Was it coincidence that the autumn wine ranges of the UK's big two wine clubs, Laithwaites and The Wine Society, were paraded on consecutive days? Theale-based Laithwaites (laithwaites.com), with its aggressive advertising, couldn't be more different in ethos to the genteel, non-profit-making Wine Society in Stevenage. Differences apart, both are dynamic, modern operations with first-rate wine buying teams. And both have clearly spent time improving on the quality of their wine ranges.
One of the wine trade's great success stories, the schoolmasterly Tony Laithwaite ambled over to tell me how delighted he was with things now that he was taking more of a back seat. Tony Laithwaite now presides over an empire of a million customers worldwide, annual sales of £340 million and 2,500 wines on the list.
From the tasting, I enjoyed a classic 2009 Domaine Michel Thomas Sancerre, £12.99, with its herbal fragrance and textured, gooseberry fruit and dry finish, and its value-for-money new World counterpart, the nettley, gooseberry flavours of the Cape's 2010 Stumble Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, £7.49. The New World is often well done here and it showed in Pikes' classic 2009 Clare Hills Riesling, £8.49, an aromatic dry white with mouthwatering lime zest flavours. Rosé also showed well, particularly the scrumptious strawberry and cherry 2009 Château de Ségries Rosé, Tavel, £11.99.
The choice of the 2009 Château Rollin, £13.99, was telling, a seductively bright new-wave Bordeaux with no obvious oak but oodles of bright and juicy blackcurrant and cherry fruitiness. While waiting for the excellent 2009 Rhônes to be bottled, it's worth giving the 2008 Dolines de l'Hortus, spicy with ginger and orange zest and silky tannins, a workout. Speaking of New World value, there are few more affordable reds around than the 2009 Don Cayetano Carmenère, £6.49, a perky, peppery Chilean red that comes on like a tasty claret. Compare and contrast with one of the New World's great red wines, the lapsang-smoky, textured, chocolatey 2005 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz, £50.
The Wine Society (thewinesociety.com) needs little introduction from me, suffice to say that no one I know regrets the £40 membership fee paid for a lifetime share. The Society's wines often have more bottle age than Laithwaites, a feature I appreciate. The 2007 Allende White Rioja, £18, showed how worthwhile this can be, a nutty, deliciously rich, dry white whose complexity rivals good white Burgundy.
Same goes for the white Burgundy lookalike from California in the gloriously rich, complex 2006 Au Bon Climat Sanford and Benedict Chardonnay, £25.
It was good to see how a wine like the 2006 D'Arenberg The Footbolt Shiraz, £11.95, had softened with bottle age into smoky-rich and cinnamon-spiced middle age; while the 2006 Clos Floridène, Graves, £14.95, had retained a vigorous presence through its stylish cassis-laden fruit quality. They contrasted with the brilliant Henri Marionnet's 2009 Touraine Gamay, Première Vendange, £9.95, a cherryish autumn red that blows most Beaujolais away. If you think The Wine Society pricey, the Alandra NV from Herdade de Esporão, a moreishly damsony Portuguese tinto, £5.95, should change preconceptions.