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High Society

Tom Cannavan visits The Wine Society

by Tom Cannavan, 06/14

sign A visit to The Wine Society's headquarters in Stevenage, half an hour from central London by train, is a fascinating experience. The enormous series of offices and warehouses are crammed with state of the art contact centres and computer controlled logistical systems, yet there's an air of timelessness and tradition that permeates the entire operation - as befits a mutual society founded in 1874 and apparently going from strength to strength today. Invited to tour the facilities and taste, my visit finished off with a wonderful and quintessentially English lunch, centred around roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding with lashings of gravy and horseradish sauce.

What's the outstanding bargain in the world of wine today? Well, arguably it is membership of the Society. £40 buys a lifetime share in a membership-owned mutual society with one the of the world's best ranges of wines. And prices are consistently low, thanks largely to the Society's status as a 'non profit maximising' organisation.

Passing through the customer service facilities and buzzing, busy phone room where agents - all with wine training - are as happy to answer questions and give wine advice to members as they are to sell wine - and you enter the first of four huge warehouses stacked floor to ceiling with pallets of wine. Cases of first growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy and cult Italian classics are piled high alongside more humble offerings, and a seemingly haphazard fashion. The Society's Public Relations Manager, Ewan Murray, explains that modern warehousing software means placement of items on shelves can be done randomly, with no need for Library-type filing structures: the software will guide the fork-lift drivers and pickers to precise locations anywhere in these vast sheds.

warehouse I watched conveyers moving a seemingly endless juggernaut of cases of wine around, as pickers made up members' orders, and a little random visual sampling as I walked around showed what an eclectic and specialist range of wines members buy. And it is a significant operation this, with 350,000 member shares having been issued over the decades, around 125,000 of which are currently active, and with over one million cases of wine being shipped last year.

At the end of the tour of the innards of the Society's operation, one comes to the retail shop - their only physical outlet in the UK (though there is a store in Montreuil in northern France). A very popular day outing for members, the shop is stocked comprehensively, including many smaller parcels of mature wine held in small, bin-end quantities, and a holy of holies fine wine cave full of treasures.

The operation is undoubtedly impressive, but what sets The Wine Society apart from other large wine clubs and mail-order-type businesses is the stuff in the bottles. The Wine Society really does source impeccably, its team of very experienced buyers strong not only in the European classics, but in scouring the world for wines that really do represent great quality and authenticity across this huge portfolio. Even the Society's own-label bottlings are made by some of the world's most revered winemakers, their Alsace wines from Josmeyer, their Rhônes from Jaboulet, their New Zealand Chardonnay from Kumeu River and so on.

There are many excellent wine retailers operating in the UK market, and we wine lovers are blessed with choice. The Wine Society's mutual status and its size allows it to operate on tighter margins than many other UK wine merchants. Not for one minute would I wish to see it abuse this power by aggressively beating down 'the competition'. And thankfully that notion seems, and is, utterly absurd when you get to know the Society and the way it ticks: there appears to be real integrity about the Wine Society, and a love of great wine that drives its wine-obsessed management. My guess is that the quality of drinking experienced by its members is the real bottom line on the Society's balance sheet.

the wines

A lifetime membership share in The Wine Society costs £40, and includes a £10 voucher for use against your first order. Prices quoted are all for Wine Society members, though for those who are not and for overseas visitors to wine-pages I have given wine-searcher links. Many of these wines come from the 2014 'Wine Championships', where the Society's buyers take part in a blind tasting to identify 'the best of the best' from their range for current drinking.

sparkling and white wines

Domaine de Montbourgeau, Crémant du Jura Brut, France
Lots of apple and a nice meaty undertones, savoury but very crisp. The palate explodes with crunchy flavour, with lots of juicy apple and the zip of lemon zest. Long and easy to drink, despite being totally dry in the finish. 88/100. £12.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Jules Camuset, Brut Champagne NV, France
Made for the Wine Society this has a very attractive, nicely yeasty nose with a solid base of apple fruit, a touch of baked apple pie creaminess. Nicely refreshing on the palate, with the racy mousse and that clean, fresh palate of quite perfumed and juicy apple along with good acidity. Quality and stylish Champagne at a good price. 88-89/100. £19.50

Wine Society, Vinho Verde 2013, Portugal
Only 11.5 abv, this is a blend of 60% Alvarinho and 40% Trajedura with a lovely hint of waxiness and Riesling-like lift and apple. The palate is clean and fresh, but has that rounding waxy hint against the plentiful lime and lemon acidity. Fresh as a daisy and truly delicious for summer drinking. 87/100. £6.25

