The big society

It sounds like an unusual approach for a wine merchant. “We try to keep profits to a minimum and this year we have absorbed increases in VAT and duty. Any profits we make are given back to the members by holding down prices.” However The Wine Society is not a normal merchant.

For a start its full name is The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Ltd. and the exhibition referred to was held in London back in 1874 when the world of wine was a lot smaller than it is now.

At the time, various countries sent barrels of wine to the exhibition to show their wares to the world, but they were largely forgotten in the basement of the newly constructed Royal Albert Hall and after the organisation closed an appeal was made to dispose of them. In the manner of the day, a group of worthies held a 
series of lunches to enjoy and publicise the wines, and the venture was such a success that they decided to continue. They set up a co-operative company to buy and sell wine.

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The key to The Wine Society as it is generally known is the word co-operative. You have to pay to join (£40), but this buys you a lifetime share in the company which can be left to your nearest and dearest when you retire to the great vineyard in the sky.

“We have some members whose great-grandfathers originally bought their share,” said Ewan Murray who showed me round the society’s headquarters in Stevenage when I paid them a visit recently.

The Wine Society is essentially a mail-order operation, although there is a shop in Stevenage and another in France close to Calais so you can pick up wine at duty-free prices. They also hold regular tastings around the country (Leeds on November 6) to showcase some of their wines. I have attended many of these in York, Leeds, Harrogate and even Castle Howard in recent years and they are always over-subscribed and rather jolly affairs.

The range is comprehensive, well- chosen and somewhat classic in style, with over 50 per cent sourced from France, although the second most popular country is Chile, which shows that The Wine Society is not afraid to be adventurous. There is a regular newsletter, frequent en primeur offers and if you want to buy but don’t have enough storage space, your wine can be stored in the Members’ Reserves section of the Society’s capacious warehouse and they will nudge you when it is ready to drink.

What I like about The Wine Society (and I have been a member so long that my share has doubled in value) is that the wines are generally benchmark examples of their region. The quality is good, sometimes brilliant, and I can rely on the pricing structure. Quality and price go hand in hand and there is no feeling that the price you pay today may be sliced in half next week. Naturally they occasionally do special price cases, but in general the price represents the right balance 
of flavour for money, no matter what 
you choose. In fact, while I was tasting through the range I had the distinct feeling that prices were distinctly good value for the quality.

Membership of The Wine Society requires you to be proposed by an existing member but I would be happy to propose any reader of this column. Just put my name in the proposer space on the form, and add “Yorkshire Post” for good measure. Contact The Wine Society on 01438 740222

I tasted through a chunk of the range, many of them the own-label wines to test them. Here are a few suggestions for your first case.

Veuve Fourny, Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Champagne Brut, £23: 100 per cent Chardonnay with crisp, clean apple freshness, centred around a nugget of mid-palate toastiness.

The Society’s Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie 2011, Loire, France, £6.25: Right on the button for light, fresh, slightly yeasty tones. Just like Muscadet should be but rarely is. Fabulous value.

Castro Celta Albariño, Rías Baixas, Spain, £8.95: From the maritime region of north eastern Spain, this is a deliciously light, fragrant wine with apricot-tinged citrus fruit with a long, bright finish.

The Society’s Exhibition Riesling 2009, Alsace, Josmeyer £11.95: From one of the best names in Alsace where the grapes are grown biodynamically, this wine offers the pure expression of the grape in a vibrant, citrus and honeyed style. Great to put alongside fish and lightly spiced dishes.

The Liberator Special Edition ‘The Lone Ranger’ Piekenierskloof, South Africa, £8.95: A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier ‘liberated’ from the cellars of a prestigious producer. Unusual for its lifted aromatics, crisp style and mid-palate weight, this is a great foodie wine.

The Society’s Exhibition Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2010, Brocard £16: You could spend a lot less for Premier Cru Chablis, but this wine offers pure classic flavours with broad lime and nutty 
flavours with a steely finish. Perfectly balanced and elegant. A joy to serve at a dinner party.

The Society’s Argentine Malbec 2011, Balbo, £6.95: A great example of how the Wine Society over-delivers on flavour. Full of powerful mulberry, fig and chocolate flavours with supple, mouth-filling tannins. Pour this alongside a grilled steak.

The Society’s Corbières, France, £7.25: Full of chunky bramble, herbs and spice flavours with enough grippy tannins to make this a delicious food wine to be served with casseroles and cottage pie.

The Society’s Exhibition Morgon 2010, Côte de Puy, £8.95: Proof that Beaujolais needs time in bottle to show at its best, this is full of crunchy, raspberry fruit with a long, sappy finish.

The Society’s Exhibition Gigondas 2006, Rhone, France, £12.50: From Ch Ste Cosme, one of the best producers in the region and certainly one of the oldest, this is packed with chunky dark fruits with layers of spice and a savoury finish.

Night Harvest ‘John George’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Margaret River, Australia, £25: Proof that Australia can do finesse, balance, ripe minty, cassis fruit and supple tannins. A great dinner party wine.

Williams and Humbert ‘As you Like it’ Amontillado Sherry, half bottle, £22: Already tasted and recommended from the Waitrose tasting, but the Wine Society price saves you money. Complex, fabulous flavours. Sherry as it used to be.