The Merchant's Collection Explained
5 April 2022
The Merchant's Collection is coming up to its first birthday so we sat down with Bordeaux Index buyer Giles Cooper and discussed the process of creating the collection, the wines that made the cut and how it all came about in the first place.
First off please can you give us some background as to how you came up with the concept of the collection?
Well, I think the first idea that we had was to start a project that was going to be educational - we really wanted to cover off the classic wine regions and why they are so important. So, if somebody was pretty much new to wine on a global scale, they would be able to dip into this collection and what they would find would be very classic and standard for that region. The more we started looking at it the more we liked the idea of having that range. This formed ‘The Merchant's Collection’ - A journey through the world's classic styles, each wine unquestionably recognisable and authentic to its region. Meticulously hand-picked by our Bordeaux Index expert buyers.
Tell us why you think it is important and how it is different to what Bordeaux Index usually offers.
The Merchant’s Collection is quite different to our normal offering because usually we don't tend to hold a huge amount of stock at this price level. Usually, if we get offered something by an agent or by a producer, we typically tend to secure a hold on a portion of that stock; we don't buy and hold large amounts of stock outside of what we hold for LiveTrade, our award-winning online trading platform. We would often have situations where clients would call us and say ‘I normally drink Mouton, but I'm having a party and I need 10 cases of white wine at £25’ and we just wouldn't have it in stock ready for delivery. For us, selecting this collection and guaranteeing this stock is a great evolution and a way of holding physical stock in volumes that can be immediately delivered and give people really great value wines that we think are excellent.
What does the name ‘The Merchant Collection’ represent?
We always said to ourselves that the minute we stopped just broking and started buying for stock we became a merchant and that's true. This collection is our way of really saying: “You need it, we have it.” You can go on to the website have a look at the collection and there will be a range of wines, in stock, ready for you to purchase and 100% recommended by us. It is our collection, by your Merchant – Bordeaux Index.
Tell us about the very beginning of the process of choosing wines for the Merchant’s Collection, how did you start?
One of the first things we did with this collection was to go back over our previous tasting experiences and find the things we had loved but weren't able to offer at the time as it didn’t suit the offers we typically choose for our clients. We ticked a few boxes straightaway from doing that. We are also very fortunate that a number of agencies we work with have been very generous with sending samples during lockdown enabling us to discover new wines and see what might fit the bill.
I probably tried more wines during lockdown than I would in normal times because people wanted to shift stock due to the tragic nature of the restaurant business being in such dire straits. Some of the wines we tried pitched absolutely perfectly price wise for us as a merchant and because restaurants weren’t able to take on the wine, we were able to try them. We were having our eyes opened to wines that we would just not ever have been offered before, so that was a silver lining I guess!
Is there a portion of the collection that consists of wines we normally would not be able to offer?
In some cases yes, but we have tried to select wine that we have a good chance of keeping stock of in the longer term. When we started sourcing wines for the collection, initially we started looking at UK agents as we wanted to get moving quickly but it didn't stop us from looking beyond that. If we found something that was outstanding but we had to wait a little bit longer to get it, quality trumped ease of access. On a couple of occasions, I would try something and it was absolutely delicious but it wasn't absolutely classic. I think that was one of the things that was really exciting about sourcing the wines, is that we found a lot of bottles that weren’t quite right for the Merchant's Collection, but it was a fantastic wine with a good story. The beauty is we can offer those wines as an addition to the collection further down the road.
Do you think the extra wines that you found will they be part of the other three collections in ‘The Collection Series’?
Yeah, I think in a lot of cases they will be. They are perfectly suited to our Hidden Gem, Discovery or Breakthrough Wine Makers collections.
Were there specific criteria you followed when choosing the wines?
The first thing we did was to get an idea of the types of wine we wanted to include. We knew we wanted to have a New Zealand Sauvignon, a Burgundy Pinot Noir, a Californian Cabernet... the list goes on!
Once we built the structure of the types of wines we wanted to include it was then a question of thinking about the styles. If somebody said they really like something rich or mineral, then we would have something that would tick the box for them. This goes back to this idea of thinking about the style guide: we wanted a New Zealand Sauvignon that tasted like a New Zealand Sauvignon. Not just because it's classic of the style, but because if somebody says I like Sauvignon Blanc, but I don't like it too fruity or acidic, then there's an option. And I think that style guide was really helpful because that enabled us to go back to talking to the agents or suppliers and saying look, we normally buy this from you, but I need something that hits this price point that meets these sort of style guides. What do you recommend? Having that style guide was really important to us because it kept us focused on what we were looking for all the time.