Muros Antigos, Vinho Verde Loureiro 2012, Portugal
The smokiness and grip of the skin contact here is gorgeous, very Riesling-like again for some reason, and pungent and powerful. The palate is packed with lemon and orange flavours, with a delicious lick of mid-palate sweetness or more accurately, fruit juiciness, before a bone-dry finish. 89/100. £8.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Sannio Janare, Falanghina 2013, Italy
From Campania and the vineyards around Naples, there's a touch of honey to this aromatically, a touch of nuttiness too, with a dry Cox's Pippin apple fruit. The palate is clean and fresh, but there is texture here and juicy weight, the ripe apple punch and touch of grapefruit pith, in a textural, long finish. 87-88/100. £7.25 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

The Society's Chablis 2012, France
Made by Brocard, this has quite a bold green/gold colour. Big, leesy and yeasty nose with masses of flint and cordite, suggesting a bit of unbound sulphur, and complex with the crisp apple fruit beneath. The palate has a wonderful thrust and direction, with lots of orange juiciness and limey tang - acidity a little riper than lemons - and taut as well as textural and quite rich. 90/100. £11.50

The Society's Exhibition Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2011, France
Again made by Jean-Marc Brocard , there is more perfume and fragrance here, more hints of floral notes and less of the striking flintiness (or reduction), but an intensity to the aromas. The palate has lovely juiciness and definition, a real squirt of fresh lemon, mingling with the fragrant, dry, cool apple, just hints of nuttiness in the finish too. Long, classy and a fine expression. 91/100. £16.00

Tomas Cusiné, Costers del Segre Blanco 'Auzells' 2013, Spain
From Catalonia this 12.5% alcohol white is a blend of between five and nine each year, including Macabeo, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Albarino. Beautifully perfumed and ripe, with a Riesling and Sauvignon character driving the aromas, a touch of beeswax, a touch of elderflower, and plenty of punch. On the palate there's a lovely mouth-filling sweet fruit. The layering of this wine is lovely, with mineral notes adding to the dry juiciness, but no shortage of sweet and ripe, rounded flavours persisting to the end. 90/100. £10.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Fefinanes, Rias Baixas Albariño 2013, Spain
Again a very modest 12.5% abv for this Galician wine which pours with the appearance of a little petillance, and a lovely fat lemon rind waxiness on the nose. There are little elements of green herbs and of fresh, nutty apple. The palate has no real spritz, but a wonderfully fresh, mineral and ozone blast of crisp orchard fruits, all driving through to a salt-licked, beautifully mineral finish. 90-91/100. £14.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Do Ferreiro, Rias Baixas Albariño 2013, Spain
More subdued aromatically, a touch of something nutty or creamy, a little cashew hint even, but clean and poised apple fruit. The palate has real juiciness, a big stripe of citric and mineral acidity, flashing through the sour lemon, mouth-watering richness of the finish. 89-90/100. £14.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Lawson's Dry Hills, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013, New Zealand
The aromatic thrust of this is herbal and herby, with lots of green bean, lots of gooseberry with a hint of the lychee tropical beneath. The palate has delicious thrust and orange juiciness, with delicious flavours and loads of peach and nectarine skin soft texture and freshness. A very good, dry expression of Marlborough at its best. 90/100. £9.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Clos Floridene, Graves Blanc 2011, France
Denis Dubourdieu's own property in Bordeaux has produced this Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc blend with plenty of toast and smoky oak ripeness, but a core of the Sauvignon fruitiness too. Such a lean, assured, mineral-flecked palate, the tension of the acidity and the cool fruit, melding so nicely with the background of creamy oak. Delightful balance and a pure, clear acidity. 91/100. 19.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Louis Guntrum, Dry Riesling 2012, Germany
From the Mosel and with 12.5% abv, this displays authentic flintiness and slatey Riesling qualities, with a touch of candle wax and apple skins, but it is very appealing and crisp. The palate has delicious fruitiness and energy, real fruit in the mid palate, the hint of sweetness in the finish gives taut balance against the acidity. Delicious and not at all lean or mean. 88/100. £8.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

von Kesselstatt, Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Kabinett 2008, Germany
Again from the Mosel, a Kabinett with just 8% abv. A hint of toastiness and flintiness, a nice freshly cracked stone wisp of gravelly character. Gorgeous palate, with a weight of sweet mango and peach, then the shimmering coolness of its running water clarity and acidity giving knife-edge balance. Delightful summer drinking. 90/100. £12.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

