Queen Victoria wasn’t quite halfway through her interminable reign; “Far From the Madding Crowd” was selling well at Hatchards and Winston Churchill had his big, baby face at his mother’s breast.
1874 was the year and the gathering one day of a “committee of gentlemen” at the Albert Hall marked the establishment of a co-operative company the sole purpose of which would be to purchase wines in “unadulterated condition,” direct from the producers, and offer them to the membership at the lowest possible price.
The boskily be-whiskered witnesses to the birth of the Wine Society wouldn’t be in the least surprised that, in its 137th year, it should have added a Hungarian Cabernet Franc and a Ciliegiolo (I’m saying nothing – you can look it up in my book!) to its range of wines and be celebrated by the National Retailer Awards as their `Portuguese Wine Retailer of the Year’.
“100 years ago we were selling Californian Zinfandels and wines from Australia and one called `Boujas’ from `Asia Minor’ alongside the Musignys and Chambertins and Lafite,” says Sebastian Payne MW, the Society’s long-serving chief buyer. “One of the `Objects of the Society’ established by the founders all those years ago was `To introduce foreign wines hitherto unknown or but little known in this country’ and we’re still doing that today.” He’s right of course, and one of these days I must get to grips with the Cour-Cheverny (made from the romarantin grape, as if anybody needed reminding).
The demutualisations among the building societies and other co-operative organisations saw a few changes to protect the Society from the threat of takeover but otherwise the structure remains as it has always been. Membership involves buying a single share in the company (for £40, and a bequeathable asset) and anyone can join – the Secretary will `propose’ those who lack the acquaintance of an obliging member to perform the same office. “Today’s members are a pretty mixed bunch – we’ve always had lots of doctors since the days when the original offices were behind Harley Street, plenty in the arts, a royal,” notes Payne. Indeed one of those doctors – father of my then fiancée – was responsible for my own Eureka! moment with wine. It was a Sancerre, I’m tolerably sure the cuvée `Les Roches’ from the excellent Vacheron, and it had – alongside the usual quality of being an efficient inebriant – the hitherto unknown one of being completely delicious.
Sampling their wines I am always struck by their faithfulness to their origins – “typicity” in winespeak. In short, they do exactly what they say on the tin. Any neophyte wanting to satisfy themselves about quite what characteristics distinguish, for example, a New Zealand Pinot Noir from a Chianti Classico or a Beaujolais need look no further than the mixed cases of “The Society’s” and, better yet, the premium “Exhibition” ranges. The Kiwi Pinot will be all about bright, jammy, black cherry fruit, while the Italian cherries will be red and have that subtle bitterness and crunch which finishes with something almondy. The Beaujolais – especially if it’s the “Exhibition” Juliénas from the drop-dead gorgeous 2009 vintage – will be as giddy and Turkish-delightful as you could wish a `Beauj’ to be but it’ll have depth and a serious side too, as befits one of the big sisters of the 10 crus of the appellation.
There are 1,000-odd wines, so it’s hard to do more than scratch the surface but a handful of whites make the point. The Society’s White Burgundy is a painfully-researched perennial favourite which glives a glimpse round the door of Burgundian glory for £7.50. Léon Beyer’s Alsace Sylvaner is another substantial everyday white that is hard to beat anywhere for £7.95. I’ll be happy with Fefiñanes fantastic Albariño £14.95 for the time being while I wait and hope that they get some more of Allende’s White Rioja 2007 (I think it was £18) – my favourite Spanish white. If I’m pushing the boat our for something with pud it’ll be hard to resist Château de Fesles Bonnezeaux (£27/50 cl) for its perfection of mineral-boned, Apple Charlotte essence.
Wonder what they’ll be selling in 2148?