One of the few events to go ahead this year, before the world went into meltdown, was our very own Sommelier Wine Awards (SWA). As part of the competition, each year we honour the merchants and producers that picked up a significant number of medals. Without any further ado, here are this year’s winners…
Merchants of The Year
Merchant of The Year - Bibendum
Bibendum has grown into a real force in the Sommelier Wine Awards. This was the fourth time in six years that it’s taken the Merchant of the Year award, and on this occasion it was out in front by some distance. No one came within sample-spitting distance of either its overall medal count or its 50 Golds, in a fine performance that fully deserved to wrest back the crown from last year’s winner, Enotria&Coe. Bibendum’s success in 2020 wasn’t just about carpet bombing the competition to pick up lots of medals, however. First of all, the vast majority of its medals were in the crucial £10-£20 area. This, understandably, is the most competitive area of SWA, so to dominate as it did here, shows great buying – wines that can stand out even in a crowded field.
Bibendum looks like a merchant that is really starting to get its portfolio licked into shape. Secondly, its entry was not dominated by one particular producer or country – in fact it was striking how evenly spread around the globe its Golds were. With an Old World/ New World split of around 60/40 this was a performance with great wines in every area and no obvious weaknesses. On top of that, there’s the fact that seven of our 12 Critics’ Choice wines came from Bibendum. It’s an extraordinary level of dominance of a section that is impossible to predict – awarded, as it is, purely on the basis of wines that stop our tasters dead in their tracks. It’s proof, if any were needed, that while it might be a big name there is no shortage of real gems within its portfolio.
European Merchant of The Year - Hallgarten & Novum Wines
This is the third year running that Hallgarten has won the European Merchant of the Year in this competition – and it looks increasingly like a merchant that ought to be on the radar of any restaurant looking for wines of real character. Over three-quarters of its 30+ Golds were from Europe, which is similar in terms of numbers to last year. But whereas 2019’s performance was built largely on ‘classic’ European wines, this year’s was subtly different. Yes, there was Champagne, Pouilly-Fumé, Chianti and a hugely pricey but utterly wonderful Condrieu. But many of the merchant’s top-scoring wines this year came from less well-known regions or countries. The downside was that while Bordeaux, Rioja and Germany for instance, were somewhat lacking, there were plenty of great examples from Georgia, southern Italy, unheralded bits of Spain and, of course, Greece. Oh, and every single somm in the UK should make an effort to try the wonderful Gerovassiliou Malagousia…
New World Merchant of The Year - Matthew Clark
Matthew Clark has an up-and-down record in SWA – but 2020 was most definitely an ‘up’ year. It had the second biggest number of Golds (behind Bibendum), and the second highest medal count (ditto) in probably its strongest SWA showing yet. And while it was good across the board, its New World showing was perhaps the stand-out feature overall. If you did nothing but list its 14 New World Golds, you would have a range that ticked off most must-list styles from outside Europe. Everything from price-fighting Kiwi or Chilean Sauvignons, bargain Cape Chenin and Aussie Shiraz to elegant classics like Eden Valley Riesling and Mornington Pinot. But you’d also find yourself in possession of quirky oddities such as Hawke’s Bay Malbec (who even knew that was a thing) and an orange Chilean Moscatel from Itata (ditto). It was, in other words, a New World range that was both practical and stimulating – a tough trick to pull off.
Great Value Merchants of The Year
It’s no great surprise to see Boutinot picking up this award again – it’s done so three times in the past four years, and its value for money always stands out. Certainly, the numbers are impressive. Over 80% of its Golds this year were under £14, and 60% were under £10. That wouldn’t be so noteworthy if you were only submitting 10 wines into SWA, but it’s a seriously impressive effort when you’re putting in as many wines as Boutinot did. Picking up a Pub & Bar and a By The Glass award just cemented its value credentials. Boutinot is often well-known for its French wines, but the latter was subdued this year. It was (mostly northern) Italy and Spain that together brought in almost half of the merchant’s medals. Look through these winning wines, and it’s amazing how often you find absolutely key styles – Rioja, rosé, Cape Chenin, Chianti and Sauvignon Blanc at sub £8. A fine effort and proof that Boutinot should be on the radar of any venue looking for wines that over deliver at sub £40 on a list.
Majestic was carving out a deserved niche for itself in SWA as being the king of value, but then the whole Naked thing happened, and it went rather quiet. So it was great to see it back this year – not least because it absolutely stormed the value end of the list. Majestic had a smaller entry than Boutinot, but was doing a slightly different job, which is why we have two winners in this category this year. And talk about amazing prices! Every one of its 26 medals, bar a couple of Champagnes and some Loire whites, was under £10. Particularly impressive is the fact that within its Gold and Silver medals it so often ticks off essential wine styles: Côtes du Rhône, Beaujolais, Chianti, Rioja, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Mâcon, Aussie Shiraz… these are wines that everybody needs – and few merchants, on this evidence, can provide them at a better price than Majestic Commercial.