rosé, red and sweet wines

Domaine Houchart, Cotes de Provence Rosé Sainte Victoire 2013, France
An old and always well-priced favourite, this has quite a bold but typically pale Provencal colour, with plenty of pomegranate and peachy aromas, with that typically dry redcurrant aroma and flavour coming through. The palate has more cranberry and redcurrant dryness, but just hints of sweetness that add to the summery appeal before the typically dry, mineral and long finish that gives seafood-friendly appeal. 89/100. £8.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Côtes d'Auvergne Gamay Saint Verny 2012, France
Quite a big, bold colour with plenty of depth and a chunky 13.5% alcohol. Dry, slightly reduced aromas, but has a dry earthiness and lightly rhubarb character. The palate has lots of juice, lots of, Pinot-like qualities with a really uncompromising dryness and grip. Plenty of acidity here, a streak of tannin too, giving this a bit of serious gravitas. 87-88/100. £7.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Château de Lacarelle, Beaujolais Villages 2013, France
Apparently Marcel Orford-Williams, the Society's buyer for Beaujolais is "jumping up and down with quality of the vintage." Bright, cherry fresh colour and expressively, buoyantly Gamay, with lipstick and cherries and real floral lift. The palate has an inky dryness, but this has flesh too, some body and grip, a bit of really intense cherry and red plum fruit in the mid palate, finishing with a touch of sweetness to the fruit and a hint of spice. 88-89/100. £7.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Martinborough Vineyards, Te Tera Martinborough Pinot Noir 2012, New Zealand
Lovely colour, with lightness and elegance and an immediately appealing Pinosity, beetroot and rhubarb notes of earthy sweetness, but also a fine, spiced red fruit. The palate has such delicious sweetness, the cherry and stripe of buoyant, red liquorice freshness and bite, leading on to a balanced citrusy finish with very good acidity and tight, spicy but smooth tannins. 92/100. £13.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Percheron, Shiraz Mourvèdre 2013, South Africa
Made by Boutinot in the Western Cape, you certainly get bangs per buck with 15% alcohol and a personality-packed red. Chunky and jammy fruit on the nose, very bold and flavourful, loads of earthiness and spice. There's a big rustic grip to the tannins of the palate, but the sweet fruit offsets that, the juiciness and freshness is good, and whilst it is heart-warming, big and chunky, it has an honesty and delicious fruit quality. 86-87. £5.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Van Zeller, Vale Donna Maria Rufo do Douro 2011, Portugal
Typical Douro red blend focused around Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, this has tobacco-streaked and earthy aromas, a nice lift of scented, almost floral nuance and plenty of substance as well as charm. The palate has a rustic grip and straightforward earthiness, with precision to the fruit and very elegant finish, despite the grip of those tannins. Chewy, but charming. 88/100. £8.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Torre del Falasco, Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso 2012, Italy
From Valpolicella in the Veneto and weighing in with 14% abv, this is mostly Corvina, fermented on the lees of Amarone. There's a bright, ashy and dry, intense and lifted character on the nose, hints of smokiness and of bright red fruits. On the palate it is really dry, with mouth-coating tannins and dry extract, the cherry-ish hint of plushness giving a softening, sweetening roundness and the finish long and really quite elegant with a hint of chocolate in there too. 89/100. £9.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Cepa Gavilan, Ribera del Duero Crianza 2011, Spain
A 14.5% abv Tempranillo, there's loads of creamy, spicy, vanilla-rich American oak on this, minty, bright and infusing with the ripe blackcurranty fruit. The palate has lovely dry savouriness, the delicious ripeness of the fruit floods the tongue, the slick, ripe tannins and cherry-skin grip of roughening acidity are lovely, all buttressed by that spice and creamy oak. Delicious. 90/100. £10.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

