretty much the whole of Italy, and some astonishingly good offerings from Spain and Portugal. Interestingly, although we felt that Liberty’s European medals were what drove it to success, we have to mention its Australian showing, too. The country picked up 22 medals – eight of them Gold – often from absolutely classic styles and regions. A fine effort all round.

NEW WORLD MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - HALLGARTEN DRUITT & NOVUM WINES

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Chris Losh with Andrew Bewes

Because of the way the wine world operates, it’s no surprise that (barring a few specialists) our merchants always have more Old World medals than they do New World. When France, Spain and Italy are the world’s three biggest producers, it’s inevitable. But this year one merchant had a far higher percentage of New World wines than any other: Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, or HDN as it’s rather more snappily known. Across its top medals (Gold and Silver), half of its successful wines were from the New World. They made for a fascinating selection, too, taking in absolute nailed-on classics like Barossa Shiraz, Mornington Pinot, Kiwi Sauvignon, Mendoza Malbec and Maipo Cabernet, but also some wines or styles that had our judges raising their eyebrows: funky Chilean or South African blends and less typical grape varieties. While we’re talking New World, by the way, we simply have to mention the performance of Saint Clair. In our biggest-ever SWA, it’s hard for any single winery to pick up more than one Gold, so for the Marlborough winery to notch up five of them, plus two Silvers was simply extraordinary. It was a deserving winner of our New World Producer of the Year award (see p30). It shares the Producer slot with the Puglian San Marzano, incidentally – also an HDN winery. Quite a performance…

GREAT VALUE MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - BERKMANN WINE CELLARS

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Alex Hunt MW and Simon Zuckerman

Berkmann, it seems, has a strategy for SWA: carpet bomb the competition with good wines under £15 and wait for the medals to roll in. We’re being flippant. Far from being a sure thing, it’s actually a high-risk strategy because there is a huge amount of competition in this arena; the merchant runs the very real risk of entering a large number of wines and coming away with not much to show for it. Except that its portfolio seems to be well suited to the strategy. It’s picked up several of these awards over the past five years. And if the average price of its medal winners has crept up slightly – more of these were around the £10-£12 mark, compared to under £10 a few years back – that’s more a function of economics than the importer’s strategy. More than 70% of its Golds, 60% of its Silvers and an incredible 85% of its Bronze medals were under £15, all comfortably higher than any other major entrants to this competition. Value is, in any case, relative: a Chablis for £12 and a Grüner for £8 are both as exceptional for the price as those two sub-£7 Sicilians.

FRENCH MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - BOUTINOT

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Chris Losh with Francoise Mathis

After taking a year off last year, Boutinot roared back into SWA 2017 – and was quickly back doing what it does best: picking up a large number of medals. Indeed, its medal count in this year’s competition was higher than the last time it entered in 2015, with an impressive 135 medals, 33 of them Gold. As noteworthy as the sheer volume of gongs, however, was the pricing. Fully 40% of Boutinot’s Golds and 45% of its Silvers this year were under £10, which is an extraordinary achievement, given the price pressures around at the moment. So we toyed seriously with giving the Mancunian value-meister a Great Value award. Yet what we felt really set Boutinot apart – and what drove much of its value for money, in fact – was its amazing raft of medal-winning French wines. Burgundy, Beaujolais and the Rhône were particularly strong in terms of Golds, but there are some fabulous wines among its 16 French Silvers as well, from the Loire to the South. If you want excellent must-have French wines that totally over-deliver, there’s nowhere better to look.

ITALIAN MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - EUROWINES

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Leo Addis and Nello Battistel with Chris Losh

Eurowines has totally made this award its own. This, incredibly, was the fifth year running that it’s claimed it. No question that it didn’t deserve it, either. There were some big Italian entries from other contestants, but nobody came even close to picking up as many Italian medals as these guys. This, to be fair, is no surprise. Eurowines is a merchant with a very clear speciality. And though it did pick up five medals from other countries, it remains a company whose heart is very firmly rooted in Italy. Value in the country isn’t as easy to find as it was five years ago, but that hasn’t stopped Eurowines from looking: its Italian portfolio criss-crosses the country like a Roman patrol looking for Hannibal, from the southern islands up to the foothills of the Alps, taking in most points (and wine styles) in between. If we had to pick a sweet spot, we’d say it’s the north east – nearly half of its Golds were from the Veneto upwards, but there’s plenty of good stuff to explore here, whatever your taste buds or price point.

BOUTIQUE MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - TOP SELECTION

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Melodie Konforti, Michelle and Akon Forczek with Chris Losh

We introduced this award last year to recognise the more bijou submitters; merchants who put in a smaller number of entries, but who garner an impressive number of medals nonetheless. Top Selection won the award comfortably last year and though it was run close by newcomer Indigo Wine, the merchant held onto it in 2017 as well, doubling its Gold tally in the process. The vast majority of its medals – all bar four, in fact – were from Europe, as were all of the Golds. But this was no mere trawling of the continent’s A-list vineyards. Apart from the rather lovely Dufouleur red Burgundy at £45, the vast majority of these medal winners would be seriously worthy of consideration for any half-decent wine list, whether bistro or white tablecloth. A boutique merchant that punches above its weight, to be sure.

PUB MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - FULLER’S

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Chris Losh with Neil Bruce

Despite its name, the Sommelier Wine Awards has never been purely about expensive wines for top-end restaurants. We’re just as interested in finding great value wines for bars and pubs, and we’ve been delighted to see the growing number of entries to the competition from pub suppliers – particularly when they’re as good as this one from SWA newbie Fuller’s. To pick up 20 medals in SWA (six of them Gold) is no mean feat; to do it at these prices is even more impressive. Only one of its medal winners was over £10, which hints at some seriously good sourcing (and, probably, tough negotiating) on the part of its wine buying team. It’s not just about pricing, though – if it were, then Fuller’s would have won the Great Value award. This selection of wines was jammed full of pub classics, whether well-known styles such as Valpolicella, regions like Chablis, or varieties such as Malbec, it was a range that knew what it was trying to do and executed it brilliantly.

FINE WINE MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - ENOTRIA & COE

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John Pepper MW and Troy Christensen with Chris Losh

Enotria does lots of things well in this competition. It balances Old World and New World neatly, and its 110 medals (29 of them Gold) were a strong showing again. But this ‘overall quality’ makes it hard to pin down. It’s won everything from New World Merchant (twice) to Sparkling Wine Merchant of the Year and Great Value Merchant of the Year, which it took in 2016. But if last year’s success was driven by the sub-£10 part of its portfolio, this year about half of its Gold and Silver medals were over £15. You might think this is an easy way to pick up medals, but
it’s not. Our tasters know the price of every wine they judge in SWA, and are ruthless in weeding out anything they think is overpriced. That Enotria&Coe had such a high hit rate at the more expensive end of the scale suggests some high-quality sourcing and wines that really are worth the extra money. While there were good upmarket classics such as Chablis and single estate Uco Malbec, what made this such a stimulating selection were the great wines that were a bit different: Heathcote Sagrantino and lush Nero d’Avola; the Kiwi Syrah and (get this) vintage cava priced like a champagne. A treasure trove…