To be completely honest, I’ve never really been a great fan of Awards. Well, not since I used to fill in the NME’s Musicians of the Year Poll, which I can tell you was a very long time ago. The problems with the awards you get in the wine press are twofold. First, you gotta be in it to win it, and the number of wines that I like that enter competitions like the IWC or DWWA can usually be counted on the fingers of a one-armed, three-toed sloth. Anyway, if you’ve read this Blog all year you already know which wines I’ve loved. So we’ll skip the wines and stick with those selling the wine – the retailers and importers.
The second problem with wine awards is the subjectivity of the judges. So-called “Retail Awards” usually pick really good merchants, but rarely those at the cutting edge, those doing today what the established retailers will be doing tomorrow. Whatever they tell you, all our decisions are affected by unconscious bias if we are lucky, and sometimes conscious bias too. But sometimes we can make a virtue of bias. Bias is especially useful if both the tastes of the judge and the tastes of the reader are outside the mainstream, and they both coincide.
So these awards may just be a bit of pre-festive fun, and I’ll not pretend they have any clout out in the mainstream of the wider world of wine. But on the other hand, if I dish out a bit of praise, you not only get to find out who I like to go to for all the brilliant wines I drink, but maybe you’ll have time to check them out for some holiday drinking too. With a bit of nostalgia for those NME Awards of old, in the words of Dave Vanian and The Damned, here we go now…
The Frank Carter Award for Heaviest London Wine Shop
London is awash with brilliant wine shops, whether you want the classics or the obscure, and this award was incredibly close to call, so much so that I’m going to give it to two shops, and the crazy thing, brilliant for wine lovers, is that they are within walking distance of each other.
Winemakers Club is a bar, a shop and a venue under the Holborn Viaduct on Farringdon Street, which in the past was the London Wine Mecca that was the original Oddbins Fine Wine store. The shop part is dark (actually, it’s all dark), and smaller than probably most of the wine shops we know and love. But John and his team win here because, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, they plough their own furrow. So you’ll find the kind of stuff here you might never expect to find. But you are also just as likely to be recommended a wine you’ve never heard of, only to find a month or two later that it’s on everyone’s lips.
Marnes Blanches, Vetter, Romeo del Castello, Sean Callaghan, Guccione, Hegyikaló, Vinochisti, Shobbrook, Vionnet, and especially Meinklang are all names whose UK profile has been raised immeasurably by Winemakers Club. But they seem to have new wines every time I visit. This is a solid team of good people, and if you get to know them, the bar is one of the most hospitable in London.
Noble Fine Liquor has a couple of shops, and the bar/kitchen P. Franco, but it’s the shop at 88 Farringdon Road that I know. It shares a site with Quality Chop House about fifteen minutes or so north of Winemakers club, so if you remember a suitcase you can easily shop at both.
I didn’t actually discover NFL until this year, but there’s little doubt that no shop has a better selection of natural wines in London, which is a pretty bold statement. This is especially true of their Jura selection, and although wines sell out quickly when only available in tiny quantities, at least you have a small chance of finding L’Octavin, Domaines de la Tournelle and St-Pierre, Ganevat, Labet and Les Dolomies.
From elsewhere you might find Envinate, No Control, Julie Balagny, Partida Creus, De Moor and Schueller. They also have a fine selection of Grower Champagnes such as Bérêche, Agrapart, Suenen, Lassaigne and Prévost (to name all too few). Even those who prefer more classical wines will not be disappointed. If I’m wholly honest here, NFL is the one shop I feel uneasy about recommending to anyone who doesn’t know it…because I just know you are going to buy all the stuff I want for myself.
The Rammstein Award for Downright Dirtiest Wine Country Specialist
This can only go to Austrian specialist Newcomer Wines out at Dalston Junction. Although we all miss the old Boxpark shop in Shoreditch, there’s a bit more space in Dalston, and so the range has expanded, and outside of Austria too. Austria as a tiny country now punches well above its weight in wine. We mustn’t forget the classics from the Wachau, but it’s the new wave natural wine revolution which has grabbed the world’s attention (well, the tiny bubble of a world I live in). Although Savoie will still benefit immeasurably when Wink Lorch’s book eventually comes out, I predict a riot for Austria in 2018.
