As any wine writer will tell you, an occupational hazard is being asked to make ‘a quick recommendation’. The request sounds simple enough, but the reality is rather different. Happily, the question that I am asked most frequently is also the easiest to answer: where should I buy wine? To which, my response is always ‘The Wine Society’.
Founded in the cellars of the Royal Albert Hall in 1874, Britain’s oldest mutual organisation makes much of its heritage but is currently firmly focused on the future, outlining an ambitious sustainability plan to its 181,000 active members at the AGM that followed its summer wine tasting. The Society plans to be ‘carbon neutral’ in two years’ time, using off-setting, then fully ‘net zero’ by 2040.
‘Our goal is for The Wine Society to be one of the most sustainable wine retailers in the world,’ says head buyer Pierre Mansour. ‘Our motive is that we are seeing directly the impact climate change is having on wine. Recent harvests across the world are a stark reminder of these effects and show just how sensitive grape growing is to the challenges of frost, drought, hail, excessive heat, fires and more regular extremes. We also know that our members are increasingly driven by sustainability.’
Mansour promises that The Wine Society will use its considerable clout to tackle the scandal of needlessly heavy bottles – an armful of which were evident on the South America table at the summer wine tasting – promoting alternative, more sustainable, formats such as R-PET (recycled plastic) and bag-in-box, while also focusing on ethical sourcing and human rights.
The Society is well placed to act: having seen a surge in demand during lockdown, sales remain around 40 per cent higher than before the pandemic and its buyers are widely regarded as some of the best in the business. For those of you already convinced, here are ten wine highlights for the summer months ahead, as sampled at The Wine Society’s latest tasting.
Ten top summer wines to try from The Wine Society
Raimes Classic 2018, £31
English sparkling wine just gets better and here’s a great example from the epic ’18 vintage. A ‘grower’ sparkler made at Hattingley Valley, majority Chardonnay with equal parts Pinot Noir and Meunier. Aged for 35 months on lees, it’s a riot of orchard fruits balanced by signature English acidity; it’s youthful, yet showing well, with blanched hazelnuts and freshly baked croissant. Class in a glass.
Astobiza, Txakoli 2021, £12.50
Influenced by the Atlantic, Txakoli is renowned for its searing acidity, but this example comes from the Basque Country’s Alava region – inland, with some altitude. The enamel on your teeth will certainly welcome this generous, fuller-textured wine. Made from Hondarribi Zuri, salinity gives way to flinty minerality, with plump apple, juicy grapefruit and a revitalising crispness.
From an estate in South Africa’s Western Cape that can trace its history back to 1700, an accomplished wine that offers serious value for money. A summer wine if ever there was one, the nose, almost an adult version of Lilt, is totally tropical, with fleshy pineapple and zingy citrus. There’s judicious use of oak, with juicy fruit and a lovely freshness.
Grabenwerkstatt, Bruck 2019, £56 (available 22 August)
From cool, vertiginous vineyard terraces in the far west of the Wachau, a sensational, limited-release, age-worthy Riesling from a single plot that’s worked entirely by hand. Focused and fresh, the nose is ethereal and faintly tropical, the structure is precisely balanced, with fabulous finesse through to the lingering finish.
Clos de Casaux, Vacqueyras Blanc, Vieilles Vignes 2020, £46 (in magnum)
Buyer Marcel Orford-Williams says Clairette is the Rhône’s star white variety, and it makes up 70% of this wine alongside better known Roussanne and Viognier. Beguilingly aromatic, with wafts of fennel and anise, there’s rounded richness and concentration, with waxy citrus and subtle salinity. Testament to how much I loved this wine: I ordered a case of six as soon as I got home.
López de Haro, Classica, Gran Reserva Rosado Rioja 2009, £33 (available 12 September)
A blast from the past, apparently harking back to the way Rioja was traditionally made, a rosé like no other, released with more than 12 years of ageing. Brooding and pristine, with smoky bacon, blackberry and pink peppercorn. A rare treat, with great potential for food pairing and, frankly, for showing off.
Domaine du Moulin d’Eole, Moulin-à-Vent, Les Thorins 2020, £13.50
With enough energy to power the national grid, whole-bunch fermentation provides bags of fragrant cherry berry charm. The fruit is bright, intense, tangy and mouth-wateringly moreish, making it a perfect red wine to drink chilled with a summer al fresco supper, after a 20-minute spell in the fridge.
Mount Etna’s wonderful wines were once a well-kept secret, but not anymore. Made exclusively from Nerello Mascalese, grown at an elevation of 800 metres on the volcano’s northern slopes, the nose is perfumed with rose petals and wild strawberry, the sour-cherry-charged fruit is both elegant and tantalisingly tart, the body is light, the acidity bright, and there’s a thrilling ‘run for your life’ sulphurous streak all the way to the finish.
From a producer focused on sustainability that commits to helping homeless people near its Adelaide home, a wine that also does the right thing. Carignan can be hard work in the wrong hands, but this one is bursting with energy and verve, juicy purple fruit, plum crumble, a crack of black pepper and a hint of coffee bean, with the alcohol kept on a tight leash at 13.5%. It’s dangerously delicious.
Ulysse Cazabonne, Margaux 2019, £24 (available 28 July)
From organic grapes, grown on a top estate that cannot be named (because these were, presumably, surplus grapes sold to a negociant), this pristine cuvée offers excellent value, with an elegant, floral nose, vibrant foraged fruit and plush barrel-ageing. Good now, but for those with discipline and self-control, this is one for the cellar.