Five of the best specialist UK wine merchantsBy Lauren Eads
A broad brush approach might be a successful formula for winning over the masses, but these merchants have found a niche, offering a unique service by specialising in a particular area of wine retailing.
While their specialisms are only one part of their business, it tends to define their approach, be it honing in on select region and digging out the best it has to offer, to format selection or designing eco-friendly solutions for the wine trade.
From small businesses operating online, to large scale, globally recognised behemoths, the following retailers offer not only a fantastic range of wines, but a little something extra.
Click through for our pick of top specialist UK wine merchants.
Click here for our top five classic London wine merchants.
Click here for our top five Modern classic London wine merchants.
Specialism: Large format wines
Location: Online. Flagship store in Knightsbridge, London
Mission statement: “We have worked hard to develop strong relationships with some of the greatest wine estates in the world, ensuring we have perfect provenance and access to exclusive and enviable parcels. Though we are certainly honoured to be able to offer some of the greatest vintages of the world’s most celebrated wines, we also pride ourselves on the fact that we offer the best quality across a wide range of price points, from affordable, entry level options to exclusive and rare labels.”
Harrods needs no introduction, but it’s not necessarily a retailer you’d expect to find on this list given its size and broad appeal either. It is deserving so because of its dedication to large format wines, the kind you would scarcely find elsewhere.
Currently among its 1,400-strong wine selection and 600 spirits is a 6-litre Louis XIII Le Mathusalem Cognac, yours for £75,000. There’s also a 6-litre of 2014 Ornellaia on offer to those with £2,100 to spare. Just two of its larger-sized treasures, but its range is far reaching in scope.
“Over the past 12 months, we have enjoyed a healthy growth across a majority of our wine categories, which mirrors our customers positive engagement with the range,” says Siobhan Irons, wine buyer at Harrods. “More recently we have launched an own label Provence Rosé, made by the Caves d’Esclans wine team which is not only a first for Harrods but represents a significant milestone as it is also the first own label they have ever produced.”
Such bottles are housed within Harrods’ state-of the-art wine retailing space, which opened in 2018 following a multi-million investment, in the basement of its Knightsbridge department store. The Art Deco space, designed by Martin Brudnizki, who also designed the interiors of swanky London restaurants The Ivy and Sexy Fish, boasts marble flooring and limed oak shelving and covers around 8,000 sq ft.
On the past few months, Irons says the challenges have taught her team to be flexible and pivot quickly to respond to “incomparable circumstances”. “Our online wine range has tripled in the last three months to ensure that our customers have access to the specific lines and labels that they love purchasing while in Harrods. We will continue to review and update the wine range to ensure we are responding to our customers’ needs while at the same time maintaining our commitment to offering the highest quality.”
The Wine Barn
Specialism: German wines
Location: Online shop. Head offices in Hampshire, UK, and Frechen, Germany.
Mission statement: “What separates us from all other merchants is our exceptional range of exclusively German wines, very personalised service, and because we care about our customers and want to spread joy. We have been supplying exceptional wines to the UK for over 20 years including elegant reds, deliciously dry whites, sensational sparkling wines and exclusive Eiswein (ice wines). Our broad range has been selected to cover all styles – from the affordable to the luxury from dry to sweet and from fresh to full-bodied – ensuring there’s something to suit all tastes and pair with any cuisine.”
The Wine Barn operates across the UK and Germany from its head offices in Hampshire in the UK and in Frechen, Germany, from which it has been importing wines for the past 20 years. Founded by German native Iris Ellmann, the merchant now supplies wines to Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, among many others.
For the past four years The Wine Barn has won the title of ‘Specialist Merchant of the Year for Germany’ at the International Wine Challenge Merchant Awards, while Ellmann was nominated as one of the first members of the Riesling Fellowship, which commended Ellmann for being committed to the “detective work and the challenge of finding wines that are officially unavailable elsewhere”.
The recent closure of restaurants and hotels has had a huge impact on The Wine Barn, and its ability to supply wines. Consequently, Ellmann has shifted her focus to the consumer market, the online shop and home delivery service. “Although the lockdown is easing and the hospitality trade is now opening back up, we will continue to build on being a successful online retailer,” she says.
“We will do this by developing the range of taster cases and special offers we provide, enhancing the user experience of our website and, increasing our digital marketing efforts. We will also continue to contact customers directly over the phone, offering personal advice and putting tailored made cases together for them based on their individual tastes, and most importantly, adapting in accordance with their feedback.”
Specialism: France, with a particular focus on the Rhone
Location: Online. Flagship shop in Mere, Wiltshire.
Mission statement: “Yapp Brothers finds ‘best in class’ wines from small, independent producers and imports them directly to supply private customers and restaurants,” says CEO Tom Ashworth. “I appreciate that other wine merchants also do that, but we’ve been at it since 1969, initially focusing on the Rhone and Loire, but now providing a one-stop shop for all French regions, plus interesting additions from Spain, Germany, Australia and SA. We are UK agents for J-L Chave, Vernay, Clape, Chateau Grillet, Grange des Peres, Alain Graillot, Trevallon and Jasper Hill.”
