The Big Society - A tasting at The Wine Society

POSTED ON 30/06/2010

The Wine Society is a mail order wine club with a difference. The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society was founded as a non-profit-making organization when a ‘committtee of gentlemen’ met in the Albert Hall in 1874 to discuss setting up a co-operative company to purchase wine ‘in unadulterated condition’. So it remains so today, £40 a lifetime share to join, and while the Victorian gentlemen who founded it might have difficulty in recognizing it from its extensive premises in Stevenage, Herts, I expect they would still recognize that the spirit of co-operation and commitment to quality at a good price is not just a 19th century virtue.

Spot your Case © TWSSpot your Case © TWS

I vividly remember my first visit there nearly two decades ago when the Financial Times wine writer, Edmund-Penning Rowsell, then chairman, invited me to visit. TWS was proud of its new storage facilities and I was taken on a tour of the warehouse before being sat down to a typical wine trade lunch. My memory isn’t so vivid that I can remember if we tasted any wines, and I suppose we must have done, but I do remember the tradition of serving you some wine blind with lunch was maintained. I think we had a couple of ports. I had visited once since then, and while in the early days, TWS was strongest in the traditional areas you might expect, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, along with Italy and Spain, today it has embraced the New World with verve as well as expanding its range of services (tastings, cellar plans, offers, account login, advice etc.) to members.

I visited Stevenage again more recently, perhaps seven or eight years ago now, but I was keen to go back because the new Bordeaux campaign was spluttering into life and I was writing an article for Decanter magazine on provenance. Ewan Murray, who works with the press, was keen to show me the Society’s new facilities and in particular the warehouse dedicated entirely to members’ reserves. So off to Stevenage and the Wine Society’s unfussy, not to say unlovely premises, I duly trotted. There are four warehouses in total, a first for members’ reserves, a second used for fast-moving good and dispatches, a third for overflow, and the newest, built in 2008, for goods in medium-term storage. The four between them can house 645,000 cases of wine.

In The Van © TWSIn The Van © TWS

Donning a fluorescent yellow jacket as we entered the first warehouse (there are a lot of forklift trucks whizzing around and coming at you from nowhere), I was taken first to the original warehouse, one of four in total, built in 1965 when TWS moved from its Bulstrode Street premises in London, where it included cellars at Hill Place, Joyner Street and the St.James’s Bond in Rotherhithe. The cellar was extended in 1970, and again in 1980, and is now exclusively used for members' reserves. I had expected to see a series of lockers with members’ names and numbers, but it doesn't work like that. Instead there are pallets, half pallets and part pallets of wines grouped together, with ownership of each individual case arranged through the Society's sophisticated IT system.

There is no in bond storage, so duty and VAT are paid on all the wines. The first year of membership gives you free storage and then it's £7.92 per case per annum, including VAT and insurance at replacement value. Of TWS's 102,000 active members, 15,000 members have wines in storage with 145,000 cases stored. Cellar conditions are good with humidity of 65%, an average temperature of 13% and no natural light or vibration. If the members' reserves warehouse seems capacious and tall at five pallets in height, the newest warehouse, built 8 months ago, is stacked an imposing 55 feet from the ground with pallets of wine. Custom-built forklift trucks lift pallets, along with the man inside the cab, a full 55 feet, swivelling at the top to deposit its load 17 metres above ground. It’s Willi Wonka stuff.

TWS staff make 70% of the Society's deliveries. The rest are contracted out to third parties at busy periods or because it's not economical for TWS to deliver. There are eight depots around the country: Reading, Gatwick, Birmingham, Derby, Bristol, Bradford, Durham and Edinburgh, with one contract depot in Belfast. There’s a showroom too, which members can visit to buy any of the wines from the Society's 800-strong list as well as bin-ends, and a Vintage Showroom. On the day I visited, you could pick up the 2006 EQ Matetic Syrah for £12.50, 2002 Clos Floridène Graves Blanc, for £10.75, 2008 Josmeyer Alsace Pinot Blanc for £8.95, 2006 Shaw & Smith Adelaide Hills Shiraz for £18, a 1995 Cheval Blanc for £300 and 1927 Croft Port for £350.

