Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Another vintage year for Nicholson at International Wine Challenge Awards

Crossgar wine company wins coveted Merchant gong for the 22nd time

Celebration time: Regional Merchant of the Year James Nicholson

Co Down wine merchant James Nicholson, who's been refining Ireland's nose for the grape since the dark days of Mateus Rose, has won regional merchant of the year at the International Wine Challenge Awards.

His triumph at last week's awards is the 22nd time that JN Wine, based in Crossgar, has won the coveted title – and comes as the company marks an upturn in sales after the downturn.

The carefully-judged and hotly-contested competition rewards excellence, expertise and passion for wine.

JN Wine has been supplying wine to trade and retail customers across Ireland for nearly 40 years – beginning in an era when most people's experience of wine was limited to the now kitsch Mateus Rose from Portugal, in its distinctive flask-shaped bottle.

But Mr Nicholson said there had been a "revolution" in wine consumption since those days.

"The consumer is much more educated than they were back then. Now they are looking for their pinot grigios and their sauvignons blancs, and they're always looking for the next trend."

The finest of restaurants back in the 1970s may have had 100 wines on their list – but are now sophisticated enough to pick 40 good ones, often observing seasonal trends like more rose and sparkling wines in the summer, and heavier reds in the winter, he said.

The business has expanded to employ 35 people, and sells wines to the public and to some of Ireland's finest restaurants, north and south. And it now employs staff in the Republic, selling JN wines in Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Donegal.

There is a difference between the southern and northern markets, Mr Nicholson said.

"In the Republic, they are slightly more ahead of the curve and it's a more developed market."

But business had fallen back slightly in the Republic since the days of the Celtic Tiger – though it was now starting to improve, Mr Nicholson said. "It dropped back by about 40% over three years but we think this year it will grow by around 20%."

With most retail sales coming through mail order, the company's website was crucial in continuing the company's growth, he said.

"We were the first wine company in Ireland to have a website and we are now spending a considerable amount on developing it," he added.

As for the future, he said pinot grigio, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc were here to stay.

Provenance was all important though, and he kept an open mind about English wines, saying some made-in-England sparkling wines could hold their own against Champagne.

"If they produced something on the moon I would give it a go," he said.

Mr Nicholson said the win reflected the dedication and hard work of the team. "Each member of our team is a professionally trained, educated, passionate wine drinker and they're only too eager to share that knowledge with our many customers."

JN Wine's Jane Boyce is Northern Ireland's only Master of Wine, and the only female Master of Wine in Ireland.

According to Daily Telegraph wine writer Suzy Atkains, Mr Nicolson is "a proper questing wine explorer".

"He started trading French wine in the 1970s – 'the days when Mateus was considered sophisticated' – then swiftly took on Australian and Californian wineries in the 1980s. Right now I sense Italian, Spanish and Lebanese wines interest him most."

Charles Metcalfe of the IWC described the award-winners as "the gatekeepers of fine wine, exciting shoppers and enhancing their enjoyment of wine".

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