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Specialist Indies talk shop and more...

Published:  13 November, 2019

Independent wine merchants are specialist retailers in their own right offering a service, range and expertise that more general retailers, such as grocers, will always struggle to match.

Within this specialist sphere many indies have a bent towards a certain style, and now we are seeing merchants specialising even further and only dealing in wines from their key area of interest, such as English or natural wines.

We meet two very different specialist indies to find out their stories and look at how sharpening their focus has worked for them, discovering what benefits doing business this way offers and exploring the drawbacks…

Maxence Masurier, director, Made In France

Founded in 2013, Made In France offers a portfolio of largely exclusive French wines from its shop in London’s Clerkenwell

“I like the idea of being specialised in something, but mainly I love French wine! I would rather have a very complete and detailed selection, rather than having a bit of everything sourced all around the world. I would say we offer a very traditional French selection, but we do it here, in London.

“Thanks to my ancestors, I’ve been brought up in an environment that is faithful to French wine and terroir. My family and my father in particular, collaborated with local producers for decades, which is why to this day I’m still benefitting from their network. In fact, that network is so rich and broad that I still haven’t been able to fully exploit it.

“Being specialised enables me to reach out to London’s French community and to those who are passionate about French wine. This really is what makes me unique compared to other wine merchants. It has also given way to regular collaborations with the French embassy, with jewellery brand Cartier, and with various restaurants and French institutions. I offer something different, and something that can’t really be found anywhere else in London. Some of my regular customers travel from afar to come and see me, which is another reason why I decided to launch the website.

“Business has been very positive this year, with a growth of around 12% compared to last year, and an average of 1,200 sales per month. Online sales have been looking particularly good since December 2018. I think it’s fair to say that French wine is very much in vogue! I’m hoping to open up a new shop in West London next year. We plan to offer a delivery and refill wine service, in keeping with the times, to revolutionise the way we consume wine.

“All my wines are sourced in France; around 80% of them are absolutely exclusive in the UK. I partner with small, local producers who are very passionate about what they do, and aren’t used to having their produce exported abroad. I am proud to support their business, and to share their gems with my customers.

“We often have customers come through the door looking for wines from elsewhere. However, the great variety of wines we offer means we can usually satisfy their demand anyway. That being said, if a client is after a precise type of wine that isn’t produced in France, I would happily leave it to my fellow wine merchants to cater to their needs!”

Matt Hodgson, owner and MD, Grape Britannia

Cambridge-based Grape Britannia opened its doors in 2019 and specialises in English and Welsh wine

“With three young children it's natural that thoughts turn to the future and the world that they are going to inherit. The sustainability aspect of only stocking wines from England and Wales was important – the CO2 emissions to get a bottle of English Sparkling Wine to our shop in Cambridge from Sussex are a third of those to import Champagne, and a ninth of those for bringing Prosecco or Cava over.

“The other main reason was that it is such a compelling, dynamic country from a wine perspective! English Sparkling Wine has been on the rise for a while now, but I am actually almost more excited by the revolution that is going on in English still wines, both quality and breadth. I love visiting the vineyards and wineries, as there is such a positive mood in the industry. There's always someone and something new to discover, and there's lots of experimentation going on: as a country England isn't hidebound by tradition in grape varieties or wine production. Grape Britannia is able to stock a really wide range of styles for our customers to explore.

“For the online business, we think that in a crowded marketplace, having this focus on English wines does make Grape Britannia stand out, it's our USP. There's more and more media coverage of English wine, in the UK at least. Potential new customers whose interest is piqued want to go to a true expert who can help them navigate the new territory; and for those who have some experience of English wine and want more, out focus means we can offer the widest and best range for them to continue their exploration. There's also a couple of really practical benefits – it doesn't cost too much to get to the vineyards to visit them, and not having to deal with the whole import side of things certainly makes life a little easier!

“Most of Grape Britannia's online traffic is currently coming from people who are specifically looking for English wines or indeed a particular English wine, and as one of the few pure specialists we are well positioned for them to find us and be able to deliver what they are looking for. Our challenge for the future is to attract more people not specifically looking for English wine and encourage them to give it a try!

“For some, when we tell them that we only stock English (and four Welsh!) wines, their interest is immediately piqued, perhaps because of the novelty value to them, or because of local sourcing preferences. For others, it can be about providing suitable reference points – Bacchus, England's signature white wine grape, has an aroma and flavour profile that is not wildly dissimilar to Sauvignon Blanc, which most potential customers will have experience of.

“There are some occasions when it's tricky. The reality is that England can’t, and probably never will, produce Aussie style blockbuster Shiraz-Cabernets. Full-bodied reds just aren’t our thing. If that’s what a customer wants, then we have to be honest and say that we don’t have that. However, if they love a Pinot Noir then I can guarantee that Grape Britannia can put a smile on their face!”