Being given the opportunity to take over beer-buying duties for The Society was something that I grabbed with both hands.
In my opinion, the world of beer is every bit as varied as the world of wine, with just as many stories to tell and discoveries to be made. I hope to build a range here that reflects this. Craft beer has skyrocketed over the last few years, providing an exciting platform for so many brilliant small breweries to make their statement to the world.
And as The Wine Society is made up of people who take an interest in what they drink and who care about quality and provenance, it makes perfect sense to shine a light on these delicious artisanal brews.
I’ve started expanding our range to make your Society a place to discover exceptional beers as well as wines, and would like to invite our members to join me on a trip of discovery.
Starting this year, we’ll be stocking some of the most interesting, daring and delicious beers from some of the best breweries in the UK and beyond.
Also new for 2017 is the option of being able to purchase bottles of beer individually, rather than just via a mixed case, so you can stock up on more of what you like best.
A truly good beer is something which you can enjoy in a similar way to a glass of wine. It should have layers of flavour, depth and complexity. And the great news is that exploring the world of beer won’t cost the earth. Since beer may cost £2 or £3 a pop (although some are much more and some less), you have the opportunity to taste a number of different styles for a much smaller outlay than it would cost you to sample an equivalent number of wines. You can really leave your comfort zone and try things you never would have thought you would like. What’s the worst that can happen? A £2.75 miss, against the possibility of discovering a thrilling new favourite with every last drop cherished!
There are no rules with craft beer, no constraints to what people might try to make. It truly is fascinating and exciting to follow. Like buying the wines of Burgundy, sometimes the best way to explore is to find a producer whose beers you like and keep an eye on them for new releases (but unlike Burgundy, if you decide to branch out, then the financial risk is minimal!).
I’m also fascinated to hear about some of your favourite beers too!
Is there is a brewery you’re a particular fan of? A drop which has stuck with you forever? Do leave a comment and let us know.
2017 is sure to be a crafty vintage at The Wine Society…
I had to pinch myself a few times throughout 2016. Since landing my dream job as trainee buyer (and subsequently taking on buying duties for England, beers and accessories), I have been lucky enough to meet some amazing people, visit some beautiful places and experience some remarkable things.
One thing that will stick with me though is some of the fantastic people that I have been lucky enough to meet who, whilst all have stories of their own, always share one thing in common with me: a love of wine.
Putting together a list of just three bottles that really meant something to me from 2016 was not easy, as there were so many more that I wanted to select. However, I settled on three very special wines from three very special producers, in three completely different wine-producing regions of the world.
You can buy a convenient three-bottle mixed case of these reds for £38 – with UK delivery included – via thewinesociety.com.
1. Château Monconseil Gazin, Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2013 (£9.50 per bottle)
My very first trip accompanying one of the buyers was in January 2016 when I went to Bordeaux with Head of Buying Tim Sykes. The main goal of the trip was to blend the new vintage of The Society’s Claret but while there we managed to fit in visits with a few other producers. Our last visit of the trip was to a small, humble producer in Blaye on the right bank of the Gironde.
After a few days of suits and ties and smart sales folk, it was lovely to meet a proper winemaking family. We weren’t talking to a sales representative or a marketing person but the owner and winemaker of a small and excellent-quality winery. Jean-Michel and Françoise Baudet are the couple in charge here, at one of the oldest wineries in Blaye. They love nothing more than driving visitors around their vineyards and talking them through the subtle nuances that each vineyard has on their wines. After the tour it was time for a bit of cake before going to the airport.
This was the first time that I felt like I got to the heart of Bordeaux; despite all the money in the region and all the marketing, it is people like these who live for the wine and who make good wines at very affordable prices.
This 2013 vintage of Chateau Monconseil Gazin was one which I remember for its soft tannins, fresh acidity and feeling of being complete, by which I mean everything was in harmony and as it should be. Fresh fruit is there, but it is soft and relatively gentle, with an appealing, simple charm. For me, this wine spoke of its place very well, from the freshness in the fruit on the highest vineyards, kept cool in the wind, to the ripeness of the fruit that bit closer to the river, where the temperature is moderated thanks to the influence of the Gironde.