Specialists in French wine, and particularly those from the Rhone and Loire, Yapp Brothers celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, a year in which it achieved record annual sales and relaunched its website, fortuitously before the pandemic hit just a few months later.
“In mid-March we pivoted most of the on-trade team to help out the retail side of the business (website and telephones) who have been extremely busy during the pandemic,” says Ashworth.
“We are now working with the on-trade to assist their re-opening so unwinding those internal changes, all our employees are back working, in fact we are recruiting to meet demand. We are targeting growth in 2020 through continual improvement of our wine offering, service and systems, while keeping our team safe and motivated.”
Specialism: New World, with a New Zealand backbone.
Locations: Online. Shop and wine bar at Pop Brixton, 49 Brixton Station Rd, Brixton. Restaurant at The Laundry Brixton, 374 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.
Mission statement: “Our mission is to encapsulate the essence of the smaller less known producers, not so readily available in the UK. We want to honour the integrity of the producers working tirelessly to produce wines on a smaller scale and showcase them thoughtfully.”
Founded by entrepreneur Melanie Brown, Specialist Cellars offers a bespoke and well-honed range of New World wines, specifically from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
Those with their ear to the ground will know that it is the next evolution of Brown’s The New Zealand Cellar, a micro wine bar and premium retailer of New Zealand wines based in Brixton. Its New Zealand roots are still very much evident, with a fantastic selection of wines personally selected by Brown, but her remit has expanded, launching wines from both Australia and South Africa and bringing her keen eye and ability to source some of the best and niche wines available to her Brixton base.
“Although our NZ offering will always form the foundation of producers we wanted our growing fold to understand and explore the various other New World wine regions that are making exceptional wines,” says Brown. “Having grown considerably over the last 12 months, we’re always looking for new intuitive ways to communicate our wines and use social media as a key to growing our database and our following.”
If Brown didn’t already have her hands full, last year she opened a restaurant, The Laundry Brixton. Although affected by the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn’t stunted Brown’s drive to keep her many projects thriving during some challenging months.
“We’ve really honed in on our local community and looked at ways to support the wine needs of our immediate neighbours,” she says. “We’ve implemented a same day delivery service within Brixton and employed locals to help us deliver. We also felt providing informative fun live tastings on Instagram were a good way to connect with our followers whilst providing access to some of the most fun and interesting winemakers and producers.”
Specialism: Wines of tap/keg
Location: Online. Three shops across London: Southwark Street, Borough Market; Wilton Way, Hackney; Horatio Street, Tower Hamlets. HQ and winery at Tunnel Avenue, Greenwich.
Mission statement: “Our business approach is all about sustainability which is at the heart of our everything we do. We strive to achieve the closest to zero waste solutions for our customers. We offer Wine on Tap solutions to businesses in the on and off trade, using the only refillable keg system in this country.”
Borough Wines has expanded quickly in recent years, championing small independent producers. However it has also evolved to become one of the biggest specialists in Wines on Tap.
Each 25l keg contains 33.3 bottles (75cl) and saves 16kg of glass from being produced and disposed of, with only 50% of glass is recycled in the UK, explains Muriel Chatel, Borough Wines’ managing director. Less packaging and reduced transport requirements means a smaller carbon footprint, while Borough Wines’ unique keg collection and refill service means each keg is reused again and again. Transported in bulk, refill wine on tap is also better value, says Chatel, requiring less corks and packaging, which also means better margins for the seller.
“Consumers are increasingly looking for ways to reduce their impact on the environment and refill helps them do this,” says Chatel. “Having a refill station in bars and retail outlets offers a real USP to the venue and helps build a sense of community with their customers. We are the only company using refillable kegs as we don’t use any single use plastic. We source wines from around the world, transport it in bulk to minimise environmental impact and put it into kegs at our specialised east London facility.”
This year, the team launched a new side act to its business, offering sustainable wine solutions to the trade. “We have developed a system of re-bottling into small bottles which we developed initially for our own customer tastings (Somm.Sessions), hosted by sommeliers,” says Chatel. “We are now offering ‘micro-cases’ – themed selections of wines in 20cl bottles so that our customers can try new wines without committing to a whole bottle. We are also providing a re-bottling service to companies like Sensible Wine Services for their clients, and the Global Wine Academy who have adapted their courses to run online.”
Like all retailers, Borough Wines has been impacted by the pandemic, but has been moving forward with new initiatives to absorb the blow. “As the Borough Wines experience has always been about our communities, we set about building an online community through our Somm Sessions,” explains Chatel. “Virtual tastings hosted by our in-house of adopted sommeliers for which we sent out small bottles of the wines featured. These have been extremely popular. It’s also forced us to think creatively about how we can reach new customers and has resulted in some fantastic partnerships with other brands.”