Most of the stars of Dalston need little intro to regular readers, but if you haven’t tried Preisinger, Jutta Ambrositsch, Tschida, Jurtschitsch,Wenzel and company, joined now by the likes of Nesterec (Czech Moravia), Mythopia (Valais) and others, then you should get on a bus. The new producer of the year was the Rennersistas, Stefanie and Susanne, who farm around the northern edge of the Neusiedlersee. Wild wines which scream life, not yet perfect but somehow all the better for it. Like Newcomer.
The Carte de Sejour Douce France Award for the Place to buy Wine in Paris
This must go to the the Cave Des Papilles on rue Daguerre in Paris’ 14th Arrondisement. People keep disagreeing with me, but I find it really inconveniently located, with the kind of opening hours that are slightly odd and best checked before you go (lunch closing is usually 1.30 to 3.30). But it’s worth the journey. Even with all the other wonderful wine shops in that city. It has to be natural wine heaven, but then so are Septime, Verre Volé, the Caves du Panthéon and others. What makes Papilles stand out is the kind of unicorn wines you may be lucky enough to find on the shelves.
Métras, Guillot, Schueller, Rietsch, Valérie Frison, or Bodines, Monnier and Menigoz from Jura, not to mention Catherine Hannoun’s pét-nat which I spotted online the other day. The house Champagne is from Emmanuelle Lassaigne of Montgueux, for goodness sake. This is why you take two suitcases on Eurostar, one empty. #glouglou
Anyone else remember Rachid Taha’s first band?
Best shop in Paris, shhh!
The Robert Fripp Award for London Wine Shop Not Actually in London
This award is for a wine shop which would be up there with the best if it were in London, but it’s not. In the same way that Robert Fripp would receive his due acclaim if everyone just looked beyond the obvious. It feels slightly odd giving this award, first because I have two brilliant wine shops where I live (Butler’s Wine Cellar and Ten Green Bottles both of which I love dearly), and secondly because I seem to have bought around 50% of my UK wine purchases from Solent Cellar in 2017 (slight exaggeration, but still), and I’m probably not done with them yet. The shop in question is in Lymington, on the edge of the New Forest.
Solent do not pretend to be a “Papilles”. They do have to cater for the locals, though I must say that through the hard graft of regular tastings they are building a local clientele for the wines they like to drink, and there is always a large and eclectic offering of “real wine”. Visiting the shop is always better than looking at the web site, but you need to go further and cultivate a relationship with Simon and Heather.
Ganevat appears often, and I was swift enough to grab some La Zaune à Dédé this year, and an even greater coup was the COS Zibibbo en magnum in the summer, available almost nowhere. They always have a few Jura, including Vin Jaune, and a good Loire and Burgundy offering. Fine Wines here are usually well priced, and Champagne is also worth exploring (Bérêche Reflet D’Antan, Vilmart Coeur, Vve Fourny, Clouet to name a few). They often have a few nice magnums (Foillard and Equipo Navazos last time I was in, for example), and they also stock my favourite gin, Dorset’s Conker. But that’s just a small taste of what you will find in this pretty little shop. Great Saturday Market in Lymington too.
The Goat Award for Young Guns Going For It Importer of the Year
They’d probably have been insulted if it was the Wham! Award. In a market near to being saturated with small and interesting wine importers it was really hard to choose a winner here. Red Squirrel get the gong because they are small but brave. They have really looked deep and asked searching questions as to whether they can actually sell some of the stuff they import, and then said what the hell!
Diwald and Holzer, Bellwether and Canada’s Okanagan Crushpad are all producers who have an established name among their customers now. But whoever decided to bring in wines from the Azores Wine Company, Bruna (Liguria) and Pasaeli (Turkey) must be some kind of crazy genius who deserves to succeed.
But not only does Red Squirrel push the boundaries every year, I think they are also being rightly seen as an inspiration to others. I can’t wait to see what they bring in for 2018…Icelandic Romorantin, Nick?
