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Sunday Business Post Annual Gold Star Awards 2009

20 Feb

The Irish wine trade has shown just how resilient it can be over the last 12 months.

While the car sales have fallen off a cliff, down some 60%, house sales have effectively stopped and builder and developers have become an endangered species, wine shops have been opening up, or expanding in size, employing more people and offering even more choice than this time last year across the thousands of miles of shelves in Irish stores where wine is now a staple, a mark of civility and enthusiasm, rather than a random luxury.

All this in the face of a VAT and excise rise last Christmas that practically begged people to go north to shop. Happily Minister Lenihan had the decency to own up and reverse his VAT decision and that ½% VAT increase was reversed on Friday last, New Year’s Day, though many wine shops and retailers took the hit and dropped the prices before Christmas.

This is the kind of imaginative approach the wine business in Ireland has been taking all year.

Champagne has been a particularly successful example of this innovation, where dozens of new Champagne offerings appeared, smaller, less well known, certainly less well marketed brands that can be offered at well under the price of even Non Vintage big brand Champagnes. Not all are terrific, but a fair amount were wholly creditable and are now transforming peoples views on Champagne.

Who responded the best over the last 12c months to these challenges is the basis for our annual Sunday Business Post Gold Star Awards.

Here then are this year’s heroes of Irish wine, the best of the best for 2009, in one of the most competitive and thankfully from a consumer’s point of view, crowded, markets in Ireland.

National Fine Wine Merchant Of The Year 2009

Mitchell and Son.

From their new base in the CHQ Building in the heart of Dublin’s IFSC, their branches in 54 Glasthule Road, in Sandycove, Co. Dublin and in Grange Road, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin, as well as online on their comprehensive and understated internet window, mitchellandson.com, the 255 year old Grand Dame of Irish wine floats sublimely onwards.

For the last decade it has been a neck and neck fight between Mitchell and Son and Berry Brothers and Rudd for the hearts and wallets of the Irish Fine Wine soul. It was of course a good time for such a spectacular fight.

Mitchell and Son however never forgot their regular everyday wine buying customers, nor their huge travel and educational following.

They are the Fine Wine Merchant of the Year, not just because they have a variety of vintages of each of the Bordeaux First Classed Growths, or three and half thousand euro Domaine Romanee Conti, to hand, and they do, but because they do everything else that a wine lover could want as well, crucially without even a hint of reserve or haughtiness that could easily accompany a 3 century old firm.

Best Fine Wine Merchants (Dublin) 2009

1) 64 Wines, Glasthule, County Dublin

2) Eno Wine Shop, IFSC

3) Terroirs, Donnybrook, Dublin 4

4) Redmonds of Ranelagh, Dublin 6

5) Fallon & Byrne, Dublin 2

6) Sweeneys, Finglas Road, Harts Corner, Glasnevin

7) McCabes, Mount Merrion, Blackrock

8) The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, Dublin 2

9) Bin No. 9, Goatstown, Dublin 14

10) Jus De Vin, Portmarnock, Co. Dublin

Best Fine Wine Merchants (Nationwide) 2009

1) Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow

2) Le Caveau, Kilkenny

3) Greenacres, Wexford

4) Wine Centre, Kilkenny James Nicholson, Crossgar, County Down

5) Thomas Woodberry’s, Middle Street, Galway, Co Galway

6) Joe Karwig Wines, Carrigaline, Cork

7) David Dennison Fine Wines, High Street, Waterford

8) Bubble Brothers, English Market Cork

9) Mortons of Galway, Salthill.

10) McCambridges, Shop Street, Galway

These two categories, best Dublin and National Wine Merchants are now perhaps the hardest sections in the awards.

The Dublin winner 64 Wines, has evolved steadily and today is a beautifully manicured forest of burnished wood, warm architecturally intriguing lighting, soft browns, golds and terracotta. It is the very definition of a treasure house of wine and deliciousness.

Add to this the atmospheric arched ceilings of the fine wine cellar and the overly comfortable seating in the snug where you can munch on simple delicacies while staring longingly at a beef Chateauneuf Du Pape and you have an ultimate winning combination. If you love wine, browsing and just being in the company of other enthusiasts this is for you.

Wicklow Wine Company, the national winner took the gong as importer of the year last year, but their shop in Wicklow Town is a jewel in itself that is not just a wine shop, but a hub of droves of loyal fans and customers. It is swathed in wood, cases of wine, open bottles for tasting, notes and snippets, it is a veritable 3D Escher etching with wine and wineries as the stairways to exploration of so many cultures. A beacon of quietly displayed knowledge, fine wine and plenty of bargains. What more could you want from a wine shop.

Best Multiple Wine Chain 2009

1) O’Briens Wines, Nationwide

2) O’Donovan’s Wine Stores, Cork

3) Harvest Wine Stores, Galway

4) Molloy’s Liquor Stores, Dublin

5) Carry Out, widespread.

Visiting each of these chains and looking at they way they manage their stock, present their special offers, looking at their displays, the range of wines on offer and the level of service, its clear that though O’Brien’s, once again win, things have changed. O’Donovans has upped their game and Harvest the mini chain around Galway County has produced shops with astounding levels of fittings, chic architecture and remarkably broad range of wines for their relatively compact size.

That said, O’Brien’s beat all comers very easily, the selection of wines, the tastings, wine clubs, the level of fitting, the enomatic wine tasting units, its all excellent and if their model was rolled out in the UK or France, they would clean up the competition there too. They are an Irish business icon.

