Of the 197 independent wine merchants listed in the current Which? Wine Guide, the Barnes Wine Shop has been bought by Lea & Sandeman this year, Avery's by Pieroth and Mayor Sworder by Davisons. In addition, Bute Wines has joined forces with Goedhuis, Winecellars with Enotria and Philip Eyres with SH Jones. It is a litany which demonstrates the extent to which wine retailing has shifted from the independent wine merchant towards the high street.
The everyday wine revolution heralded by the high street, and given a huge boost by the New World, has continued to squeeze independent specialists in favour of the Tescos and Threshers. Our taste for luncheon clarets, white burgundies and German estates whites, once the staples of the independent sector, has been eroded by the benefits of one-stop shopping and the reliability and value of New World-style cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling.
If the independents have been the principal victims of the New World- inspired flying winemaker, oak and varietal revolutions, a gradual supermarket- led drift downmarket offers fresh opportunities for capturing the high ground. Most of the world's fine wines are made in quantities too small for the high street to handle. Older, ready-for-drinking vintages which cannot be found in the high street remain the traditional merchants' stock in trade. Offering choice across producer, region and vintage, the independents still play a major role in finding and selling quality wines of character, especially in the crucial pounds 4 - pounds 8 price bracket. Linked to good personal service, a superior range and the ability to sell it are the keys to the independent specialist's survival.
For every firm still ploughing a traditional pin-striped furrow, a younger, dynamic operation is moving in to offer customers wines from suppliers in tune with the palates of a clientele uncluttered by old prejudices. Even in the most exclusive wine circles, new independents such as John Armit and Farr Vintners winner of a Queen's Award last year, for export) have made a killing in expensive fine wines.
"However good a stock may be", wrote Thomas Shaw in 1864, "there is so much competition that the merchant's sales will be very slow indeed if he imagines that the excellence of his cellar will absolve him from practising solicitations." Old words, but ones which every successful modern independent wine merchant has no doubt thoroughly digested.
Wines of the Week
1993 Minervois, Cuvee des Meuliers, pounds 3.75, Peatlings, Bury St Edmunds (01284 755948). Proof that wine merchants can still deliver bargains: an aromatic, sandalwood-spicy and blackberry fruity red.
1994 Jurancon Sec Grain Sauvage, Cave des Producteurs de Jurancon, pounds 4.99, Eldridge Pope, Dorset (01305 251251). An unusual dry white with guava- like aromas from southwest France.
1991 Madiran Tradition, Domaine Capmartin, pounds 5.95, Lea & Sandeman, London SW10 (0171-376 4767). This inky, chunky, succulent red has masses of flavour and complexity.
1992 Enate Crianza, Somontano, pounds 6.23, Avery's, Bristol (01275-811100). A charry, vibrantly fruity, Spanish blend of tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon.
1990 Chateau La Grande Maye, Cotes de Castillon, pounds 6.59, Tanners, Shrewsbury (01743 232400). An attractively oaked, merlot-based petit chateau claret from the ripe and rich 1990 vintage.
1994 Chateau du Grand Moulas, Cotes du Rhone Villages, Marc Ryckwaert, around pounds 6.75, Adnams, Suffolk (01502 727220); Tanners. An exuberantly heady, southern Rhone red.
1994 Chapel Hill Unwooded Chardonnay, pounds 7.99, Australian Wine Club (0800- 7168930). A pure, unoaked, melon and fig-like McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Barossa blend with refreshing acidity.Reuse content