The Iron Maiden Monsters of Rock Award for Established Superheroes
It has to be Les Caves de Pyrene. They have been around for a long time now, and every year they seem to grow. Some people now see them as more establishment than rebels, based purely on the fact that they can sometimes seem to have natural wine all sewn up. That totally ignores what Doug and the team do every year, both to promote natural wine as a whole (I can’t tell you how much I will miss the Real Wine Fair in 2018), and in being behind so many of the bottles of natural wine which are creeping into nearly every independent wine shop in the country. If anyone in UK wine deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award it is Doug Wregg, though he doesn’t do it alone.
The key, I think, to the success of Les Caves has been in spotting an up-and-coming region or country producing exciting natural or biodynamic wines before the competition. They clearly got onto the Jura bandwagon before the band was formed and the wagon was built. They are not far from where I’d like them to be with Savoie, but I think Austria is getting some attention behind the scenes. Doug, if anyone can sell Silcher-Sekt and the Blauer Wildbacher grape, you can (I saw you at Strohmeier the other day).
The CdP list is enormous, and covers everything you can imagine. A good place to begin is with a trip to their warehouse shop at Artington (next to the Park & Ride), near Guildford. And remember that there’s a lot more out back than is on the shelves. Make a morning of it.
Les Caves’ shop at the Real Wine Fair is always too tempting to ignore
The Manu Chao Clandestino Award for Tiny Importer of Wines from the Coolest Wine Country of the Moment
Where is all of a sudden making the coolest wines in Europe? Spain, of course. That bastion of tradition took a very wrong turning indeed when it decided to pander to those who wanted new oak, high alcohol and modern wines. But that seems to have left a gap for people to buy vines in unproductive terroirs known in the past for high yields and dirty winemaking, where the old vines lay neglected and unappreciated.
Then along comes Otros Vinos, with a portfolio probably smaller than any other award winner here. Don’t worry, you can easily fill a mixed case of bottles to try just by reading the article I wrote on their portfolio tasting at Furanxo in Dalston Junction back in October (use the search function on the right). If you prefer, you can walk over to Furanxo next time you visit Newcomer (about five minutes), where a limited selection of Otros Vinos’ wines are on the shelves. You’ll find the full list of stockists on the Otros Vinos web site, which includes Burgess & Hall, Noble Fine Liquor and Theatre of Wine.
Don’t miss the wines of Ambiz, Purulio, Cauzón and Costador to name just four. Look out for Costador’s “La Metamorphika” flagons, and I can’t help but mention Clot de les Soleres’ pet-nat too.
Some of Otros Vinos’ wines at Furanxo, 85 Dalston Lane
There are just a few more Awards left to go as our glittering evening draws to a close.
The Algiers Award for Totally Out on the Edge Wine
This goes to Tutto Wines for some of the weirdest tasting but most exciting wines I’ve had this year. And they also import Balagny and L’Octavin, both absolute favourites. With the taste to grab those two, you feel in safe hands so long as you are prepared to put on the blindfold and go where Alex and Damiano take you.
Olek Bondonio, Skerlj, Marco Fon and Jean-Pierre Robinot may be more familair to some than others. Ar-Pe-Pe will be familiar to all. Like all small importers, they get a parcel and it goes in days, so worth keeping a careful eye on your emails once you establish contact.
Are Tutto, like Algiers, the guys who are inspirationally different but who not enough people have heard of?
The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing…Doing it For The Whigs Award for Extreme Innovation in the Wine Trade goes to one man (who probably has a dog) called Rupert Taylor and his Uncharted Wines. Few wine lovers will have heard of Uncharted, but Rupert is the man who has probably done more than any other to bring wine on tap to the UK.
Wine on tap makes buying wine in a bar just like buying beer. It’s hard to imagine that the result could be very appealing, but in the same way that Andrew and Emma Nielsen revolutionised the wine in a bag concept with their Du Grappin brand (sitting right alongside their fine bottled Burgundy), Rupert has shown that the wine on sale in a bar can not only be decent, it can be downright consistently good (as it should be). And it’s easy to serve as well.
