What's new at The Wine Society?

Wine Society van outside HQ

The UK retailer with dependable value and sustainable values. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

There is bad news for wine drinkers in the UK. As UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt announced surreptitiously in his recent budget, from 1 August duty on an average bottle of table wine will increase by 44p, a bottle of sherry by 97p and a bottle of port by £1.30 – the biggest wine duty increase since 1975.

Judging from what has happened in the wake of past duty increases, I have a nasty feeling that some retailers will be unwilling to increase the price of their own bottlings by this much so may well look at sourcing cheaper and generally poorer-quality wine for them.

Smaller or more traditional wine merchants may just have to take a deep breath and explain to their customers why their prices have gone up – or hope that between now and then currency movements will soften the blow.

But one significant wine retailer in Britain has decided to promise its customers that current prices (and quality) will be maintained until the end of the year. ‘It will cripple our margin’, Wine Society CEO Steve Finlan admitted to me at the Society’s showing of recent finds to wine media, ‘but I think we can do it. It’s a very Wine Society thing to do. No one else could.’

What he means is that this 149-year-old wine-buying co-operative’s shareholders are its wine-buying members, each of whose shares cost just £40 with half of that redeemable against their first order. So the Society doesn’t have to pay dividends or even make a profit. Their member-shareholders simply have the satisfaction of knowing that the Society’s prices and quality are some of the best in the land, if not the very best in terms of pricing.

Finlan feels he can make the bold promise of holding prices because the Society’s biggest investment to date, a fifth temperature-controlled warehouse for their members’ reserves next to their Stevenage headquarters, has already been accounted for. (The move to Stevenage from central London was made when the Society’s chairman was the late Edmund Penning-Rowsell, who scrupulously avoiding mentioning the Society in his columns for the FT, where he preceded me as wine correspondent.)

The Society has a crack team of professional wine buyers who are encouraged to buy direct rather than from UK importers, and are increasingly sourcing special bottlings to be labelled either The Society’s X or, even higher quality, The Society’s Exhibition X, a reference to the 1874 International Exhibition in the Albert Hall that led to the formation of the Society (as a way of showcasing some Portuguese wines that had been shipped for it but were unintentionally ignored – long story).

The exceptionally small 2021 wine harvest in France, with shortages most pronounced in white burgundy, cause a particular headache for the Society’s burgundy buyer Toby Morrhall, who was unable to put together an en primeur offer of 2021 white burgundy (which at least saved The Society the sort of aggro from disappointed customers that other merchants have suffered). To judge from our Members’ forum, their en primeur offers are eagerly awaited. They are also the only UK merchant routinely to offer mixed cases en primeur.

In order to maintain quality and volume for the popular Society’s White Burgundy 2021 (£12.95), Morrhall had made for them Le Stopgap Chardonnay 2021 Vin de France, a blend of wine from the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy and the Languedoc way to the south that is currently reduced to £7.50 from £8.50. And the 2022 vintage of The Society’s White Burgundy is being offered for £1 less than the 2021, just £11.95, in recognition of the more generous crop last year.

Finlan is bullish about current sales and reports a record Christmas – ‘but every pound has had to be fought for. Our members shop in supermarkets and the level of discounting in the supermarkets has been extraordinary. Supermarket wine price inflation has been so low that it feels as though they must be using wine as a loss leader. When the duty increases come in, I wouldn’t be surprised if they use hi-lo pricing.’

‘Hi-lo?’ I ask, before realising that he’s referring to the well-known supermarket ploy of deliberately increasing the price of a wine and then ‘reducing’ it to what they really plan to sell it for so they can present it as a special offer.

The average price of a bottle of wine bought from The Wine Society is £11.50, almost twice the national average, and this has increased a bit recently, ‘perhaps because of the trend to trade up and drink less’. But £40 million of their annual sales are of wines under £10. ‘We don’t have huge ambitions in that segment except to maintain market share and quality’, according to Finlan.

Of their 500,000 members about 175,000 are active, lured perhaps not just by the fair prices and quality but by the free delivery (about 35% of deliveries – less at Christmas – are made by their own 37 vans that, in my experience, deliver with unusual courtesy, promptness and accuracy).

