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Wed 06 Sep 2017

The Society’s List: A Look Back To 1967

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The Wine Society’s Lists of 50 years ago reflect a wine world narrower than it is today.

Bordeaux and Burgundy totally dominated. Port and sherry and sherry look-alikes from Montilla, South Africa and Australia were important and most members would have stocked them. Moselle and Hock were given a good airing though there were no German dry wines. The Italian (five wines) and Spanish (six wines) selections were rudimentary. There were four Portuguese table wines including the hugely popular, now forgotten, Periquita. East Europe was represented by Tokay and ‘Yugoslavia’. ‘Renski Rizling and Rumeni Muscat bottles in Maribor have exceptionally good character.’

The Australian entry was minimalist: malbec and ‘hock style’ Barossa riesling. North America did not feature and South America had only Chilean cabernet, which was bought from the Nitrate Corporation, shipped in bulk and usually delayed in Liverpool docks where it softened in to a very palatable red.

A slip of paper advertising hogsheads at £2.50 each is a clue to one big difference from today. Nearly all the Burgundies and many of the clarets were shipped in cask and bottled in Stevenage. On my first visit to the Society’s cellars a few years later I was amazed to see the whole of one wall filled with racks with dozens of barrels filled with The Society’s White Burgundy, then and now one of the most popular wines on the List.

The bottling hall at Stevenage

The Society was skilled at bottling. Vintage Port pipes were rolled round the cellar to rouse the sediment before bottling. Our bottlings of wines like Fonseca 63 and 66 were legendary and better, in my experience, than those bottled at source. Good use was made of sherry casks, which were sent up to Scotland when empty to house our whisky fillings for The Society’s Highland Blue Whisky. Dry amontillado produces the finest results.

The 1967 range of claret looks mouthwatering with twenty-four 1961 clarets (Lynch Bages 22/6 a bottle, Montrose 25/9) and forty-three 1959s (Lafite 54/-, Palmer 23/-). Christopher Tatham, the gifted wine buyer, chose wonderful red and white Burgundies which stood the test of time for decades. His wine-buying travels were mostly in France. He had begun to develop the Loire list by 1967 but he had not yet explored the potential of the south of France, as Marcel Orford-Williams does successfully today.

The economic climate was not easy. The year ended 31st January 1968 saw a very small surplus after two years of losses following The Society’s move out of London. The previous year there had been a 10% increase in duties, a credit squeeze and a price freeze and Resale Price Maintenance had been abolished. Previously The Society was not bound by this and had been able to sell its whisky and gin at prices below the rest of the market. The Society, however, where reputation for sourcing genuine and authentic wines was well known probably benefitted from the wine trade scandal that had revealed that many wines offered for sale elsewhere were mislabelled and not what they proclaimed to be. In fact as The Society became settled in its new cellars, 1967 was probably a turning point in its history when it took on its new lease of life.

Early days in Stevenage

An apology in the List reminds us never to be complacent:

‘A large consignment of Australian Barossa Flor Fino Sherry was caught in the Suez Canal during the Middle East War and is still on the Bitter Lake. However, fresh consignments were dispatched around the Cape and no doubt will be improved by the extra and at one time traditional sea voyage’.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Take a look through an archive of Society List covers from 1880 to the present day.

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It is with great sadness that we learned of the death of Greek winemaker Haridimos Hatzidakis this weekend. Sebastian Payne MW, buyer for Greek wines, had met Haridimos a number of times and pays tribute below.

Haridimos Hatzidakis, who sadly took his own life on 11th August, was one of the most original, engaging and inspirational winemakers I have had the good fortune to know. Each time we met it seemed he had embarked on a new challenge.

Carving his new cellar from tufa out of a Santorini hillside covered in vines, was one of his more ambitious schemes. Exploring all the possibilities of the island’s marvellous native grapes was his passion.

Originally from Crete, he became, because of his talent, winemaker for the major wine producer Boutari, but from 1996 he set up on his own on the island of Santorini, working originally from a tiny cramped cave winery just outside Pyrgos, the highest village in the island.

He had only a few hectares of his own but was able to lease four hectares of land with some amazing century-old vines from the monks of Patmos and also from vineyards owned by a local nunnery of the prophet Elijah.

