James Nicholson, Co Down
MARY DOWEY finds a surprisingly wide range of wines deep in the Irish countryside
Plenty of cities have spread so far in recent years that it is easy to imagine how their suburbs might subsume a village 25km away. Not Belfast - at least, not yet. The 40-minute drive south to Crossgar still traverses rolling green Co Down farmland. So what is a fine wine shop doing out here - especially a vast cube of cedar and glass that is James Nicholson's new HQ?
'We're probably mad:says Nicholson, who has lived round here all his life. Maybe not that mad, though. The swathe of North Down which links Crossgar to greater Belfast has the highest disposable income in Northern Ireland. His location away from the city has forced him to try harder- building a range of wines 'from 4 a bottle to 400' to lure customers either in person or by mail order.
The new premises have a bright-lights-big-city feel. Purpose-built on the same street as the previous Nicholson outlet, they incorporate tasting room-cum library (bottles always open, coffee on tap), offices and warehouse in addition to a spacious shop whose well-informed staff are helpful without being intrusive. Schott glasses, estate olive oil and the dark temptations of l'Artisan du Chocolat add to the positive impression created by 600 carefully chosen wines - everything from Ridge and Rochioli in California to Daniel Rion in Burgundy;Vernayin Condrieu to Von Buhl in the Pfalz; Beaucastel in the Rhone to Boekenhoutskloof on the Cape.
James Nicholson is not just a retailer but also a major importer and wholesaler. When he set up in business in 1977 at the age of 23, experience in the family restaurant prompted him to focus on wholesaling. Even today retailing accounts for just 30% of his business.
Wine-loving shoppers benefit - not only from economy-of-scale prices, but from Nicholson's need to offer restaurants and other wine shops a range with breadth and depth. So that's what BillecartSalmon, Pesquera, Loosen, Schafer, Norton and the like are doing in his weighty
catalogue, along with rising stars like Artadi in Spain and Terra Burdigala, the Derenoncourt-Thienpont venture in Bordeaux. The quest for the best keeps Jim Nicholson in vineyards and cellars 12 weeks of the year and in Bordeaux every spring since 1982. En primeur is important to his mail order business, selling particularly well in England and Scotland.
On the negative side, more effort is required in Burgundy. California needs to strengthen around 10. The range of inexpensive wines could expand to dispel the shop's lingering' dinner party-only' feel. Far more 'shelf-talkers' are needed, and the geographical names on the units are so designerish-discreet as to be almost invisible. But these are minor flaws in a vastly satisfying shopping experience.
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