La Rioja Alta, Rioja Viña Arana 2005, Spain
A modest 13% alcohol here in a very different Rioja that is bold, meaty, gamy stuff, loads of character and tobacco-scented nuances, with elegant spicing, a hint of vanilla, and lots of lift, life and charm. The palate has real juiciness, a mature, game-touched, earthy and soft appeal, perhaps autumn to the Gavilan's summer? 90-91/100. £17.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Viña Pedrosa, Ribera del Duero Reserva 2009, Spain
Loads of currant, blueberry intensity, with again the sweet, creamy and spicy American oak very much in the mix, but more intensity to the fruit than in the Gavilan Rioja. Gorgeous fruit sweetness and freshness on the palate: there's a blue/black intensity to this, a real juiciness and vitality, the edge of acidity and the pert creaminess of the tannins are lovely, long and tapering to a sweet, gentle finish. 92-93/100. £24.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Château Tour Saint Bonnet, Médoc 2009, France
Very fresh, very correct and balanced aromas, with cedar and spice over tight black fruit. Nice little game and earthy notes - a lot going on in a classic framework. Solid, sweet, very pure and savoury, there is an extra ounce of depth and oomph to this (14% abv) that suits it: it is still medium bodied, but has a pool of deep fruit to offset the tannins, in a really impressive Cru Bourgeois. 89-90/100. £11.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Marquise d'Alesme, Margaux 2009, France
The Creaminess and fat of the fruit here is obvious, really sweet, ripe black fruits, edged with tobacco and spice, and that little lift of bloody, Margaux perfume. The palate has gorgeous fruit freshness, a real stripe of tight tannins and cherry and plum acidity, hints of chocolate richness, but it is the fruit concentration that drives this along. Delicious and long. 91/100. £25.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Australia
One of Margaret River's original and best estates, it's great that The Wine Society can afford release this with a little maturity, as they have done with French wines for many years. Big and bold, there is mint and there is intense cassis, but in the background still a hint of the greener aspect of Cabernet Sauvignon, that tiny herbal nuance that is complex and delicious. The palate has loads of fruit, loads of ripe sweetness, with a juiciness at the core that stops it from being at all OTT: this is model Margaret River, with elegance and abundant ripeness in perfect harmony. 92/100. £35.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Proprieta Sperino, Uvaggio Coste della Sesia Rosso 2010, Italy
Nebbiolo from the very north of Piemonte, along with touches of Vespetina and Croatina. Creamy and earthy, a touch of leather and of tar, but a core of very nice, ripe, brightly focused red fruits. A hint of vanilla too, but never losing sight of that lift, elegance and brightness of cherry. Lovely energy on the palate too, with a stripe of juiciness powering through and giving this tension and freshness into a long, harmonious finish. A fine wine, touches of spice adding an extra layer of interest. 90-91/100. £19.50 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Vigna Flaminio Vallone, Brindisi Riserva 2008
Puglia is the source of this 13.5% abv Negroamaro. It is creamy, tight stuff, with a touch of raisin and a touch of currant dryness. Spices and lift are lovely, with a juiciness and taut freshness to the wine. A little extra fudge-like sweetness and depth on the finish, and very good quality overall - long and sweet to the last. 88/100. £10.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Mount Langi Ghiran, Billi Billi Shiraz 2010, Australia
From the Grampians in Victoria, this has gorgeous lift on the nose, with floral violet aspects, touches of eucalyptus, and mint, chocolate-touched black fruits but so ripe and appealing. The palate has masses of sweetness, and has such lovely life and energy about it, flooded with fruit but again retaining that elegant freshness too. Really great performance from a stalwart. 88-89/100. £8.95 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

d'Arenberg, The Ironstone Pressings 2009, Australia
14.5% abv for this GSM blend from McLaren Vale favourites, d'Arenberg. Big and full-on nose, the crunch and jamminess of the Grenache fruit singing through, and backed up with an earthiness and spice, plenty of chocolaty depth. A touch of bacon rind and roasted meat. The palate has superb sweet fruit, flooded with juicy bramble and blackcurrant, an edge of meatiness again, with marvellous sweetness and joyous, floating top notes of flavour into a long, precise finish. Very refined tannins, natural feeling acidity in a crowd-pleasing and high quality wine. 92/100. £25.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Craggy Range, Sophia 2011, New Zealand
From New Zealand's red wine heartland of the Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay, this Bordeaux blend is smoky, spicy, very nicely meaty and gamy, with lots of quality, older French oak aromas and a certain gamy depth. A big, powerful wine, with a welter weight of tannin, dry and filling the mouth, but then the lovely fruit quality is there too, with masses of dry extract but not at all inky or over done - this has life and a persistent energy to the fruit, with creaminess of the oak filling-in on the finish, lovely balance and very long. A serious, delicious wine now, but obvious cellaring potential. 93/100. £32.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Kanonkop, Pinotage 2010, South Africa
From a Stellenbosch original and Pinotage specialist, this 14.5% abv wine has a buoyancy and bounce to the fruit, plenty of ripe red fruits, bolstered by a creamy, but not too toasty or coffeeish oak, letting the fruit sing out. The palate has a rounded, silky textured weight and appeal, with really very good juiciness and fruit-skin tang of cherry and plum skins, and a racy, fresh appeal even though some more of that creamy, lightly toasty oak comes through. Stays bright and focused. A very orthodox and convincing fine wine Pinotage. 91/100. £20.00 See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Blind Spot, Rutherglen Muscat, Australia
What a crazy world when a wine like this costs just £7.25 for a half bottle. Fortified wines are not hugely in demand because of the high alcohol I suspect - this has 17.5% abv. Gorgeous, liquidised raisin and walnut, thick and rich fig and quince Christmassy aromas. Just delicious palate, so much sweetness and richness, the viscous texture and hugely sweet espresso-soaked prune and raisin fruit is joyous, but it retains lift, life and energy. An absolutely cracking little sweet wine, of superb quality and a knock-down price. 92/100. £7.25