All his vines were cultivated sustainably, without pesticides, herbicides or irrigation, the humidity from sea breezes providing just enough moisture for the vines trained close to the ground in unique bird’s nest shape.

He never made his life easy, but the popularity of his main estate white assyrtiko, and the reputation he earned for his old-vine Mylos were truly deserved.

Over the last decade he had been achieving increasingly exciting results from mavrotragano, the native red grape, which had almost become extinct till he championed it. His new cellar was home to an exotic range of wines he worked on such as bullseye (voudomato), aidani, and the late-harvested Nykteri and Vin Santo.

All his wines were memorable and exciting to taste and will ensure he will not be forgotten. I shall particularly remember the twinkle in his eye when he stood in his beloved vineyards talking about wine, grapes and the soil. He was at his happiest connecting with the earth.

Our condolences to Haridimos’ family.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

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Fri 23 Jun 2017

Bordeaux 2016: Roll Out The Barrel

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I have been visiting Bordeaux vineyards every year since the early 1980s. Though Tim Sykes, our current Bordeaux buyer, now does all the work, going out there several times a year, I was delighted to join him for the crowded but fascinating week in early April, when all the châteaux first show the new vintage together in organised tastings for the world to judge.

Bordeaux vineyards

We visit all the top châteaux to taste on the spot, and many others too, and double check or triple check samples with merchants at well-organised general tastings.

Because they receive so many visitors, châteaux prepare fresh samples of their final blend so people can taste from sample bottles. I rather miss the opportunity of tasting direct from barrel with maîtres de chai, which was possible when I made several more leisurely visits in the past. So I was delighted to be able to do just that on a couple of occasions during a packed week this year.

Bordeaux

At Château Canon in Saint-Emilion, Nicolas Audebert has recently taken over from John Kolasa, who did such a marvellous job rebuilding the quality of both Canon and Rauzan-Ségla for owners the Wertheimer family, of Chanel fame. Nicolas let us taste Canon 2016 from several barrels (subtle differences because of different barrel makers), before we tasted the final assemblage. The wine looks most promising.

Nicolas Audebert

Tasting with Nicolas Audebert

Next day Tim and I missed a turn (my fault) on the way to Tertre Roteboeuf and stopped to ask a couple of men chatting in a nearby vineyard for directions. One of them turned out to be Nicolas. Another promising sign for the future of Canon. This man does not just sit in an office and tell others what to do. He walks the walk.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Bordeaux has produced an abundance of superb wines in 2016. Our main en primeur offer is available now, including reds, dry whites and sweet whites.

Tue 25 Oct 2016

Remembering Annegret Reh-Gartner

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Annegret Reh-Gartner, who died this October aged 61, will be sorely missed by all who knew her. Her sense of responsibility, hard work ethic and determination may have been inherited from her father, but I shall chiefly remember her warmth, sense of humour and disarming honesty.

Annegret Reh-Gartner

Annegret Reh-Gartner

Tasting the new vintage in her company at the von Kesselstatt winery in Morscheid was always a joy. The wines were nearly always exciting and beautifully made, but she was the first to admit with humility if one was not a complete success.

Gunther Reh, her father, had bought the historic von Kesselstatt estate and vineyards (with the help of profits from his Sekt business) when it was an almost unmanageable 100 and more hectares with vines and cellars scattered throughout the Mosel and its tributaries. It was Annegret, who had the vision to concentrate her efforts on 36 hectares of its top Mosel-Saar-Ruwer sites, determined only to make top-quality wines.

These include Josephshöfer in Graach, a good chunk of the heart of the great Piesporter Goldtröpfchen amphitheatre, Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenühr, Scharzhofberger, Ockfener Bockstein and Wiltinger Braunfels in the Saar, and Kaseler Nies’chen in the Ruwer. Each has its own distinct personality and stamp of real quality which made those tastings such a pleasure.

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt

Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt

We were able to draw on these Saar vineyards and also the excellent underrated Niedermenniger Herrenberg for The Society’s Saar Riesling.

Though she and her Michelin-starred chef husband Gerhard had no children of their own, Annegret, as the eldest of Gunther Reh’s children was the one all the others often turned to. Her care and concern for her family, the people who worked for her and her customers was deeply felt and evident.