2. Chianti Rufina Riserva, Villa di Vetrice 2011 (£10.95 per bottle)
When I joined The Wine Society’s Buying Team, I was lacking in the foreign language department, other than a miniscule amount of Italian. In order to fit in to such a linguistically talented team of buyers, I had to brush up on it! After a number of Italian lessons, Sebastian Payne MW, our buyer for Italy, said: ‘If you really want to learn the language, you need to get out there!’ So I did.
I spent a couple of weeks working at wineries in Italy; firstly with the lovely folks at Vallone in Puglia but I spent the second week with the truly lovely, and truly Italian, Grati family in the Rufina Valley of Chianti.
I’ve never had a week where I felt so looked after and learned so much. The warm and incredibly intelligent Gualberto Grati and his sister Christi are now at the helm of their family winery, having taken over from their parents who live at Villa di Vetrice itself. I managed to experience all sorts of jobs which surround the harvest on my visit, from the picking of the grapes, to hanging up bunches in the vinsantaia (see above), to carrying out a whole experimental micro-vinification of the very rare grape variety sanforte.
Sitting around the family table for dinner at Vetrice on the first night of my visit, not being even nearly competent with my Italian, was a strange mixture of lovely and terrifying. However when, on the last night of my trip, Gualberto and I were invited for dinner with Christi, her husband Luca and their two daughters, I found I was able to have a conversation in Italian, the feeling of pride was really quite memorable. It was all thanks to the kindness and patience of this Tuscan winemaking family.
Their wine is really rather delicious too! This one combines the rusticity and ‘hands-off’ approach to winemaking found in the most authentic of Tuscan wines with such obviously excellent fruit, from a region that really seems born to produce wines. Silky smooth yet still fresh, thanks to the signature acidity of the Rufina valley. A charming, approachable and thoroughly enjoyable wine, whilst still smart and proper, much like the family who make it!
3. Hedges CMS Washington State 2015 (£13.50 per bottle)
I’d never been to the USA before being lucky enough to get a place on a trip arranged by the Washington State Wine Commission. The bulk of the trip involved a small group of us visiting a number of wineries spread over five days. I wasn’t able to fly out to Seattle until the day after the rest of the group, which meant that I would be there a couple of days after they had all gone home again at the end of the trip. With that in mind, I had made plans to go and visit a couple of producers who we already worked with at The Wine Society, one of which was Hedges Estate.
I’d heard that Christophe Hedges was a pretty cool guy and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. He lives with his wife Maggie and their two young sons, in a beautiful white-stone house which is down the end of a dirt track, in the middle of the vineyards of Red Mountain. I drove down the track and pulled up outside the house, which was clearly still undergoing some construction work. I walked around the side and knocked on the door but there was no answer.
Eventually, this tall, muscular wine god of a man came around the corner. This was Christophe, who it turns out is not only a great winemaker but also a seriously good stonemason. So good in fact, that he built the house himself!
The Hedges family were like something out of a film – painfully good looking with perfect smiles and a sense of coolness and calm about them which makes you feel like they just love living life. When I went to visit them, I had just left the rest of the group who had flown home and as I got into my hire-car I distinctly remember a sudden sense of real loneliness, now finding myself in a small town in a country I had never been to before, almost 5,000 miles away from home. When I got to the Hedges’ home, it was like seeing old friends.
I tasted a lot of good wines with Christophe, many of which could have been featured here; but for me, this was perhaps the most approachable now. It encapsulates the terroir of Red Mountain, with a hint of earthiness and bright, fresh acidity. The complexity of fruit here is impressive, thanks to the clever blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, making a wine which is juicy and bright, while maintaining a peppery touch and a firm backbone.
Buy the three-bottle mixed case for £38 – with UK delivery included.