Italian Merchant of The Year - Eurowines
Italy is always one of SWA’s biggest categories and it seems to be one that several merchants specialise in, so we tend to give out this award every year. This, incredibly, is the eighth year in a row that Eurowines has won! Yes, Italy is its speciality, but it’s one it does really well. Despite being a relatively small merchant, it had more medals from Italy than anybody else, which shows there’s some top-class selection – both of estates and wines – going on. It’s strongest in the North – over half its medals came from the North-East or North-West – but it seems to find interesting examples from the centre and South, too. Only Tuscany – on this year’s evidence – seems to be rather quiet. As impressive as the number of medals this year was the pricing. Half its medals and all but two of its Golds were under £15, which is a better performance than last year.
Fine Wine Merchant of The Year - Top Selection
You probably wouldn’t go looking to Top Selection for the lower end of your wine list. Only four of its 60+ medals were under £10. What it has proved over recent years is that it is practically without equal when it comes to sourcing top-end wines. Yes, 80% of its awarded wines were over £15, but happily they tend to be in parts of the list where quality rather than price – or, more accurately, over-delivery and character – are the key factors. And, led by the formidable Akos Forczek, there’s clearly some top-class buying at play here. Its Golds included some of the best examples of Amarone, Barolo, Riesling (both Mosel and Alsace), Bordeaux, Chablis, Burgundy and Tokaji in the competition. But there were brave new additions, too: a beautiful Malbec from La Consulta, a Swiss white from Paolo ‘Somm du Monde’ Basso and a Catalan vermouth.
Producers of The Year
Making a SWA medal-winning wine is an achievement in itself, so for a single producer to pick up several medals is impressive. These are the producers that stood out for their outstanding performance in this year’s competition.
Sparkling Wine Producer of The Year - Taittinger
5 Gold, 1 Silver, 1 Bronze, 2 commended
Last year’s performance by Taittinger was the best we’d seen from a sparkling wine – or, indeed, any wine in SWA. But somehow, incredibly, it topped it this year. It’s not that it enters hundreds of wines, either – but what it does send in rises to the top every year. In a blind tasting, with an unforgiving group of tasters, results like this two years on the trot are an impressive testament to the house’s quality. OK, you might expect the two Comtes to stand out (and at over £100 a bottle they should be good) but the other medals were fighting in the heart of NV and rosé Champagne – one of the most competitive areas of SWA. The big question is, can they be our first ever producer to win six individual Golds next year?
RUNNER UP: Fox & Fox: Three Golds at sub £30 in a range of styles. A newish name on the English fizz scene – but a producer to watch, for sure. Fantastic, Mr & Mrs Fox…
European Producer of The Year - Casa Ermelinda Freitas
4 Gold, 6 Silver, 2 Bronze, 9 commended
Ermelinda Freitas burst onto the Sommelier Wine Awards with a flourish last year, picking up seven medals and 11 commended wines. We thought that such a performance might be a one-off. But apparently not. Twelve medals was an extraordinary performance. Perhaps the most impressive aspects this year were the breadth of wines on offer and the pricing. All the Golds were under £10, so plenty of value for money there, while the Silvers stretched from value ‘house wine’ through ‘trade-up’ to the indulgent Moscatel Roxo (which also got a Gold last year). This, it seems, is a winery that can deliver at every level.
RUNNER UP: Domaine Yves Cuilleron: Yes, the four Golds were expensive for the most part, but the quality was absolutely sublime. ‘Condrieu: Better than Burgundy?’ Discuss…
New World Producer of The Year - Dandelion Vineyards
4 Gold, 1 Silver, 3 Bronze, 1 commended
Dandelion Vineyards is a stimulating project. Yes, Elena Brooks grows her own grapes, but the majority of wines are made with fruit that she buys in from old vineyards within striking distance of Adelaide: Barossa, Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek. Dandelion is a regular medal-winner in SWA, but this year was an exceptional performance even by its standards, with a truckload of top medals from £10 to over £50. Our tasters loved the typicity and concentration of these wines – recognising that they were great now (one wine was described as ‘monumental’!) but would age beautifully too. Whether you’re a gastropub or a fine-dining restaurant, there are top-class wines for your list here.
RUNNER UP: Luis Felipe Edwards: Lots of medals, great prices and a variety of styles from ‘classic Chilean’ to ‘stimulating’. Its orange Moscatel is a total gem.
Fortified Producer of The Year - Sogevinus
4 Gold, 2 Silver, 1 Bronze, 2 commended
We have only given out a Fortified Producer of the Year Award once before – in 2015, when it was won by Justino’s Madeira. So it takes a truly exceptional performance to catch our eye. And we certainly got one this year. Sogevinus Fine Wines is an independent, privately owned, Douro wine producer. Its portfolio includes Kopke, Burmester, Cálem and Barros. Kopke’s performance here was impossible to ignore. It absolutely dominated in what was a strong Port category, picking up half of the category’s Golds. Kopke’s big selling point is its long aged tawnies/colheitas and whites. Tawny, particularly, is a style that our tasters like, but it was the ability to deliver at varying prices and in varying styles that was perhaps so impressive here. The 10-year-old was affordable, the 1980 and 1981 Colheitas were exceptional for the money and the sublime 2003 White was a deserved winner of this year’s Caspar Auchterlonie Award. The latter is given every year to the competition’s best fortified wine.
The little black book no somm would dare be without is our guide to the best wines in this year’s competition, aka The SWA Gold Book. You can download a copy by visiting sommelierwineawards.com.