Her last vintage, 2015, is looking wonderful and will be a living testament to her work that we shall continue to enjoy for many years, because rieslings of this calibre age so well. But when I drink them I shall specially remember Annegret herself, her infectious laugh and warm heart.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Categories : Germany, Other Europe
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Tue 02 Aug 2016

Remembering Denis Dubourdieu

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Raise a glass to the memory of Denis Dubourdieu, who died on 26th July.

Many members of The Wine Society will know him as the owner of Château Reynon in Premières Côtes, Clos Floridene in Graves, Château Cantegril (the excellent source over several vintages of The Society’s Exhibition Sauternes), and, with his father, of Château Doisy-Daëne in Barsac.

The Society has been regularly following his wines for over 30 years, because they have been consistently excellent examples of red, dry and sweet white Bordeaux at prices most can afford.

Denis Dubourdieu at The Wine Society in April 2015

Denis Dubourdieu at The Wine Society in April 2015.

He first made his reputation by revolutionising the quality of white Bordeaux, but a tasting we organised in London recently of ten vintages of Château Reynon Rouge for Jancis Robinson showed the keeping quality and class of his red wines too, with his 2005 and 2010 more delicious than many classed growths.

Not so many may have known of Denis’ immense importance in raising the standards of Bordeaux wines in general and that his influence extended far beyond his home patch. He was a highly valued consultant at châteaux as varied as Haut-Bailly, Batailley, Pichon Comtesse Lalande, Giscours, Cheval Blanc and Yquem, and many others in Bordeaux.

He consulted also in Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire, Languedoc, Italy, Spain, Greece and in Asia.

Although he first made his reputation by revolutionising the quality of white Bordeaux, Denis Dubourdieu's influence extended far beyond his home patch

Although he first made his reputation by revolutionising the quality of white Bordeaux, Denis Dubourdieu’s influence extended far beyond his home patch.

He believed passionately that a wine should express the terroir it came from, quoting Émile Peynaud: ‘A cru wine is a taste one can recognise.’ He said that a terroir is not only the soil, climate and grape varieties of a place, but the capacity of all these to give a wine a delectable and specific taste recognisable by the customer who cannot find the exact equivalent elsewhere.

Denis, the son of Jean-Pierre Dubourdieu of Doisy-Daëne, was born into wine and married Florence, the daughter of a vigneron owner of Reynon, which they made their home. Together they created, almost from scratch, Clos Floridene, a property whose vines planted on limestone have produced wines that often outperform and outlive many Pessac-Léognan crus classés.

Visits each year in spring to Reynon to taste his newly made wines were an essential pleasure.

Visits each year in spring to Reynon to taste his newly made wines were an essential pleasure.

As Professor, since 1988, at the Oenology faculty of Bordeaux University and, since 2009, director general of the Science of Vines and Wine at the university, he gave countless young vignerons and winemakers the benefits of his scientific knowledge and practical experience.

For me, as wine buyer, visits each year in spring to Reynon to taste his newly made wines were an essential pleasure, because I could not only assess his own wines, but learn from his honest, informed view of the recent vintage all over Bordeaux; both its strengths and its weaknesses.

Denis proved that, if you worked hard in the vineyard, it was always possible to make good wine. He brought an extraordinary attention to detail, needed to make good Sauternes, to the making of red and dry white too, often making several consecutive pickings to catch grapes at their optimum.

The Dubourdieu family. Left-right: Fabrice, Denis, Florence and Jean-Jacques

The Dubourdieu family. From left to right: Fabrice, Denis, Florence and Jean-Jacques.

Florence, his wife, and his trained oenologist sons Fabrice and Jean-Jacques will continue, I am sure, to make excellent wine at the properties they own, but this remarkable, modest man will be very much missed, while his legacy lives on.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

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Thu 17 Mar 2016

Looking East at the Prowein Fair

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Prowein, the three-day wine fair, held in Düsseldorf annually in March, has become an invaluable meeting place of wine producers and buyers from all over the world.

This year Marcel Orford-Williams takes back the Society’s German wine buying, but I could not resist spending a morning with him and producers I had introduced in the last five years and looking at the wonderfully promising 2015 vintage wines with several growers we have both known over many years.