One of the real gems of Umbria is Barbarani’s delicious sweet white wine, Calcaia. It is a hard wine to sell, as it falls into its own category in a way, however whenever it is shown at a tasting, it gets a very warm welcome indeed.
Calcaia Orvieto is made with thanks to botrytis cineria aka noble rot, which is brought on by the vineyards’ proximity to Lake Corbara. The fog which develops through the night envelops the vines until the cool morning winds clears it away so the vines can enjoy the sun. This process brings on noble rot, which dries out the grapes, causing them to shrivel on the vine, concentrating the sugars and the flavour.
As sweet wine goes and in comparison to Sauternes, the Calcaia is a beautifully light and elegant style. Alcohol tends to come in around 10-10.5% and the wine is beautifully crisp, fresh, pure and bright – no wonder it is so often a hit with our members when it is tasted.
In order to really get the best idea of how this wine will age, we recently opened a few back-vintages, which Italy buyer Sebastian Payne MW had very handily tucked away over the past few years.
Sebastian explained how this wine is painstakingly produced, with individual berries being picked, over sometimes five or six harvests in order to account for the different grapes achieving the same level of noble rot at different times. The varieties used are grechetto and trebbiano procanico, two grapes widely planted in Umbria, although grechetto actually has Greek origins and it tends to be these two grapes which feature in most vintages of this wine, albeit with a few tweaks from one year’s blend to the next.
The first vintage of this wine was made in 1986 and although we didn’t have the opportunity to taste that far back on this occasion, we did have a bottle of 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages, along with the 2013 and the soon-to-be-released 2014.
2014: Bright, pure beeswax on the nose with a mouthwatering touch of honey and apricot. Light on the palate, very fresh and clean with perfectly poised acidity. Youthful and fine.
2013: Slightly deeper fruit aromas on the nose with a little more botrytis evident. Fresh acidity remains and a nice weight on the palate. Complex, layered and delicious.
2007: Golden in colour. Unctuous palate with more of the beeswax notes and barley sugar. Some of the acidity has now rounded out but is still very well balanced with stunningly vivid caramelised orange-peel notes and a slight hint of burning incense.
2006: A more herbal nose, again with quite a pronounced botrytised character. The acidity is still there but this wine is much more full and viscous. Showing signs of age but wearing it well.
2005: Orange peel and candied fruit but with an intriguing savoury note which adds to the complexity. Lost a touch of the freshness but the charm is still there.
I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how it tastes in a few years… if I can manage to keep my hands off it before then…
Finally the time has come that we are able to reveal the 2016 Wine Champions!
This has been my first Wine Champions campaign, and The Society’s biggest one yet. To be that satisfied with the final result and excited to share them with you all, but to have to keep it zipped for many weeks before we were able to do so hasn’t been easy!
With the offer online now, and landing on doormats this week, I wanted to share a few highlights with you – whether they be outstanding wines which really took their tasting by storm or whether it be a collection of wines which show just how good a particular region is looking.
Viva the Vintage
We knew that the 2015 vintage in the Mediterranean was a success, but we were still surprised to see just how many made the cut, especially with the high calibre competition; showing that the quality of the vintage really does speak for itself.
In the red corner, it was Italy that really took the tasters by storm, with no fewer than three under-£10 reds bowling us over. Our very own Society’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015 (£6.25) is the first wine in the offer brochure and kicks it all off as we mean to go on with its vibrant, ripe fruit. Close behind is the Valpolicella Valpantena, Torre del Falasco 2015 (£7.25) with its charming cherry fruit, and Valpolicella, Allegrini 2015 (£9.50) tops off the trio, with sweet berry flavours and classic Valpolicella style.
2015 has kept on giving in the white corner too, with six Mediterranean whites featured at under £10. Anselmo Mendes ‘Contacto’ Alvarinho, Vinho Verde 2015 (£10.95) makes the cut for the third year running, thanks to its beautiful and pure lime and apricot flavours; it’s not hard to see why it was a double trophy winner in this year’s International Wine Challenge too.
