Mon 18 May 2015

Creating A Bestseller: The Society’s White Burgundy

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My first encounter with The Society’s bestselling wine was over a decade ago.

The Society's White Burgundy‘Dare I ask how the divorce is going?’
‘All things considered it’s ok, thanks – but I’m a little miffed she wants to take my Nectar points as well.’

It was clear my host had an eye for value – an observation that was vindicated further when a bottle bearing a distinctive fish design was taken from the fridge.

The Society’s White Burgundy. I always buy some,’ I remember him telling me as he poured a glass.

‘It’s just… always good.’

I agreed heartily on the basis of this first taste (and how – another bottle had to be chilled and opened during the meal, such was our enthusiasm).

A pleasant evening, and one that I now realise could have happened almost anywhere in the UK and beyond, at any time over the past 30 years or so: we sell more than 20 bottles of The Society’s White Burgundy every hour of every day throughout a calendar year. It is a standard-bearer for The Wine Society and, with word of mouth The Society’s chief means of advertising, the wine’s powers of recruitment are also worth acknowledging.

At the time, however, my interest in wine was nascent at best. It would be another two years before I ‘got the bug’ and a further six before I began working for The Society. Therefore, I can’t pretend I would have been fascinated to learn how this beacon of its range was made. It didn’t occur to me what a challenge it could be to blend a wine of such trusted consistency in a region where vintage variation is marked; and an ill-timed heatwave or hailstorm can mean the difference between delicious and disastrous – with the small matter of vignerons’ livelihoods to consider as well.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Fast forward to the present and, having recently returned from Mâcon to blend the just-released 2014 vintage, I can confirm this labour of love is no easy task, but the results slip down just as easily as they always have.

The candidates for the 2014 Society's White Burgundy

Count ’em – the candidate components for the 2014 blend

The 2014 blending was an unusual occasion in this quest for consistency – not that one could tell from the resultant wine.

This is for two reasons.

Firstly, this was Marcel Orford-Williams’s last vintage overseeing the blend, an annual job he has been involved with since 1987. The wine’s history goes back further, and it was Sebastian Payne MW who used to oversee the blend. Now that Marcel will be handing the reins for our Beaujolais portfolio to Toby Morrhall, he will spend considerably less time in this part of France. The job from 2015 will therefore fall to Toby, whose own aptitude for blending can be tasted in all manner of wines from our Burgundian, Chilean and Argentine ranges. The future of the wine is therefore in good hands.

Jean-Marc Darbon and Marcel Orford-Williams blending

Jean-Marc Darbon and Marcel Orford-Williams blending

As Marcel said, ‘buyers come and go, but the style of this wine is sacrosanct.’ That is to say, the wine remains an unoaked, fresh and fine chardonnay with the depth of fruit and body necessary to make the wine as versatile as possible, to handle the myriad occasions upon which a wine of its popularity is poured. Though seafood is an obvious and well-loved choice, Marcel has always favoured it with chicken in a creamy tarragon sauce, whereas I have been known to enjoy previous vintages with mushroom risotto. I have also enjoyed more than few a half bottles on their own throughout my time at The Society.

The second reason for the 2014 blending being a little different can be best understood with a look back at the last three Burgundy vintages. Generalisations in this region are dangerous but in many areas the story of late has been the same: high quality, painfully low yields. Prices have had to rise and there is less wine to go around.

Marcel Orford-Williams makes his notesWe’ve published a few articles recently about the alchemy involved in blending wines (including Steve Farrow’s much-praised insight into the blending of our bestselling red, The Society’s Claret). I’ve yet to read about a process quite like this one, though, where the very availability of some components in front of us was far from assured.

Our trusted négociant Jean-Marc Darbon of Dépagneux (also the source of The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages, Pinot Noir Vin de France, the Exhibition Juliénas and Fleurie, and The Stop Gap Chardonnay) was waiting for us in Mâcon with the candidates for the blend lined up and ready. If Marcel is the alchemist then Jean-Marc is the liturgist, sourcing the raw materials and assisting in the logistics of the operation as well as the blending.

As we tasted our way across the convoy of bottles spanning the whole length of Jean-Marc’s formidable 12-foot tasting table, Marcel began to spot the elements this year’s blend could need.

For the first but not the last time that day, mobile phones were deployed, almost as rapidly as the (to me) indecipherable French speed-negotiating shouted into them, all to ensure that we could get what we needed from the tank in question.

Blending - a precise art

Blending – a precise art

‘Normally I can wait a little longer to blend this wine,’ Marcel had said on the train from Paris, ‘but with the market being the way it is, it has to be now.’ At this point I realised precisely what he meant.

For a region whose vineyards are infamously complex and patchwork-like, so too was the process of fashioning this wine from the various samples and pre-blends. For the wine geek, this is the most fascinating bit: to taste alongside and gain an appreciation of how Marcel’s mind and palate were working was astonishing. Having blended this wine for nearly 30 years, Marcel’s speed was something I hadn’t thought to take into consideration. I would still be nosing a sample to see whether it did indeed have ‘that extra fragrance’ we might need, only to notice that Marcel was two samples ahead. Samples I couldn’t understand the apparently burning need for suddenly lifted a pre-blend out of comparative doldrums and into something far more appetising than I could have envisioned.

The results, however, vindicate the decision to get in early. The quality is arguably a step up on last year’s, the first recent vintage in which we had to raise the price quite a bit to cope with the scarcity of its components.

This year we have managed to make a slight price reduction, and the wine is better.

I hope members will agree that this commitment to value and quality, and the balance therein, is something to be pleased about; and, most importantly of all, that The Society’s White Burgundy remains as delicious a wine as ever to serve at dining tables, gardens, parties and the like for the years to come. Even if we do not accept Nectar points.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

EDIT: We are delighted to announce that The Society’s White Burgundy 2014 has now been reduced further in price, and is now available for £8.75

Comments

  1. James Paterson says:

    At one point this was an everyday drinking wine but I last purchased in Dec 2012 when it was £7.50. Since then the Euro has weakened 25% against the Pound yet the price has actually increased 25% to £9.50 for what is a pleasant but unexceptional wine. I understand hail reduced the crop and increased prices in 2013 so was expecting something more sensibly priced in 2014.

    • Marcel Orford-Williams says:

      Thanks for your comment. 2013 had been a short crop and prices rocketed (by over a third) as availability plummeted. The wine though was very good and we took the decision to stand by our contacts and to maintain the same level of quality. It was tough decision and we expected sales to drop but in fact they held up well. For those members who didn’t approve for whatever reason, I was able to source an inexpensive chardonnay, a blend of Languedoc and white Beaujolais called The Stop Gap, which worked very well.

      Naturally for the 2014 vintage we hoped for a return of 2012 prices but this did not happen. The reason was that yields in the rest of Burgundy were once again very low, and for the same reasons: hail and poor flowering. To make things worse, the chardonnay crop from the Languedoc was down by 40% and so chardonnay prices in the Maconnais have remained largely unchanged.

      The good news is that at least the 2014 vintage is very good – better than 2013 – and there will again be a cheaper alternative in the form of The Stop Gap, similarly blended together from Languedoc and Beaujolais fruit, and which I can recommend. The 2014 edition of this wine will not be available till July or when the 2013 runs out.

      I fully understand your feeling of disappointment and naturally we hope that the 2015 vintage brings better news.

      Marcel Orford-Williams
      Society Buyer

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