All's Fine at The Wine Society © TWSAll's Fine at The Wine Society © TWS

There was a tasting on this occasion, and my notes on the wines we tasted are set out below for those who are interested. There was also a lunch, with Ewan Murray and TWS’s long-standing, indefatigable buyer, Sebastian Payne, MW. The conversation turned, inevitably to Bordeaux 2009, of which TWS has recently made an en primeur offer. ‘We're selling our taste’, said Sebastian. ‘We don't use Robert Parker. 2009 is going to be a drinker's vintage. We want corks to be pulled’. So saying, he pulled the corks on a couple of wines he served blind, a fine, youthful 1996 Lynch Bages and a classic 1988 Beaucastel. I got the claret ok, but to my eternal shame and incomprehension, I put the Beaucastel in northern Rhône. I left Stevenage feeling, full, enlightened and chastened.

Wines Tasted

2009 Terret, Les Terres Noires. £5.95

Fresh, fruity, peardroppy aromas, attractively juicy pear and banana flavours of crisp, young Languedoc dry white. 85+

2009 Pecorino, Colline Pescaresi (Contesa). £10.95.

Oh ewe pretty thing! Good fresh, stonefruity nose from the native Abruzzo variety, attractively vivid stonefruit fruit quality, with texture and freshness, lightly nutty finish and elegant dry note on the finish. 87+

2009 Pazo de Senorans, Albarino, Rias Baixas. £12.50.

Good fresh, zesty, almost riesling-like character, very nice fresh spritz, full-bodied, ripe, fresh apple and pear fruit, intense and full rich texture and fruit, finishing with crisp lemon and lime citrus-zesty acidity. 90+

2009 Auzells, Cosres del Segre. £9.95.

A blend of 37% macabeo, 15% parelllada, 12% sauvignon, 12% chardonnay, 10% muller-thurgau, 5% albarino, 5% riesling and 4% moscatel. Attractive freshness, good weight of fruit, nice ripeness and flavour, quite peachy, good juicy fresh acidity; fruit salad of varieties with fresh grapefruity zing on the finish. 88

2008 Gaillac, Mauzac, Domaine de Pialentou (converting to biodynamic, with Ecocert)

Odd baked apple and honeyed aromas; rather good baked apple pie fruit with nice honeyed fruit and minerality and freshness, touch bitterness on finish; very idiosyncratic, juicy. Funky wine which is fine if you're interested in South West, but expect weirdness. 86

2002 Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Milieu, Domane Billaud-Simon. £18.

Very youthful colour, lovely mature, creamy, waxy and honeyed rich mature Chablis bouquet; soft, richly honeyed, Cornish cream Chablis with fine juicy citrusy / pineappley fruit and mineral finish. Classic mature chablis. Drink now. 90

2008 Growers Semillon, Barossa, Peter Lehmann. £6.95.

Good fresh zesty aromatic quality; appealing lemony fruit quality, juicy, light and fresh with fine zingy quality, some typical lemon zesty fruit and juiciness, a good bet at the price for summer drinking. 86+

2009 Tahbilk Viognier, Nagambie Lakes. £9.50.

Lovely peachy nose, good intense, rich peachy fruit quality, nice freshness, very juicy and peachy with an almost oily richness and lots of flavour; powerful and yet has fine juicy fresh acidity. A bargain. 91.

2009 Sibaris Undurraga Limited Edition Sauvignon Blanc , Leyda Valley. £8.75.

Fresh pungently herbal green bean and capsicum aromas, almost Kiwi in its aromatic intensity, good juicy, opulent gooseberry sauvignon, lots of character and flavour and very nice juicy fresh zingy character. 88+

2009 Mahi Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough. £11.50. .

From Brian Bicknell, a fine fresh, herbaceous, sauvignon nose, almost Pouilly Fumé-like attractively opulent fruit quality, nicely texture with an underlying smoky character, and super-juicy fresh acidity. 89+

2008 TMV White. £11.95. .

A blend of chenin, chardonnay, grenache, roussanne, viognier, this has a matchsticky Burgundian nose, rich, ripe, opulent and nutty, with nice pineapple and peachy ripe fruit quality, juicy, complex, idiosyncratic and very nicely rich and textured fruit. Intense. 90