While Burgundy doesn’t feature in the offer, it is there in spirit, with some excellent pinot noir and chardonnay, each of which provided two of the best blind tastings of the entire campaign.
Four superb pinots made the final offer, making it our most popular red grape varietal of the year. This included our first ever red German Wine Champion, in the form of Martin Wassmer Spätburgunder 2013 (£11.95), which held its own against a number of red Burgundies, and indeed ascended above them on account of it being so delicious now, with red-cherry perfume and lovely food-friendly ‘grip’ on the palate.
Chardonnay was just as much of a delight this year, also with four wines featured, showing just how fantastic the variety can be. Our Society’s Exhibition Limari Chardonnay 2014 (£9.95) did exactly what it was meant to do; be the best example of its kind.
As a result of this success, a six-bottle mixed case of three chardonnay and three pinot noir victors has been made to give you a taste of Burgundy abroad.
Some wines are just born to be Champions and it would seem that a small few wine stables are regularly producing real thoroughbreds. As mentioned above, Anselmo Mendes has now featured for three years running, and three wines from Château Sainte Eulalie from the Languedoc were crowned as 2016 Wine Champions: their rosé (£7.25) took one of the two pink podium spaces, and two reds, Minervois, Château Sainte Eulalie 2014 (£6.95) and Minervois La Livinière Cuvée Cantilène, Château Sainte Eulalie 2013 (£11.95) also feature.
Another producer worthy of a mention due to their success is Wither Hills, who feature in the offering twice with their 2012 Pinot Noir (£10.50) and their 2013 Chardonnay (£8.50) – given the extraordinary competition for places with both of these grapes this year, this is an extraordinary showing.
Finally, I must give a special mention for those wines in the offer bearing our very own Society labels. Four wines from our Society & Exhibition ranges take pride of place in the 2016 offering, making up 10% of the overall selection! It is always nice to see a Society label when you pull off the blind bag of a winning wine and to have four of our own in there is very nice indeed. The Society’s Exhibition Pauillac 2009 (£25) impressed, with its traditional claret style and bags of finesse, all enhanced by some time in bottle in our cellars.
I hope you enjoy exploring this year’s Wine Champions. I’m off to celebrate with a nice glass of The Society’s Champagne, which features too…!
Freddy Bulmer gives us an insight into the process behind our biggest Wine Champions blind-tasting sessions yet…
Sadly, the Wine Champions offer doesn’t organise itself and it takes an awful lot of hard work to arrange the programme and the subsequent tastings in a way that ensures a fair competition and a process which runs smoothly.
If the offer is a stage show, featuring a cast of vinous actors, then you must also have a scriptwriter, producer and director behind the scenes in order to provide our members, or audience, with the show. For every charming leading man or woman, there are a handful of stage-hands!
The bulk of preparation for the Wine Champions offer, released later this month, starts the December beforehand but the tastings are put in the diary months in advance to ensure they tie in with the buyers’ busy schedules. Once the dates are set, the pre-selections begin.
Each buyer scrupulously tastes through their own range, in order to eliminate wines that they don’t think are quite at their prime yet. Once this is done, they have a deadline by which they need to enter the list of wines that they would like to be included in the relevant tasting. Depending on the theme of the tasting, the majority of the wines may come from our own cellars or as samples direct from the producers. The lists of wines from each of the buyers must be collated before each of the tastings, allowing enough time for wines to be ordered up from our cellars or to arrive from all corners of the world.
Next, tasting sheets must be created, along with crib sheets which list the wines, to be given to the judges after each tasting. The sheets have the wines arranged by price, with no other information other than the theme of the tasting and the price bracket.
The day before the tasting, the wines are collected from the Showroom collections area and moved to the tasting room at the other end of our HQ. There they must be checked off against the list, arranged in tasting order and bagged up, numbered and have their foil tops removed. An exercise which can take rather a long time when you have 90+ wines to go through!
Following each tasting the clean-up begins immediately. This is because we often have tastings on consecutive days, so everything must be repeated in time for the next morning.