Where else can one meet in one well-organised place so many producers from every German wine-producing region, catch up with their news and taste so many of their wines to make a selection?

I was there principally, however, to talk to growers from further east: Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and beyond.

Beautiful vineyards on the Greek island of Samos

Beautiful vineyards on the Greek island of Samos

While there is no substitute for visiting producers on their home patch (my first visit to Georgia last year was an education) this fair is a fantastic way to narrow the field and find growers whose wines will appeal to Wine Society members, while saving money on travel expenses.

The Turks have been hard hit by a massive drop in tourism, following bombs in Istanbul and hostility with Russia but, in spite of unhelpful politics and a predominantly teetotal population, people are making inspiring wines of character and high quality. Vinkara’s Öküzgözü (£7.75) is just one example. My wife and I visited New York and Washington shortly after 9/11 in a half-empty plane to a warm welcome from American friends. This is surely an excellent time to visit Turkey.

Our Greek suppliers, a dynamic motivated group, mostly youthful, who export most of what they make are similarly inspiring making great, original wines.

We began last year to import from Moldova. Château Vartely makes some lovely wines, wants and needs to sell to us, so offers good prices.

What is not to like?

Let us give these movers and shakers, who rise above difficult times, our support.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

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1916 was one of the grimmest years in this country’s history, with the Easter rebellion in April, Jutland, the biggest naval battle in history at the end of May and on July 1st the Battle of the Somme began with the greatest number of casualties in British military history (60,000).

But you would learn none of this from looking, as I have, at The Wine Society’s July 1916 List.

Most wines at this period would have been shipped in cask and have been bottled in The Society’s Cellars in Hills Place, under The Palladium.

Most wines at this period would have been shipped in cask and bottled in The Society’s cellars in Hills Place, under The Palladium.

Attention is drawn to a separate list of 1912 vintage port for laying down, before a list of no fewer than 36 vintage ports going back to 1896. So our oldest ally was well represented.

More surprising are five Marsalas, ‘by many considered more wholesome than sherry’. The sherry list includes Paxarette (very fine old). ‘Much in fashion in Spanish and other Court circles; it is generally taken with Brandy’.

We are told that ‘a good claret should be dry and soft’ and the range goes back to château-bottled Langoa Barton 1899 and Château Léoville Barton 1896. I was puzzled to read that ‘Burgundy possesses more tannin and body than are to be found in claret and is therefore a powerful stimulant’ and rather wondered what the negociants of the day had mixed in with it.

Though we had been at war for two years there are 22 entries under Germany, including Schloss Johannisberg 1908 and Scharzhofberger Auslese 1907, which at 68 shillings per dozen were the most expensive still wines on the list. Hungary too gets a Carlovitz Auslese and Somlau Auslese, as many as Italy with a Chianti and Capri Bianco. Italy declared war on Germany that August. Canary Sac, Australia (three entries) and California (four) are all represented and there are over a dozen liqueurs.

The popularity of The Society’s own Special Highland Blend whisky ‘continues to increase steadily with export orders to India, The Cape, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere’, which must have been complicated logistically.

The Committee of Management were not young and almost completely London based, which probably reflected the average too of the 107 new members elected that year, of whom three quarters came from London and the south-east. 15 new members were in the military but probably too old for active service.

Nine new members were widows, the only possible clue to what was happening on the continent.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

For a look back at our 1914 List, see Wines On The Brink Of War.

The Society’s February 2016 List will be arriving on members’ doorsteps mid February.

Categories : Miscellaneous
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Fri 20 Feb 2015

New Discoveries: The Wines Of Crete

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One reason for the success of Syriza in the recent Greek elections will have been support from younger voters. They feel that they are not responsible for their country’s woes, and 50 percent, we are told, cannot find paid work.

Several young, dynamic and successful wine producers like Apostolos Thymiopoulos in Naoussa and the Spanos brothers at Tetramythos in the Peloponnese, buck this trend.

My recent visit to seven independent wineries in Crete introduced me to several more.