Best Supermarket Wine Outlet 2009

1) Dunnes Stores

2) Tesco

3) Superquinn

4) Marks & Spencer

5) The Spar Group

With their own brands and with open warfare on prices of big brands, the supermarket sector has been in a state of frenetic activity all this year. Dunnes pip in on the ground of their monthly offerings, the non big brand, non own brand sourcing of wines and a little matter of a stunning sub€20 Champagne Lanvin, a drink of real quality at Cava prices, one of many specific reasons Dunnes take the gong in 2009

Best Wine Importer Of The Year 2009

1. Simon Tyrell and Company,

2. Febvre and Company, Dublin

3. Wicklow Wine Company . Co. Wicklow

4. Searsons Wine Merchants, Blackrock, County Dublin

5. O’Briens Wines, Sandyford, Dublin

What we are rewarding here are people who are sourcing wines by getting on the road in a foreign location and starting a relationship from scratch. There are around 60 importing companies now, some tiny, one region operations right up to multinationals

Simon Tyrell is different, he is the Andy Warhol of the Irish wine import scene and his operation often feels like the Factory in 1966 in New York, with the Velvet Underground, or in this case an intense, biodynamic Rhone producer sharing a table with an august, mild mannered Loire winery owner who speaks now English and just wants to talk about history, French history.

Simon Tyrell’s wines grace most of the best restaurant lists in the country and the majority of the Top 10 wine shops in each of categories.

Best Wine Warehouse (National) 2009

-Cases, Galway

Best Wine Warehouse (Dublin) 2009

-Cellars, The Big Wine Warehouse, Naas Road Dublin

This is not a large category, but of course it should be and in tighter economic times it certainly looks as if it is a rapidly developing idea.

Cases, in Galway has no minimum purchase, you can buy a single bottle is the heady surroundings of thousands of bottles mounded up in attractive blocks of cases. Cases, took the overall award for its innovative value added elements, such as its lovely children’s play area, its active wine tasting , wine fair and club like activities as well as having a very strong selection of wines well beyond the larger branded offerings.

Cellars, The Big Wine Warehouse in Dublin’s Naas Road is a cathedral of wine that takes the Grand Canyon approach of offering the slightly humbling sight of a true 40 foot high warehouse, crammed with cases of wine in such a way that you simply wish you owned a forklift truck and large van. The worthy Dublin winner.

All the better wine warehouses such as Cellar Master Wine Warehouse, Sandyford, Curious Wines in Bandon or Wines Direct in Mullingar, share the other common feature of superb and easy free parking.

Best Specialist Drink Outlet 2009

Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson Street, Dublin

-Outside of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Old Compton Street in London or visiting 500 Distillery salesrooms, this is the finest source of whiskey, whisky or myriad other spirits that might need exploring.

Best Wine Website 2009

1. winedirect.ie
2. Curiouswines.ie
3. obriens.ie
4. terroirs.ie
5. Booze.ie
6. BubbleBrothers.com
7. cases.ie
8. karwigwines.ie
9. dennisonwines.com
10. winesonline.ie

In the same fashion that eyes were the window into the soul for poets, then websites are the portals to the drive and vision of a business for consumers today. Look deeply into the structure, tone and philosophy of a website and you can very quickly get a real feel for who and what this company is all about.

Winesdirect.ie still have the edge in the range of wines they offer, as well as their new video section, interaction with their clients with blogs and routes to further materials on their wines and winemakers, but if they are to hold on to the crown next year, they will need to be looking at what the new kids are up to

Best Wine Bar Style 2009

1) Fallon & Byrne, Basement Wine Bar, Dublin

2) Eno Wine, IFSC

3) Ely, Ely Place, Dublin

4) Ely at the IFSC, Dublin

5) The French Paradox, Ballsbridge

6) Ely Grand Canal Basin, Dublin

7) George’s Wine Bar, South Fredrick Street

8) Le Cave, South Anne’s Street, Dublin

9) Ella Jazz and Wine, Main St., Howth

10) Port House, South William Street, Dublin

Again an idea coming into its own in tighter economic times as you can explore wines a glass at a time and make each bottle subsequently purchased less of a lottery and more of a sound, pennywise choice. Oh and superb food, beautiful and companionable surroundings and in Fallon & Byrne, one of the largest and most enticing wine selections in the country providing the wallpaper to a fine evening out.

Best Restaurant Wine List and Wine Service 2009

1) Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Dublin 2

2) L’Ecrivain, Dublin 2

3) Chapter One, Dulbin 1

4) Thortons, St. Stephens Green, Dublin 2

5) Bon Appetit, Howth

6) Seasons, The Four Seasons, Dublin 4

7) Le Pearl Brassiere, Dublin 2

8) The King Sitric, Howth

9) Ananda, Dundrum

10) China Sichuan, Sandyford, Dublin 18

Best Restaurant Wine List and Wine Service (Nationwide) 2009

1. Ashford Castle, County Galway

2. Kelly’s Resort Hotel, Rosslare

3. Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare

4. McNean House, Blacklion, County Cavan

5. Restaurant Michael Deane, Belfast, County Down

6. Campagne, Kilkenny, County Kilkenny

7. Jacobs On The Mall, Cork City

8. Mount Juliet, County Kilkenny

9. Wineport Lodge, Athlone, County Westmeath

10. Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, County Wicklow

These 20 restaurants all exhibit independence, vigour, wit and genuine love of wine as a subject, and ingredient in much successful dining experiences and do their best to have lists that reflect that. Guilbaud’s and Ashford Castle, are heavyweight, comprehensive wine lists with some astronomically priced wines, but both also offer acceptable entry levels too. Everyone has been forced to reflect the new reality or perish, but these 20 lists make the clearest claims to near perfect responses to the food, their surroundings and the state of the world.

E-mail the wine column at wine@sbpost.ie

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