In a continuing series promoting our great local businesses, Phil Kemp visits three independent wine merchants in the area
Over thirty million British people regularly drink wine so it’s perhaps not surprising that even a quick visit to a supermarket will reveal shelves stacked high with wine, and a quick Google will almost drown you in choice. Many of us will buy a bottle or two choosing a brand that we regularly drink, or perhaps we’ll be guided by a special offer to suit our budget.
A practical approach certainly but there’s definitely something very special missing – the magic of visiting an independent wine merchant where you’ll find extraordinary choice and a passion for wine you’ll never find in a supermarket.
I decided to find out for myself by visiting three local merchants, and in so doing also dispel the myth that they are too expensive an option.
Taurus Wines was set up over fifteen years ago in an old cowshed at Whipley Manor Farm near Cranleigh. Rupert Pritchett, spurred on by his passion for the grape and hands-on experience of the wine industry, quickly turned his fledgling business into a multi-award winning wine merchant and importer. These include separate awards as Wine Merchant of the Year for French, Chilean (twice), Argentinian and a close second for New Zealand, all judged by peers within the industry.
“We’ve even won a Sherry Merchant of the Year,” said Rupert. “And very special in a different way is that this year we won the Muddy Stilettos Award which was voted for by the general public. That was a lovely feeling to get because it’s one thing to know that your trade peers like you, but it’s totally another thing to know that customers genuinely appreciate what you do.”
Rupert undoubtedly embraces his passion with enthusiasm, which is shared equally by his wife Felicity who runs their acclaimed wine tastings. The experienced team they have built around them include their Master of Wine and wine diploma graduates.
One theme common with all three merchants is the close relationship they have with the wine producers.
“As an independent, Taurus not only has an understanding and passion for wine, as a direct importer we have a close relationship with the wineries,” said Rupert. “It’s all very well getting a spec sheet that tells you what is in the bottle, but it doesn’t bring the wine to life. What brings it to life is going to meet the winemaker and finding about their own little quirks. A good example is the winemaker that likes to start fermentation when there is a full moon because he believes it increases the sugars in the grapes. That’s biodynamic winemaking at work.”
John Hodges, who has over thirty years’ experience of selling wine, established The Vineyard in Dorking twelve years ago. He chose the name, not only because the town has its own vineyard, but to emphasise just how close a connection the business has with the wineries they buy from around the world.
When we met, John was about to fly out to South Africa on a vineyard tour to build on his relationships with the growers.
“Being an independent enables us to buy a more eclectic mix of wines and adapt more readily to people’s needs. We can provide a great variety and at all price levels adapted to our customers’ requirements. We also supply fifty pubs and restaurants and can quickly react to accommodate exactly the wines they want to offer to their customers.”
He was keen to emphasise that wine is much more than just the label on the bottle. “It is very much a product that is about the place and the people behind it. And it is about character in wine. The more aware our customers become they want to know a lot more than just the grape variety to enhance their experience.”
Simon and James Hawkins have taken a different route by specialising exclusively in English wine. The Hawkins Brothers have between them thirty or so years’ experience as publicans in West Sussex and Hampshire where their emphasis was always on using local suppliers of food and drink.
“As a publican I loved my real ales of course and the different flavours, but you have to have a really good wine list as well to provide a balance,” said Simon. “Gone are the days when you have a really small glass filled right up to the top with something very insipid. Customers want a really decent glass of wine with lots of choice including something sparkling. And buying local provided our entrée to English wine.”
Based in the courtyard at Secrett’s Farm Shop in Milford, Hawkins Bros. describe themselves as champions of fine English wines, a claim I don’t doubt given how energetically they’ve embraced local winemakers – right to the point where they have just launched their own vintage Brut Reserve 2013, which is available exclusively from their shop.
“It’s made from grapes harvested in 2013 on the Hog’s Back and it’s a unique wine you won’t find anywhere else. It spent 2½ years in the bottle, maturing, sitting on its lees, just getting that lovely roundness and brioche tastiness that you like in a good champagne.”
Given the impressive knowledge and understanding all three independents have of their trade I was keen as an occasional wine drinker to settle a few questions I have often debated with friends.
“White wine for fish, red wine for meat? We’ve got some lovely Pinot Noirs here that when chilled will go fantastically with meaty fish like turbot, and we’ve got some full-bodied white wine you can drink with lamb,” said Simon.
The Vineyard, 76 South St, Dorking RH4 2HD. T: 01306 876828
Taurus WInes, Whipley Manor Farm, A281, Guildford GU5 0LL.
T: 01483 548484. www.tauruswines.co.uk
Hawkins Bros, The Courtyard, Secrett’s Farm Shop,, Chapel Ln, Milford, Godalming GU8 5HU. T: 07973 321516 www.hawkinsbros.co.uk
Phil Kemp is a freelance writer and photographer based in Godalming. www.weyriver.co.uk