A Journey into English Wine Retail with Grape Britannia

We caught up with Matt Hodgson, Managing Director of independent English wine retailer Grape Britannia. Over the last five months, Matt has focussed on developing a full range of exciting homegrown wines at his shop in Cambridge, which also offers the facilities for customers to sit in a sample English wine by the glass. Matt has shared with us his learnings and insights into the English wine industry after half a year in business.

Be sure to check at the bottom of the article for a 10% discount on all orders until November 30th for Great British Wine readers.

 

So, what was the path that led you to opening a wine merchant selling solely English and Welsh wines?

It’s been a long journey in some ways. The seed for it was probably sown 13 years ago when my wife and I got married at our local vineyard, Chilford Hall, just outside Cambridge. We tried their wines when we were planning the wedding to see if any were right for serving on the day. We were really pleasantly surprised, and we served the sparkling rosé at the reception to great feedback from our guests. I thought then, there’s some great wine being produced in our own back garden, as it were, but no-one really knows it.

 

A lot has changed in the last 13 years in the English wine industry, hasn’t it?

Yes, it has on a lot of levels. The breadth and quality are just exponentially better now. Back then, the amazing explosion of and recognition for English Sparkling Wine was only just beginning, and there was too much mediocre still wine based on Germanic hybrids and winemaking that just wasn’t world-class. Of course, there were shining examples of quality back then and had been for some time, and the trend was already heading in the right direction. Then there are other factors like the huge success of Plumpton College in providing education for would-be viticulturists and winemakers.

 

What made you actually take the plunge earlier this year?

A combination of things, push and pull. I’ve not got a background in the trade, but an adulthood-long passion for wine that in recent times became focused on this incredible industry within our own shores. My previous career was in international tax – I’m one of a long list of former accountants who’ve transitioned to the wine industry - and I guess I just sort of slowly fell out of love with it while becoming increasingly excited about English wine. I made the decision that I wanted to be part of this amazingly dynamic, positive industry and create the opportunity to share my passion for English wine with a broader audience. So I set out to stock the broadest range of exceptional quality English wines, anywhere. And as far as I know, that’s what I’ve achieved, with over 170 wines in our portfolio, growing by the week.

We’ve just reached 100 still wines in the portfolio, a mini-milestone. The other part of it is the sustainability aspect: the transport of wine creates significant CO2 emissions, as wine is a relatively heavy product. Getting a bottle of Ridgeview to our shop in Cambridge produces a third of the emissions as getting a bottle of Champagne or a ninth of Cava or Prosecco. I’ve got three young girls, and I suppose I have grown in awareness of and concern for the impact we are having on the planet and the legacy we leave for future generations.

 

You talked about “sharing the passion” – how has this gone then in terms of your customers’ reactions?

Well, it’s interesting because initially Grape Britannia was just going to be an e-commerce business and I was busy looking for a warehouse to store stock when a shop almost literally across the road from where I live became vacant. I thought, it’ll be much nicer sitting in a shop than in a warehouse fulfilling orders. Then when my local friends heard about our plans, they said, “You’ve got to have a bar in there”… so that’s what we ended up doing.

And I’m delighted we did, not just because it’s a nice community hub now, but because I get all this immediate feedback on the wines, in a way that is just much more transparent and unfiltered compared to online reviews. I can see on people’s faces their true reaction to the wines. We do wines by the glass and change them every week, so people get a chance to really explore English wines without having to commit to buying a whole bottle. Fortunately, almost all the feedback has been incredibly positive.

What’s gone down particularly well in the first couple of months?

In terms of wine by the glass, sparkling-wise, the Bolney Bubbly was a big hit. To be fair, it was one of the sunniest weeks we had all summer so that might have had something to do with it! We had some rave feedback on the Camel Valley Atlantic Dry and Court Garden Ditchling White too. And I’d say that our most popular red so far has probably been the Three Choirs Ravens Hill – a great “house red”. Online, our pre-selected mixed cases, which cover red, white and rosé but also, for example, Bacchus or Blanc de Blancs & Blanc de Noirs, seem pretty popular.

 

Speaking of red wines, how is that going, given that you only stock English and Welsh wines? Are you finding that people are satisfied with the range that you are offering?

That’s a great question! Look, as you know, the reality is that England can’t, and probably never will – unless we have some truly crazy global warming – 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. If they love a Pinot Noir then I can guarantee that we can put a smile on their face – Simpsons Rabbit Hole, Hush Heath Luke’s, Bolney Foxhole Vineyard, the list goes on… and even medium-bodied, like Winbirri’s Signature or White Castle’s Regent. We had a lot of angst when we were setting up about whether to stock non-English red wines just to fill out the range. Maybe something with some tenuous connection, like English ex-pats making wine abroad, or British Commonwealth countries. In the end, we decided to start purely English and see how it goes. So far, so good.

 

But at the end of the day, it’s English Sparkling Wines that are the crown jewels, isn’t it? Presumably, you find that people are more aware of these and more likely to have tried them before?

Yes, undoubtedly. They’re an easy sell in a way: pound for pound you are going to be getting better quality with English Sparkling Wine compared to Champagne. I firmly believe that. With Champagne, you are paying a few pounds a bottle just for the fact that it says Champagne on the label. And our industry is set up for quality production. At every vineyard and winery that I go to, I see the passion and precision that goes into the crafting of these wines. An obsession with quality. Not just Gusbourne, Chapel Down, Hambledon and the rest of the more prominent, better-known names, but all the smaller producers I stock like Albourne or Court Garden.

Of course, I’m not saying that you can’t get excellent Champagne, and there is a trend to grower-producers there, but our industry is just structurally set up a better way overall. And one thing I like is that we aren’t so constrained by tradition or regulation, so as well as all the wonderful traditional method English Sparkling Wines we have examples like Flint Vineyard’s Charmat Rosé or Chapel Down’s Sparkling Bacchus. Some in the industry seem a bit snooty about these, but as an English Wine retailer, I am delighted that there is this variety – and they are both extremely well-made wines of their type.

 

What are your ambitions for Grape Britannia?

I see it becoming the go-to place for anyone who wants to buy English wine – the best range, keen pricing, supplemented by information on vineyards, winemakers and the industry. We’re thrilled with our website and the range of wines we’ve launched with, but it’s just base camp really, there are lots of ideas in the pipeline for the business - it’s just a case of finding the time to implement them!

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