Top 100 Trophy winners revealed

Diversity is theme of this year’s Wine Merchant Top 100, as the judges in the fifth edition of the annual competition for independent-only wines gives places and trophies to an unprecedented range of suppliers, countries and styles.

A total of 14 countries share the spoils, including first-ever appearances from Croatia and Slovenia and a strong showing from Greece, which provides a trio of high-scoring whites including the Best White Trophy for Ktima Gerovassiliou Malgaousia, Macedonia 2016, imported by the 2017 competition’s leading supplier, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines.

France is well out in front, however, providing a quarter of the Top 100, and trophies for Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Champagne NV (Best Sparkling Trophy; Hatch Mansfield) and Les Domaines Paul Mas Côte Mas Frisante NV (Best Value Sparkling Trophy).

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Spain is second with 13 Top 100 places plus three trophies: Best Value Red Trophy, Familia Castaño Hecula Monastrell, Yecla 2015 (£9.99, Liberty Wines); Best Fortified & Dessert Trophy, Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado NV (£35.55, Boutinot); and Best Value Fortified Trophy, Equipo Navazos I Think Manzanilla En Rama 2017 (£9.95, Alliance Wine).

The remaining trophies go to Argentina’s Sottano Judas, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, 2014 (£49.99, Vindependents), awarded Best Red Trophy, and Man Family Vineyards Free-Run Steen Chenin Blanc, Coastal 2016 (£6.59, Enotria & Coe), Best Value White Trophy.

Among suppliers, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines is comfortably the year’s star performer, with 19 entries in the Top 100, followed by Les Grands Chais de France (nine entries), and Enotria & Coe (seven).

The only competition for wines aimed exclusively at the UK’s independent wine merchants, The Wine Merchant Top 100 2017 was as ever judged by a diverse panel of 18 independents from around the country, chaired by David Williams, wine correspondent of The Observer.

“With almost 700 wines, this was the best year yet for entries, and the final list – including the 117 Highly Commended wines that just missed out on a place in the Top 100 – is a brilliant reflection of the quality and variety on offer in the UK’s independent trade,” says Williams.

• All winners will be revealed and showcased on The Wine Merchant’s stand at the London Wine Fair and featured in a supplement published with the magazine in July.


The fun of the fair

The UK wine trade would still exist without the London Wine Fair, but it wouldn’t half be a drearier place. As this year’s show approaches, anyone who doesn’t feel at least a brief frisson of excitement has arguably chosen the wrong career.

Business will be done, contracts signed, follow-up meetings scheduled. But commerce is not the sole purpose of the London show. It’s a chance to meet old friends, stumble upon unfamiliar wines and to open your mind to new ideas. You can make all the appointments you like, but there’s a lot to be said for a serendipitous stroll through the aisles. You never quite know who, or what, you’ll bump into.

Despite all that, there’s no question that the fair has had an identity crisis in recent years. Most of that was resolved when Brintex abandoned the idea of being the British answer to ProWein or VinItaly, and took a more parochial line: a local fair for local people, if you like. By focusing squarely on the needs and quirks of the UK market, the fair has reinvigorated itself and answered the question: who and what is it actually for?

This year’s show will as always feature the sideshows, masterclasses and debates that add colour to the event, and are signally missing from, say, ProWein (the Düsseldorf show may be big on scale, but its no-frills approach makes it short on laughs).

It’s a sign of the times that there’s no West Hall this year – exhibitor numbers were always unlikely to hold up in the face of the duty increases and currency disaster that have befallen the trade since last year’s fair. But two of the show’s most relevant areas for independents (who have their own lunch on the Tuesday) will be as lively as ever.

The Esoterica zone, at which smaller-scale suppliers ply their wares from behind tables, is hardly the most high-tech innovation the fair has introduced, but it’s certainly one of the most popular. On the other side of the upper level, Wines Unearthed features 100 export-ready producers who are as yet unrepresented in the UK.

The show has attracted some new names this year, but as always some will abstain. That’s their right, and many of these refuseniks spend countless thousands on putting their wines before independents throughout the year and on supporting those customers in myriad ways.

What’s sad is when suppliers that don’t come to the fair bad-mouth the event. It may not be perfect, but it’s not the job of Brintex alone to make it a success. Exhibitors and visitors alike have a role to play to maintain the London Wine Fair as the most important and commercially relevant wine show in the country. It should also be – and this is so easily overlooked – the most fun.

Is direct importing an easier option?

The April edition of The Wine Merchant contains part two of our reader survey. How important are on-premise sales to independents? Or dispense machines? Or food? The answers may surprise you.

By and large we’re detecting a slightly more conservative streak among indies this year, perhaps not surprising given the price increases that are providing a jolt to the system, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit’s effect on the economy.

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But there’s a definite surge in interest in direct imports. Almost half of respondents plan to increase the amount of wine they source directly from producers in the coming year, with around a quarter expecting to buy at current levels.

Just under 21% say they will continue to buy all their wines from UK suppliers.

Direct importing is often not as complicated as novices fear it might be. But it does leave merchants exposed to currency shocks, and it creates admin that many find fiddly and time-consuming. Logistics and storage can be a headache. Many who go down the direct-import route say they only really appreciate the value of the service provided by agency businesses when they try to do the job themselves.

Most merchants have no intention of importing 100% of their wines. But the proportion of what they do buy in this way looks certain to rise.

Wines of Germany Top 50 announced

Germany is the source of some of the trade’s favourite wines. Every year Wines of Germany assembles a panel of experts to sift through hundreds of bottles – some of which are alreaWines of Germany Top 50 2017dy available in the UK, others which are seeking distribution – to select their favourites.

This year’s top 50 will be featured in the April edition of The Wine Merchant – but here’s a sneak preview of the winners.

If you’d like to taste the wines for yourself, they’ll be available at the annual German tasting in London on May 9, which this year goes by the name of G String. Click here to register.

Confidence takes a knock

Independent wine merchants are an upbeat, positive and energetic bunch. But they’re not delusional. The pound’s capitulation against the euro and dollar(s), coupled with the chaos of Brexit, presents some big challenges for indies.

Our reader survey, reported in this week’s edition, reflects this. Just under 70% of respondents remain positive about increasing their trade in the coming 12 months, but this contrasts with 81% last year and 89% in 2015.

The results were compiled before last week’s 8p-a-bottle hike in wine duty, which hasn’t exactly lightened the mood. Throw soaring business rates into the equation and you have a recipe for gloominess.The Wine Merchant issue 56

But independent wine merchants are resourceful types, and experts at spotting opportunities. And if there’s an economic downturn, they’re often the beneficiaries, picking up extra business as consumers forego nights out in favour of home entertaining – in the company of better quality wine than they might previously have bought. It’s a phenomenon that Laurence Hanison, recently retired from Mill Hill Wines in north London, has experienced first-hand during three recessions.

Independent numbers grew, in net terms, by around 40 last year, bringing the total of specialist wine shops to 822 as we write. More shops are opening than closing. And the new entrants often have imaginative, wide-ranging business plans that go way beyond simply putting wines on shelves and waiting for punters to walk through the door. Take  look at the likes of Unwined in Tooting, Jaded Palates in Devon or Burgess & Hall in Forest Gate for some recent examples.

The coming year is going to be tough for many. But we’re willing to bet that the independent sector continues to grow – and thrive.

Coverage of this year’s reader survey appears in the March edition of The Wine Merchant and continues in our April issue.