Rupert developed the idea at OW Loeb, and whilst Uncharted Wines are not yet well known, they will be. Because this way of serving wine fits in so well with the way in which young people are enjoying wine today, in a social environment, interchangeable with beer or gin.
Follow Uncharted Wines: on Twitter (@Uncharted_Wines) and Instagram (uncharted_wines)
The Sultans of Swing Award for Best Traditional Portfolio Daddio
I won’t pretend I never enjoy the classics, and those who purvey (let’s use a more sophisticated word than “sell” or “flog” here) such wines are numerous in England. There are the bastions of excellent tradition like Berry Bros, and the relative newcomers like Uncorked (who themselves have been much awarded in recent years, being favourites of some higher profile wine scribes). But I’m giving the gong to Howard Ripley Wines. My reason is simple. They specialise in Burgundy and Germany, and what two finer locations can we head for when we want a little classicism and tradition?
Although many of their customers pack out the Burgundy Tastings they lay on, zealots jumping on the Grand Crus like vultures for tiny allocations, the more sophisticated palates head for the German Tastings, usually held in the sedate surroundings of one of London’s Inns of Court. Here we sample in relative leisure the cream of German estates. Those of us with stranger tastes hardly require use of our elbows to get to the best of that country’s finest new names, and indeed some of her finest red wines too (a relative secret about which the Burgundy boys know nothing…yet).
Howard Ripley Wines are perhaps the best example here of how diligence and hard work can gather together a portfolio where every wine by every producer justifies its place. And whilst we are all chasing unicorn wines from Grusse, Sion, Vézelay or Illmitz we should not forget that there were always brilliant, if unfashionable, wines to be had in Germany too.
Julian Haart, Peter (Florian) Lauer, Julg, Schloss Lieser and Ziereisen are among my own favourites…if you can stop sipping the Prum and Keller.
The Lonely Goat Herd Award for Merchant High on a Hill in the Wilderness
The last award here goes to an online merchant based up in Yorkshire which, because they don’t get down south very often, don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve. When a London merchant (albeit a very good one) implies they are doing something new importing Swiss wines, you wonder what an importer that began by importing those very wines long ago is doing wrong in their marketing.
Alpine Wines used to be known as Nick Dobson Wines, but Nick sold the business to Swiss National, Joelle Nebbe-Mornod a few years ago. The portfolio has grown and covers areas which are only alpine at a stretch, but the heart of the matter is still Switzerland, along with Austria (where they bring in a few nice alternatives to the wines offered by Newcomer).
One of the pleasures of the Swiss wines at Alpine Wines is trawling through and coming across some lovely obscurities, but I appreciate that Swiss wine is new to a lot of people. Alpine Wines do put together different taster cases, but from their Swiss producers look out for Marie-Thérèse Chappaz (Fully, Valais), Simon Maye & Fils (Valais Syrah and Humagne Rouge), Badoux Vins (Aigle, Vaud) and Domaine Grand’Cour (Geneva).
From Austria one very subjective personal favourite is Heidi Schröck (Rust), and then Rainer Christ (Vienna), Martin & Anna Arndorfer (Wagram) and Leo Alzinger (Wachau). But from both Switzerland and Austria, if the wine is made from a grape variety you don’t know, then do try it. Both countries have some wonderful autochthonous varieties. Alpine Wines’ web site is not the easiest to navigate but in its nooks and crannies you’ll find some fascinating liquid.
These Awards are, of course, just a bit of fun. But the serious part is remembering that all of the above are trying to sell really interesting wine to a market which, at its heart, is still fairly conservative. We may see all our friends drinking wines like these, but we are still at the fringe, and the market for Real Wine is actually quite crowded, though the positive is that it undoubtedly seems to be growing.
Decanter Magazine has, in its latest issue, an article with the headline “The Most Exciting Wines of 2017”. They list seventy-five. With all due respect, I think we could probably come up with a far more exciting list if we went around all the retailers and importers mentioned here. This is why we need to spread the word.