This year was a record campaign. While this shows that our range is always growing and taking on more and more interesting wines, it also means that a record amount of work had to take place from the team.
18 tastings took place this year, with three in December and then the rest through the second half of January through to March.
This means that the above process had to be carried out 18 times, in order to successfully taste the 784 wines submitted by the buyers.
Was it all worth it? Absolutely! Not only do the wines provide plenty of reward for the hard work (the success of the European 2015 vintage provided us with a huge amount of pleasure) but watching the selection come together after each tasting has also been thoroughly rewarding.
We are all extremely excited to reveal this year’s Wine Champions to you in just a couple of weeks’ time.
Come December, it will be time to start all over again. For now, I am very pleased that this campaign is over and I can have a nice cup of tea…
Naturally, when you taste a range of wines completely blind, as we do for our forthcoming Wine Champions offer, you open yourself up to an element of risk.
The various offers put together at The Society are carefully planned so as to ensure a balanced selection of wines that cater to the various colours, flavours and prices the theme demands.
Wine Champions, however, is a very different beast.
Rather than trying to drive this offer and steer it in a direction that we decide it should go, we simply put a saddle on it and ride it to wherever it takes us.
Tasting through a vast number of wines blind, picking out only the ones which are judged to be perfect for drinking now, regardless of whether they are red, white, rosé, fortified, sparkling etc. means that we put ourselves at risk of sending out an offer without the usual planned balance between styles, prices and so on.
This year, we have an offer which has fewer wines in it than the last and is slightly heavier on red wines. (You can read a little more about that in my previous dispatch from the tasting room). This is not to say that there were not as many good white wines. Quite the contrary, in fact: we had a superb chardonnay tasting and both of our Aromatic Whites tastings unearthed some real stars.
Quite simply, the variability of the line-up is the only way that we can guarantee that first and foremost, Wine Champions remains a genuine round-up of those wines that our expert buyers voted for by consensus to share with you all.
784 blind wines and three months of tasting later, we have an offering for you that we are proud to present. Every bit as unique as the previous Wine Champions offerings, which never fail to harbour new surprises and tell their own stories.
This year’s stories are many, and without giving too much away before the wines are revealed next month, pinot noir is certainly one of them, as is our first ever Champion red from Germany.
We hope you enjoy the results – they will be unveiled soon!
It’s nearly time for us to reveal this year’s Wine Champions, selected from a course of blind tastings that ran over three months to find the best of our best for drinking now.
As with every year our team of buyers tastes all of the contenders blind, with nothing but price brackets (under £10, £10-£15, £15-£25 and £25+) and an overall theme of the tasting (Mediterranean Reds or Aromatic Whites, for example) as guidance.
Each buyer scores what they think the wines deserve and at the end of the tasting, we may, or may not, have a Champion or two!
Our final 40 wines in the offer have been picked out of 784 candidates, throughout the course of 18 tasting sessions. This year was a record number of contenders a sign that our range is always growing as we search for new and exciting wines, but having more wines means that it was harder than ever for a wine to be crowned a Champion.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t some noticeable trends this year: pinot noir, for instance, performed extremely well and there is also a superb showing from Italy which we are all very excited about indeed.
When you have fewer wines, the chances are that because of the more limited selection it is more likely that buyers will land on more of the same wines but, thanks to the size of some tastings this time around, only the unquestionable best of the best make it through.
As a result, this year there are fewer Champions in the offer than last year, but because of that we are able to present you with a truly elite selection.
The winners will be unveiled in June, but in the meantime, keep an eye on this blog, where we will be able to provide sneak peaks as to what you can expect from this year’s offering.
Although how much we can give away is very limited, we can reveal that:
• One outstanding producer has not one, not two but three of their wines in the Wine Champions offer!
• The Mediterranean 2015 wines are singing
• And your lunchtimes may soon become a lot fizzier thanks to a delicious, lower-alcohol bottle of bubbly (and not the one you might expect either!).