The stereotypical Wine Society member is a claret-loving professional who’s at least middle aged but Finlan claims that during lockdown the average age of new members was 10 years less than it had been before and ‘at our Burgundy and Rhône walk-round tastings the crowd is younger than ever’.

He does admit however that they can monitor how, when members reach 75, they start drinking less and working their way through their reserves.

Their sales figures presumably provide a useful record of wine drinking-patterns. Finlan reports that last Christmas saw a return to classic regions, with New Zealand, Australia and Chile less popular than in the past. Members are apparently currently especially keen on Argentina, South Africa, Portugal and, especially, Greece – and sparkling wines and champagne. Why? I asked. ‘Fashion’, was the one-word answer.

The two or three tastings a year organised by The Society and its buyers for UK wine media are always some of the most popular because we know we’ll encounter novelties, wines that are not offered by other British retailers – as well as a good spread of our fellow wine writers for gossiping purposes. At the tasting in late March I was pleased to meet three Wine Society members who’d been picked at random from those who post on its forum and invited to taste with us professionals.

The Society is pretty good at what is now called customer ‘engagement’ and is one of the British wine companies that is taking the most determined steps towards analysing every aspect of sustainability. Lightweighting of bottles is just one of many steps they are currently taking. The wine list at the tasting aimed to include bottle weights for the first time but I was warned that this time around they were not 100% accurate. As a blueprint for other wine retailers, they have just published this detailed report on their carbon footprint and how they plan to reduce it. See also How to source and sell wine sustainably.

After a strict selection by the combined palates of their buyers at a competitive taste-off, there were 69 wines on that list, but since the Society’s own bottlings are available only in the UK, I restricted myself to the 55 that are likely to be available in countries other than Britain. There were very few duds and the ones I would head for are listed below.

There’s really only one disadvantage to Wine Society membership: the initial layout of £20.

Wine Society Standouts

With prices, score out of 20 and suggested drinking dates, listed in increasing score order.


Contesa Pecorino 2022 Abruzzo
£10.95 16.5 Drink 2023–26

Dom Gonon 2021 Mâcon-La Roche-Vineuse
£14.50 17 Drink 2023–27

Dom André et Mireille Tissot Traminer 2018 Arbois
£38 17 Drink 2020–26

Bründlmayer, Heiligenstein 1ÖTW Alte Reben Riesling 2011 Kamptal
£49 17.5 Drink 2016–27


Contesa 2022 Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo
£8.95 16 Drink 2023–24

Alovini, Le Ralle 2022 Basilicata
£9.95 16.5 Drink 2023–25


Rui Madeira, Altos da Beira 2021 Terras da Beira
£8.25 16 Drink 2022–24

Ch La Grave de Bertin, Réserve 2020 Bordeaux
£8.25 16 Drink 2023–27

Vigna Corvino 2021 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
£8.50 16 Drink 2023–24

Clos des Cordeliers (Dom Ratron), Cuvée Tradition 2019 Saumur-Champigny
£12.50 16 Drink 2023–27

Ch Grand Bertin de St-Clair 2016 Médoc
£10.95 16.5 Drink 2020–26

Ch Lacour Jacquet 2018 Haut-Médoc
£12.95 16.5 Drink 2023–32

Vida Petér, Hidaspetre Kékfrankos 2020 Szekszárd
£14.50 16.5 Drink 2023–28

Ch Vignelaure 2016 Coteaux d'Aix en Provence
£20 16.5 Drink 2023–29

Dom Nicolas Perrault, Le Clos des Rois Premier Cru 2020 Maranges (available from 8 May)
£26.50 16.5 Drink 2023–30

Les Vins Aujoux, Artisans 2020 Chénas
£12.50 17 Drink 2023–27

Vintage Longbottom, H Syrah 2019 Adelaide Hills
£19 17 Drink 2023–29

Dalamára Xinomavro 2020 Naoussa
£23 17 Drink 2023–29

Teho, Tomal Vineyard Malbec 2018 La Consulta
£45 17.5 Drink 2022–28


Sánchez Romate, Escondido 1/12 Palo Cortado Sherry
£18 per half 17 Drink 2023–27


Dom Cady 2021 Coteaux du Layon St-Aubin
£14.50 16.5 Drink 2023–27

Tasting notes in Wine Society finds – spring 2023. Some international and other UK stockists on Wine-Searcher.com. See also Wine Society finds – late 2022.