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MERCHANT AWARDS

From the hundreds of merchants who enter their wines into the Sommelier Wine Awards there are always a number who truly stand out from the crowd. These special awards recognise those wine merchants who have put in a particularly strong performance in this year’s competition.

MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - BIBENDUM

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Christina Schneider, John Graves, Mauro Segatta, Willie Lebus, Michael Saunders and Gergely Barsi Szabó with Chris Losh

Last year Bibendum powered its way to the front of the pack and stayed there, nearly becoming the first merchant to make it through the symbolic ‘50 Golds’ barrier in the process. This year was much, much closer, with fewer than half a dozen awards between Bibendum and Boutinot in second place. One thing, however, hadn’t changed: Bibendum picked up top medals (Golds and Silvers) with wines from the kind of places that restaurants like to list. Champagne, most of France, Italy, Portugal and a stack of classic New World regions and styles made for a strong haul of more than 90 Golds and Silvers. It was also particularly strong in the £10-£20 area. If there were perhaps one or two blind spots – Spain, in particular, and New Zealand under delivered – there were some areas where Bibendum managed entire ranges on the Gold List. South Africa’s four Golds, for instance, included a Chenin, a Cabernet, a Pinotage and a Chardonnay, and Bibendum covered nearly everywhere in France apart from Bordeaux.

EUROPEAN MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - HALLGARTEN & NOVUM WINES

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Andrew Bewes

This was a good year for Hallgarten & Novum. Its 28 Golds was by some distance its best performance in SWA down the years, with a solid pool of Silvers to back them up. You didn’t have to look far to see the reasons for its success, either. This was a performance based on Europe: wines from the Old World made up more than 70% of its medals. It did particularly well with wines at the top end of the wine list. You might think this is an easy way to accumulate Golds and Silvers, but it’s not. There’s never a shortage of blingy wines from prestigious appellations, and our tasters carefully weigh up the wines’ abilities (or not) to over-deliver. In this case, it seems they are doing quite beautifully. Buyer Steve Daniel is currently exploring Iberia, which seems timely. If there was a gap in their performance it’s here.

NEW WORLD MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - LIBERTY WINES

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Luciann Flynn and Tim Tweedy

If you rate a wine merchant on its ability to do lots of different things well, then Liberty is right at the top of the tree. In the past four years of SWA it’s won (in order) Italian Merchant of the Year, Overall Merchant of the Year, European Merchant of the Year and, this year, New World Merchant of the Year. More than 40% of its Golds (and, indeed, its medals overall) went to wines from outside Europe. But this wasn’t so much about sheer numbers as the kind of wines that won. If you did nothing but stock its 13 Gold-Listed New World wines you’d have a pretty comprehensive selection of countries and classic styles. Admittedly, you’d need to dip into Silvers if you wanted an Argentinian Malbec, and the Chilean selection was somewhat flat, but for Australia and New Zealand, in particular, the range of wines was superb.

GREAT VALUE MERCHANTS OF THE YEAR - BOUTINOT & BERKMANN WINE CELLARS

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Kevin Pollard and Georgina Bickers

After a mysterious year off back in 2016, Boutinot was slightly finding its feet again in 2017. But the merchant came roaring back this year, finding the kind of form that has seen it scoop a string of Merchant of the Year awards in the past. Boutinot’s strength in this competition has always been its ability to scoop up lots of medals at the ‘affordable’ end of our Gold List, and so it proved again this year. In a competition where value for money was harder than ever to find, incredibly half of its Golds (and 65% of all its awards) were under £10. Nobody had more wines than Boutinot’s 136 below that price point in this year’s competition. Its medals remained firmly Euro-centric (more than 70%), but interestingly, for a merchant that frequently builds its success on a solid French base, this year’s standout areas were Italy and Spain.

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Simon Zuckerman and Alex Hunt MW

Berkmann stuck to its winning game plan for SWA again this year. While it has plenty of expensive wines in its portfolio, it tends to concentrate its efforts in this competition on the £10-£15 area, and so it proved again this year: more than half of its medals were under £12 ex-VAT, putting them firmly in the sweet-spot of restaurant buyers everywhere. Interestingly, this year’s Gold medals were skewed (10 to five) towards the New World, and its overall medal count was an almost even split between the two; proof, perhaps, of some successful non-European additions to its portfolio over the past few years. California and Australia look particularly strong.

FRENCH WINE MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - MATTHEW CLARK

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Andrew Shaw with Chris Losh

As a country, France had a fairly difficult SWA 2018; overall entries – doubtless on the back of last year’s Frostquake – were down, and apart from a few exceptions, such as the Rhône, many of the key regions rather trod water this year. So Matthew Clark’s performance really stood out. A third of all its gongs were for French wines – and nobody picked up more French medals than it did. Interestingly, the key to its winning this award was not so much its seven Gold medal-winning wines as the huge number of French Silvers it accumulated. There were 20 of them in total, and they covered practically the entire country, from Champagne to the South-West and Alsace to the Loire. Only Bordeaux was an absentee.

ITALIAN WINE MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - EUROWINES

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Leo Addis and James Laird

Can anyone find a way to knock Eurowines off its Italian perch? Well, not on this evidence. This was the sixth (count ’em!) year it’s won this award, and once again it was in a class of its own. While it did pick up a few medals from elsewhere, its regional specialist credentials stood out. An extraordinary 43 medals for Italy was more than anyone else managed for one single country. What we particularly loved about it (again) was not just how it covered the whole country from the Alto Adige to Sicily, but that its pricing was so good. Italian prices have risen markedly over the past few years in this competition, but more than half of Eurowines’ medals were under £15. So while there were some notable five-star winners in its portfolio, this was about careful selection, not showy bling.

FINE WINE MERCHANT OF THE YEAR - TOP SELECTION

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Alastair Moss, Mélodie Konforti and Michelle Forczek

Top Selection has grown in stature in this competition. Over the past few years it’s been the deserving winner of our Boutique Merchant of the Year, for smaller merchants. But this year it moved up a couple of weight divisions, garnering more places on our Gold List (14) than some much bigger competitors. It did this by focusing largely on Europe, and largely on wines above the £15 mark – and did it quite brilliantly. While our somm judges are always on the lookout for top-end additions to the various sections of our Gold List, the wines need to be unimpeachably excellent and also, crucially, to over-deliver for the money. Across many of the classic wine regions of Europe, Top Selection simply achieved this better than anyone else this year, with wines of real pedigree that more than justified the outlay.