Please tell us about the tasting process
We requested samples of four or five wines for each of the styles. In some cases I already knew the wine that would be the sure-fire winner but with wines where I was going outside my own regions, where I was going a bit more off the beaten track in terms of my regular tasting experience, I might get four or five things in, and then I would taste through them. I would taste everything once and then leave them and come back the next day and taste them all again. There were days where everything just tasted terrible, even wines I knew I normally liked! I think I noticed it more because I have never had such a concentrated period of tasting so many wines every day. Typically, I would taste one or two things in a day and what this has really shown me is that anytime you open something you cannot make a judgment on it. Once I had whittled it down to about three wines for a category, I would send the samples on to David Thomas who I think has the best palate in the company. In most cases I would use a Coravin to extract the wine for the samples. It isn’t perfect but it meant I could keep the samples alive so I could taste them again another day and share them with David. We would then make the final decisions together. David lives about an hour from me and once a week we would drive and meet halfway in a deserted pub car park and switch over a load of samples. It was the highlight of my week in lockdown!
Is this all because of Covid?
Yes, we weren't able to taste the samples together in the office which made this a bit of a logistical challenge. It was quite nice to get out to be honest! We would have a chat in the car park and talk about the wines. Sometimes he would say, ‘I'm not sure, I felt like I was ready to be excited, but it didn't happen”, and I could have been really looking forward to him trying that one, so I would give him the full bottle instead of the Coravin sample and he could then pull the cork and give it some time. Give it some air in the glass and let the bottle breathe a bit more and I think in every case maybe apart from one we then chose that sample.
The amount of work and effort that's gone into this collection from your side really is incredible.
The thing is it’s quite easy to do with such fantastic agencies and importers. With some agencies we could literally have given them the sheet and asked them to fill in their recommendations, but the funny thing is no single agency has secured more than a couple of wines in the collection. This wasn't a question of saying ‘nobody is going to get more than three’ it was just how it happened with our tastings and the style guide. We tried our very hardest not to be predictable, and in fact in some cases for something like the South African White I thought there is just not going to be anything that's going to be better than Mullineux Old Vines White. I almost didn't want to choose that wine because it looks like a lazy choice but it was just the best wine. Sometimes the classics are the classics for good reason!
Can you give us an idea of how many wines you tasted to find the perfect 30?
In the region of 200. The quality you can find in this price range is absolutely amazing and that was something that really gave me great confidence and these are bottles we just weren't able to offer before. In that sense I'm really excited about it. I think it reminds us that the quality of winemaking is going up and it's challenging because people talk about score inflation; it’s said that too many wines get high scores now and wines in the past would get much lower scores. It is difficult because wines made 20 years ago would not do anywhere near as well as they are now, at any level.
What would the reasons be for a wine not making it into the collection?
In this process we have found lots of wines to offer outside of The Merchant’s Collection and the reason they didn’t make it into the collection is because they just didn't quite fit that style guide.
One of the key things we want is for clients to come back for more. We want people to be excited and say ‘I need more of that. I've run out, I need more!’. If we said we've got to have consistent supply for a whole year, like you might do with a Waitrose or a Majestic for a core line, that just takes too many options off the table. With our process we can put something else in, because I know I can always lean on that style guide. It is the language of the whole collection. The style guide is designed to try and help you understand about wines too and what we've done with the tasting notes and the icons is to bring our style guide to life.
Who was involved in the creation of the collection?
It’s a real team effort. We chose the wines as a team drawing on our different experiences and expertise. Between David and I we have chosen all the wines but to get us on to this track it has been the wider team. This process has been about discovering incredible wines that so often fly under the radar, and the people behind them doing their best with their wine, and that's inspiring. That's part of what the excitement of wine is!
If you could sum up the wines in the collection in one sentence and one word what would they be?
I think there are two sides to summing up the collection in one sentence, honesty is one part of it. There’s no frills, these are really high quality wines not leaning on any heavy branding. In some cases it might be the best wine that they make and in some cases it's the entry level wine that the producer makes. Whichever it is, they are really honest expressions of each place.
And the second thing is the style. We wanted the wines to have a certain amount of brightness, and a certain amount of energy, which is perhaps a weird word. When you talk about wine having energy, I think that's quite a hard thing to explain to people. It is just what happens when a wine has real balance. When you really feel like you can tell what kind of land it was grown on, whether it's grown at altitude, or whether it's from a very hot or a much cooler place.
It really came through to me when we were looking at the tasting icons because I wanted to include freshness and brightness but every wine should have that; it was something I wanted to capture across the whole range.