Nikos Karavitakis The Wine Society

Nikos Karavitakis and his father

Crete has no fewer than 11 indigenous varieties. Only four of these are red; two make dry red and two are better for sweet wine. Two varieties that used to dominate Cretan vineyards were frankly rather dull: red romeiko, which oxidises easily with high alcohol, was once 80 per cent of the vines near Chania, to the west of the island. White vilana, still 80 per cent of the main Cretan vineyard area round Heraklim, is, at best, no more than fresh, light and floral.

An astonishing 3,000-year-old olive tree near Kolymbari

An astonishing 3,000-year-old olive tree near Kolymbari.

Phylloxera, the terminal vine disease of ungrafted vines, reached Crete as late as 1980, and was a catalyst that made many replace their vines with olive trees, which have always thrived here. A remarkable tree, over 3,000 years old near Kolymbari, still survives to prove the point.

A silver lining to the phylloxera cloud was the rediscovery of better-quality native varieties that had fallen from favour.

Nikos Karavitakis is one of the younger generation to champion the white, apricot-scented vidiano, which his chemist father helped rediscover near Rethymno. We list his 2014 wine, Vidiano Klima, Karavitakis at £8.95 per bottle. His 2012 ‘The Little Prince’ Cretan Red, made with the kotsifali and mandilaria varieties, is also available for the same price.

The Karavitakis family have owned land and vineyard at Kolymbari near Chania for four generations and have been bottling their own wines for 20 years. They are part of a movement called Wines of Crete, including many other young independent growers, which has challenged the arrogant older-generation view that the old oxidative wines were best. We are likely to hear more of them.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

Categories : Other Europe
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Fri 12 Dec 2014

20-Year-Old Tawny For Christmas

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Sadly my dwindling stock of mature vintage port is not readily available this Christmas, so I decided to opt for a 20-year-old tawny port comparison.

Port because the gathered assembly regard it as essential to Christmas as it is traditional, perfect with nuts, cheese and those splendid preserved fruits that sit in the sideboard and taste even better at leisure on Boxing Day or the day after.

Indeed, my colleague Janet Wynne Evans has also pointed out in the video below that tawny port is often a better match than vintage for cheese.

20-year-old because it is the perfect age for tawny port. A comparison because there will be several of us and one bottle would simply not have been enough – and besides which some of us need little if any excuse to compare different wines.

They will be served cellar cool to an eager audience, and my guess is that Taylor’s (£34) may win for finesse and class. Graham’s (£37) will score well on account of its depth and rich fruit, and that Noval (£40) will seduce us with its charm.

I look forward to finding out.

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer

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Tue 25 Nov 2014

Retsina, But Not As We Know It?

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Tetramythos (stress the second syllable) has deservedly been getting attention for its Retsina (£7.95 per bottle) from people who know what they are talking about:

Tetramythos team

With the Tetramythos team on my last visit.

Tim Atkin MW said, ‘This is no ordinary, drink-it-on-holiday Retsina. It’s biodynamic, fermented in amphorae with wild yeasts and highly unusual. The pine resin notes are restrained and enjoyable, adding a Mediterranean herb like dimension to the pear, beeswax and honey fruit. The wine finishes tangy and dry.’

David Williams of The Observer called it ‘the first I’ve tried outside Greece that actually invited a second sip. The pine is restrained, the base wine brisk and lemony: a match for fishy meze and stuffed vine leaves.’

The winery, owned by brothers Aristides and Stathis Spanos, is in fact beautifully equipped and spotless having been totally rebuilt in 2008 after the former place and much of the local village (but not vineyards) was destroyed in a horrific bush fire the year before.

The secret of their Retsina is that it is based on an excellent-quality white from the roditis grape. The pine resin, which I watched Stathis gather from their trees overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, is suspended in its amphora in a kind of tea bag, just enough to add a herby touch.

Tetramythos - pine resin

Collecting pine resin

The amphora allows some oxygen in to help the wine develop without altering the taste with wood.

Tetramythos amphoras

The wine is fermented without sulphur (a minimal amount is added afterwards) and the grapes are wholly organic. The wine can do you nothing but good!

Sebastian Payne MW
Society Buyer for Greece

This wine is currently available in our Look East offering, which covers a number of exciting wines from Greece, Hungary and the Balkans, including three mixed cases.

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