2008 Prinz von Hessen Riesling Kabinett. £11.95. .

Fine freshness, spritz, nice lemony citrusy riesling quality, zingily drinkable and juicy-fresh, very attractive summer aperitif. Excellent balance of off-dry fruit. 87+

2007 Muscat Grand Cru Saering, Domaine Dirler-Cade. £17.

Biodynamic. Classic spicy muscat nose with floral hints of rose petal, very richly concentrated fruit, classic muscat character, intense and full-bodied, attractive freshness and typicity; idiosyncratic. 88

2009 vOIL'a, Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan. £4.95.

50% tannat, 40% malbec, 5% each ekigaina and arinanoa. Deep pink, fresh cherry, strawberry fruit, moreishly drinkable young southern French rosé with juicy acidity and joie de vivre, dry refreshing finish. 85+

2009 Coteaux du Giennois Rosé, Domaine de Villargeau. £8.50

Poor person's Sancerre Rosé, attractively juicy, berryish fruit quality, nicely full-bodied, quite rich and full-flavoured with typical pinot raspberry and strawberry fruit and elegant dry finish. 87+

2006 Gamay, Vin de Pays des Gaules, Jacques Dépagneux. £4.95.

Flat-footed and long in the tooth, not exactly a wine to set the pulse racing. 79

2009 Beaujolais-Villages, Château de Lacarelle. £6.95.

Deep colour, youthfully juicy fresh gamay, zingy ripe cherryish fruit, very gluggable and full-flavoured black cherry fruit quality, lovely freshness and verve. Va va voom factor. Joyful fruit. 89+

2009 Juliénas, Esprit de Marius Sangouard. £9.50.

Intense colour and nose, very full, rich and ripe gamay fruit quality, zingy black cherry fruit freshness, fine supple tannins and juicy acidity, firm structure with overall balance and fruit. Still youthful cru that could do with ageing. 89

2009 Bardolino. Le Fraghe. £9.50. .

Quite attractive, lightly peppery nose, rather juicy fresh red fruits character, nice softness, a sort of Italian beaujolais; very pleasant and summery. 86

2007 Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, Domaine Gérard Mugneret. £12.50.

The most uninspiring of names? Extraordinary nose. Fresh gamay and pinot berry fruit nose, quite juicy and fresh if rustic, quite summery and refreshing, one for pork andouillette., Better than you might expect from the name. 87

2006 Savigny-les-Beaune, Premier Cru, Les Vergelesses, Nicolas Potel. £21.

Rather oaky and overcooked. 79

2006 Château Franc Couplet, Bordeaux Supérieur. £7.25.

Bright colour, solid, full-bodied bright youthful fruit, quite rustic but reasonable value and quite juicy, just a tad hollow on the mid-palate. 85

2007 Poggio al Tesoro Mediterra, Allegrini. £12.95.

From Allegrini’s Bolghero operation, this is quite cabernet on the nose, a touch green-leafy, good richness of fruit and concentration, very well made with lovely touch of oak, quite powerful fruit quality with very nice freshness and elegance. 88

2008 Undurraga TH Alto Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon. £11.50.

Very garriguey and oaky with a riot of menthol, rosemary and eucalyptus character; lots of oak and mint, very Chilean. 85

2003 Nectar de Château de la Grave. £13.95.

Smells of the 2003 with sweetness and torrefaction. A bit soupy and sweet and lacking in the freshness and acidity for true nectar. 83

2008 Syrah, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, Jaboulet-Perrin. £9.50

Fresh and peppery nose, nice red fruits freshness, very juicy with lots of freshly milled pepper, raspberry fruit and juicy savoury acidity; a young St. Joseph. 88

2006 Billi Billi Shiraz, Grampians. £8.50.

Minty fresh nose, nice rich cassis opulence and fruit sweetness, fresh mint edge to it, nicely succulent tannins and juicy acidity. Good value bbq red. 87+

2005 Rasteau, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Château de Trignon. £11.50.

Nice nose, good full serious plum and fruitcake quality, powerful punch, fine concentration lovely rich cherry fruit quality, firm tannin structure and fine fresh acidity. Serious. 89+

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