Monday was a day for tears and tiaras at the Hempel Hotel as, on behalf of Decanter Magazine's Retailer Awards Panel, I introduced the prizes for the crème de le crème of the UK trade in an environment that was as cool as an English summer. It's been an annus horribilis for wine-selling with duty up 14p a bottle in March against a background of rising prices to the retailer, a horrendously expensive euro and a high-street haemorrhaging in the face of the belt-tightening credit crunch. Despite faintly encouraging evidence from the front line – such as the recent takeover of ailing Oddbins from its French owners, and the expansion of the Thresher's upmarket Wine Rack shops – the award for specialist chain was unopposed: Majestic Wine Warehouses for continuing, in the face of economic adversity, to deliver excellent quality, great deals and good service.
A couple of years ago it was a similar story in the supermarket wine department, where Waitrose was streaks ahead of its rivals. Not any more, though, as the better operations have worked out that to remain competitive means being innovative with their wine range along with offering online discounts and free delivery. Waitrose remains a benchmark for wine quality, but last year Tesco moved up the ranks with its quality-led campaign and almost took the prize this year. In the end, Tesco was narrowly pipped at the post by a resurgent Marks & Spencer. With an expanded wine list and online service, better suppliers, and a wine-buying team that supervises blends, M&S has worked really hard to improve quality to make its exclusive range one of the most consistent on the UK high street. Aldi next year perhaps?
The choice of independent wine merchant of the year is always one of the toughest, as the number of top-class wine merchants seems to be on the increase despite a consumer trend towards trading down in the face of recession. From a shortlist that included Tanners, Jeroboams, Lea & Sandeman and Selfridges, the winner was Adnams for the Southwold-based company's expansion of its excellent Cellar & Kitchen concept, and being prepared to take risks at a time when others were drawing in their horns. There was an even longer shortlist in the small independent section, qualification for which requires having fewer than 12 staff. It included relative newcomers The Sampler in Islington, north London, The Vineking in Reigate, Surrey, and Woodwinters, near Stirling, as well as stalwarts Noel Young, Stone Vine and Sun, Handford, and Les Caves de Pyrène. The winner, whose relaxed and knowledgeable wine team communicate their love of good wines in a highly articulate yet down-to-earth way, was Green & Blue in East Dulwich, south London.
Specialists in the wines of particular regions or countries are also proliferating. For Argentinian wine, Cavas de Gaucho's list is unrivalled; for coverage of every nook and hoek of the Cape winelands, South African SAwinesonline is excellent; and for their respective areas, southamericanwinesonline.co.uk and nzhouseofwine.co.uk. Australia has a double bonus in the comprehensive lists of Vin du Van and Ozwines, but it was Vintage Roots that took the specialist award, for its comprehensive organic biodynamic list. SAwines almost took the online award too in a rapidly expanding area where sophistication and ease-of-navigation are essential. Swig, The Wine Society and Cadman Fine Wines contested a strong field but it was Berry Bros & Rudd, that unique combination of ancient and modern, whose bbr.com site deservedly took top online honours.