The new wine releases echoing 150 years of vinous history

The Wine Society is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2024 with a range of special releases throughout the year. David Kermode picks the best bottles from the first instalment of the Generation Series

Words by David Kermode

The Wine Society cellar
The cellar at The Wine Society showroom, complete with spiral staircase

The Wine Society celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and the planned festivities include a series of special releases throughout 2024, reflecting the types of wines enjoyed by members over its long history. The first tranche was recently released and is dedicated to the early years of the organisation’s existence between 1874 and 1924, representing a bottled form of living, drinking history, albeit with a 21st century approach to winemaking.

These days based in Stevenage, in an unassuming building resembling that occupied by Wernham Hogg in The Office, the Society can trace its history to the more august surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall, where it was established in 1874 as the International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society.

The exhibition in question was not a great success and it resulted in a sizeable parcel of wines from Portugal being left untasted. To avoid an embarrassing diplomatic incident, the Foreign Office asked Major General Henry Scott, the architect of the Royal Albert Hall, to organise a series of lunch parties at which the unused wines could be consumed. Possibly inspired by the Rochdale pioneers, who had opened the first co-op store some 30 years earlier, these lunching gentlemen decided to establish a similar, member-owned structure – one that survives to this day.

Pierre Mansour
Pierre Mansour, director of wine at The Wine Society

With each member possessing a ‘share’ that can be bequeathed upon death, The Wine Society is now the world’s oldest member-owned mutual. Last summer, as wine was subjected to the biggest ever single rise in duty, The Wine Society invested more than £3m to freeze its prices. Lifetime membership costs £40 and is currently held by around 180,000 people.

‘The model today really resonates with consumers because there are no external shareholders… the only measure we have as a business is how satisfied our members are with the services we provide to them and the wines that we offer,’ director of wine, Pierre Mansour tells me.

Though these days most orders come via its website, the Society still publishes an annual list and its archives contain every edition since it was established. The Society’s unconventional structure – it uses the slogan ‘passion before profit’ – means it is spared the cashflow challenges faced by rival retailers and can afford to offer a much larger range, selling around 3,500 different wines each year. Its five warehouses are used to provide storage for members and to age wines purchased ‘en primeur’ prior to release.

Generation Series
The first releases in the Generation Series cover the first 50 years of The Wine Society's existence

‘You would normally run a business like ours turning stock as quickly as possible because you want to turn it into cash, while we have quite a high level of what we call “keeping stock”, wines that we buy for the long term, [and] at the moment we have around 24 million pounds worth,’ Mansour says.

While the expression ‘national treasure’ might be a little hackneyed, it seems apt for The Wine Society, an institution that is different and, in its own way, uniquely British. Though the name arguably conjures images of some fraternity of pink-trousered, wine-quaffing toffs, the reality is much more egalitarian because the Society was – and still is – a pioneering co-operative.

Next month, a second offering will feature fine wines from long-standing suppliers, including a number of ‘one-off’ parcels purchased almost a decade ago, to be followed by the second part of the Generation Series, covering 1924-1974.

Five of the best from The Wine Society’s 1874-1924 Generation Series

Wine Soc Generation Series Bucelas

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Bucelas 2022

The very first wine bought by the fledgling Society, in August 1874, this was known as Portuguese Hock. Bucelas is a small DOC, just north of Lisbon, and this wine, made from Arinto, has been created by Portugal’s Sogrape Vinhos, whose historic Quinta da Romeira has been producing wines for more than 300 years. Fresh, lithe and citrus-charged, with scintillating precision, vibrant acidity and gentle textural charm, it’s the perfect pairing for a pint of prawns.

Wine Soc Generation Series Riesling

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Wachenheimer Riesling 2021

Sourced from one of the Society’s longest-standing partners, Bürklin-Wolf in Germany’s Pfalz region, this comes from two of its top biodynamic vineyards: Gerümpel and Goldbächel. There’s lime leaf and crisp Granny Smith apple with some teasing tropical fruit notes on the nose, while the racy, energetic palate offers plump orchard fruit underpinned by a firm citrus acidity and the faintest prickle of spice. A captivating wine, it is also available in magnum.

Wine Soc Generation Series Portuguese red

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Portuguese Red 2021

Inspired by those wines that lay untasted in the cellars of the Royal Albert Hall 150 years ago, this is a cross-regional mix of indigenous grape varieties, some of which are field blends, from the 2021 vintage, crafted by Dirk Niepoort and son Daniel.   The beguiling nose offers raspberry, sour cherry, pomegranate and delicate wafts of rosemary, there’s a lovely freshness to the crunchy, juicy, red-fruited palate, while the tannins provide a gentle pinch. Best served with a light chill, it’ll be a good choice when barbecue season arrives.

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Primitivo di Manduria 2022

Trawling through the archives, Sarah Knowles MW, buyer for Italy, says she was surprised to find so many early references to Primitivo. The variety can produce heady, rather exhausting wines, but this is a wonderful, thoroughly modern, fruit-driven example, apparently reflecting the style of the late 19th century. The nose is bright and violet-scented, there’s juicy red plum, foraged hedgerow blackberry and cherry chocolate, supple tannins and just a frisson of fresh mint on the finish. Perfect for pasta arrabbiata.

Wine Soc Generation Series sherry

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Medium-Sweet Oloroso

Bottled ‘en rama’ (meaning ‘raw’), so neither fined nor filtered, sourced from an old solera in the cellars of Williams and Humbert in Jerez, this replicates a style that was popular 150 years ago, with a base of bone-dry Oloroso with added Pedro Ximénez for a little luscious richness. A textbook example of balance and complexity, with the opulent flavours of white chocolate, mocha, caramel and dried apricot countered by a fine line of zesty citrus acidity. Deliciously different and somewhat decadent, it is also seriously good value.
£16.50 for a half bottle