Buying wine for The Wine Society is a busy job. There are no wine lists or offers without wines to put in them, so the Buying Team’s year is understandably full of deadlines.
Sometimes though, an incredible wine will find the buyer when the buyer isn’t even looking for it. This sort of thing happens because each of the wine buyers at The Society are constantly being sent samples from producers.
If you are buying wine for a Rioja offer but the supplier sends you a bottle of their new white wine from another part of Spain too, it’s certainly not going to be purchased for the offer as it might stand out a bit! Nonetheless, the Buying Team will always taste these wines purely out of interest. More often than not, it is deemed that the sample is perhaps not up to scratch or there is nothing that they can do with it at that moment in time.
Every so often though, they will taste a wine that is so good that we simply must buy it!
Our Wine Without Fuss scheme is a fantastic tool for a buyer who has discovered a wine which they feel they simply must buy but don’t have an offering or List in which they can put it. As the buyers each have a number of slots to fill in the Wine Without Fuss cases every other month, it gives them great opportunities to buy wines that they might otherwise have been forced to pass by.
Likewise, every so often the buyer will have tasted something that we hold some stock of and been struck by how well it is drinking at the moment. If this is the case, it is in the best interest of the membership that they are able to try it for themselves!
We hold tastings for each of the six yearly Wine Without Fuss selections, before the cases are finalised and sent out to the members who subscribe. This gives the buyers a chance to taste through all of the wines that they and their colleagues have selected. Only when the buyers are happy with the selection and have made any changes to the wine notes they feel necessary, will the case be given the OK and sent to members.The most recent tasting was for the selection for summer 2016. Whilst I tasted through the wines with Pierre Mansour, we made the occasional change to a wine note here and there, to ensure that we were happy the notes would be a true reflection of the wines in the bottle.
We both remarked at how good the selection was, even at one point getting confused and saying to one another “…how good these Premium Selection whites are” only to find out we were tasting from the Everyday Selection! A couple of stand-out wines were the Nero di Troia Tufarello Puglia Vigneti Canosini 2015 from the Premium Selection and the incredibly good-value Victory Hotel Australian Chardonnay-Semillon 2015 from the Everyday Selection.
So the nice thing about Wine Without Fuss, it seems, is that it is a scheme which benefits all. The buyers are happy because they can share their latest finds with our membership and our members are happy because they get to discover and enjoy the wines!
So my second week as a part of the buying department came to a rather spectacular end the Friday before last, as I was lucky enough to taste the new-vintage Penfolds wines with buyer Sarah Knowles MW.
Penfolds ambassador Sam Stephens brought all of the new releases with him (mostly 2013 reds, and 2014 whites) along with a number of older examples of similar vintages so we could see how ageing changed the wine.A standout for me was the £20-per-bottle Bin 28, which was shown in both the 2013 and 2001 vintages. The opportunity to show the two side by side really highlighted how unbelievably well this wine can age. The 2013 was packed with intense cassis and was as fruit-forward as you would expect a young wine to be. The 2001, however was just stunning, still with incredibly fresh blackberry fruit but now showing hints of leather and a touch of pepper. The ability to age this well at the £20 mark is something so rarely seen in the modern wine world.
A little further on and equally stunning, was the Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz, from both 2013 and 1999. The herbaceous, fresh and spicy 2013 was good but the 1999 was better. Still surprisingly fresh for the age, it had the most luscious nose of milk chocolate, spice and red fruit and a super smooth texture to match.
What does this all mean?
Well, for me, it just goes to show how much you can get from these wines if you invest a bit of time. If you aren’t patient enough though, you can browse our Penfolds offer, which is now available online. Here you can find the wines that I have written about (although not quite the same vintages), plus a number of others. This is selling well and some wines have sold out already, but do have a look and see if there are wines which take your fancy.
Perhaps it was a ‘fruit day’ or simply a Friday, but I honestly couldn’t pick a disappointing one out of the bunch.
Sam kindly talked to camera for a minute or two about the wines so please have a look at the video here:
Trainee Wine Buyer