In conversation… Matt Hodgson

Founder of Grape Britannia, Matt Hodgson, became so excited about English and Welsh wine that he switched career to join this amazingly dynamic, positive industry and create the opportunity to share his passion with a broader audience. Grape Britannia was formed, and in 2020, as a new business was thrilled to be awarded the Best England & Wales Specialist prize in the prestigious Decanter Retailer Awards. 

Creating Grape Britannia

The seed for Grape Britannia was probably sown 15 years ago when my wife, Natalie, and I got married at our local vineyard, Chilford Hall, just outside Cambridge. We were really impressed by their wines, served their sparkling rosé at the reception and received great feedback from our guests. I thought then that there was great wine being produced in our own back garden – but that no-one really knew about it. 

My previous career was in international tax – I’m one of a long list of former accountants who’ve transitioned to the wine industry! Having a finance background has certainly helped though. For a lot of entrepreneurs, doing the books is probably one of the parts of running a business they like least – for me it is almost relaxing!

Originally 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 across the road from where we live became vacant. I thought it would 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 really glad we did, not just because it’s a nice community hub now, but because I get immediate feedback on the wines – I can see on people’s faces their true reaction to the wines. We offer wines by the glass and change them every fortnight, so people get a chance to really explore English and Welsh wines without having to commit to buying a whole bottle. Fortunately, almost all the feedback has been incredibly positive. 

We were thrilled to be awarded the Best England & Wales Specialist prize in Decanter Retailer Awards 2020. It was a strong shortlist, and we pipped the previous year’s winner, Waitrose, into second place. The awards are judged on quality, value, range, service, innovation and performance – all things we hold dear at Grape Britannia, so we were delighted to get this recognition. 

Sustainability 

Like most independent retailers, we care deeply about the experience of our customers and the quality of our products. Lots of our customers appreciate our focus on sustainability, from sourcing our wines exclusively from within England and Wales, to doing local deliveries by cargo-tricycle, to reusing all our packaging where possible. If you look at our overall set-up: solely English and Welsh wines, ecommerce plus physical shop, we do have a combination that differentiates us. 

Selecting wines

Initially we selected wines by visiting vineyards, tasting the wines and talking with the owners. We selected the first vineyards based on a mix of large and small, local (to our shop in Cambridge) and further afield, well-established and just beginning. 

The pandemic forced changes, and we ended up getting samples sent to us – although we’re now trying to get out to visit the vineyards again as it’s important to us to build relationships and understand the story behind the wines. In the early days, we were the ones reaching out to make contact; now that we are established and recognised as a premier English and Welsh wine retailer, it’s more common for vineyards or wineries to get in touch to introduce themselves to us. 

We obviously can’t commit to stocking the wines of everyone who sends us samples, but we do promise to give considered feedback. It’s important to us to have a balanced range that has exceptional wines in all the key categories and sub-categories, so that’s part of the decision-making process too.

Increasing sales

There is certainly more and more interest in English and Welsh wines. The pandemic has made it hard to draw firm conclusions on sales trends, but we’ve been pleased to see that online sales since April this year are more than 50% up on last year. The long-term trends toward sustainability and localism for consumers and increased choice, quality and value from producers hopefully underpins continued growth.

The bestsellers

Our bestselling wine over the past 12 months is Three Choirs Vineyard English House Dry NV which is a still white wine retailing for £8.99 – the price point is definitely part of the appeal. Our top English Sparkling wine is Harrow & Hope’s Brut Reserve NV at £27.99, and I can understand why: it’s exceptional value for money, with immense depth of flavour but classic English Sparkling wine freshness – oh, and a beautiful bottle too! In terms of red wines, although it’s only recently come into our range, the Danbury Ridge Wine Estate Pinot Noir 2018 at £34 is selling extremely well – which is a reflection of the rave reviews it’s received from the wine press.

Tips for producers

It may sound facile but branding and shelf appeal really helps sales. Of course, different people are drawn to different label designs and bottle shapes – but it remains the case that gorgeous labels sell bottles!

It’s always massively helpful when vineyards give me the heads up on a forthcoming vintage change or when stocks of a particular wine are running low – having advance notice of changes gives me the confidence to plan ahead and promote wines accordingly, particularly for our wholesale business.

The future and its challenges

I’m enormously excited about the future of English and Welsh wines. A huge amount of potential is being realised today, but there is plenty more to come, in our view.

It’s not a novel observation, but it’s worth repeating: one serious challenge is how the sector navigates demand and supply pressures, given that so many vines have been planted in the last few years. My sense is that the next decade will see some consolidation in the sector, and sadly not all vineyards will succeed – even if they are making good wine. 

Any favourites?

My favourites change all the time! At the moment, sparkling-wise I’m particularly enjoying the new vintage Saffron Grange Classic Cuvée 2018 and All Angel’s Sparkling Rosé 2014, while for still wines the Heppington Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 and Artelium’s Meunier Rosé 2020 are really hitting the spot. Natalie would go for a sparkling Blanc de Noirs – from Raimes or Roebuck Estates perhaps – or Balfour Hush Heath’s Sparkling Red.  She loves White Castle Vineyard’s Regent 2017 for her still wine pick.

Any spare time?

I’m afraid spare time is a distant memory! There is always more to do when running your own young business. That said, time spent with our three daughters is always precious and we have a screen-free Sunday every now and then – misleadingly christened ‘Victorian Day’ in our house! – so that we can get the board games out and decompress.

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