High society

There is something quaintly old fashioned-sounding about The Wine Society, a non-profitmaking organisation dating back to 1874. Customer preferences, with 60 per cent of wine sales accounted for by France, followed by Italy, also suggest that members are traditional, if not always sober, in their tastes. One member did a cartwheel at a recent Society champagne tasting in Oxford.

Any impression of fogeyness is, however, dispelled by activities at the Society's functional premises in Stevenage. Since I last visited 10 years ago, it has hitched on another impressive new warehouse of equal size and is planning a third. This year sees the issue of the 250,000th share, although there are 88,000 active members. The remainder are either no longer with us or sleeping members who've been given a share (£40 gives you life membership) as a present.

Its home delivery service is excellent, and having recently gone online, it is already particularly well placed to compete in a crowded market. It combines reliability with giving customers what they want: regular tastings, wine storage and free home delivery for orders of £75 plus.

With traditional strengths in France and 750 wines, the Society has one of the strongest and most reliable lists in the country. Add on en primeur and other offers and this rises to some 2,000 wines at any one time. Every wine is annotated with informative tasting notes, and there are helpful mixed-case offers for dinner parties, special occasions and so on. Here I pick a Wine Society case of my own.

The Wine Society (01438 741177; memberservices@thewinesociety.com; www.thewinesociety.com)

WHITE

2002 Pouilly Fumé, Cailbourdin, £8.50. Ripe and juicy but crisp with a flinty, mineral character.

2002 Mâcon-Farges, Domaine Paul Talmard, £6.75. Unoaked white burgundy; peachily drinkable with cleansing acidity.

2001 Pouilly Fuissé, Les Ménétrières, Château de Beauregard, £18.50. Classy white burgundy whose richness and textured, nutty oak show supreme finesse.

2000 Alsace Terroirs des Châteaux Forts, Gassman, £7.95. Good value, off-dry but spritz-fresh gewürztraminer -riesling blend.

2001 The Society's Exhibition Sauternes, £14.50. From Barsac's Château Cantegril a rich, almondy delight.

The Society's Exhibition Manzanilla Pasada, £6.95. Powerful, dry white from Hidalgo with a savoury tang.

RED

1999 Volnay Vieilles Vignes, Nicolas Potel, £18. Red burgundy pinot noir in the modern, spiced oak and berry fruit vein. Needs time to settle into its stride.

2001 Swan Bay Pinot Noir, £7.95. Vibrant, aromatic Australian with indecently full-flavoured mulberry and raspberry fruitiness.

1996 Château Caronne Ste Gemme, £12.50. A ready-to-drink, nicely evolved, traditional claret.

1999 Vinsobres, Jaume, Côtes du Rhône Villages, £7.95. Peppery, robust Rhône village red with chocolatey flavours and chunky tannins.

2000 The Society's Exhibition Australian Shiraz, £10.50. Mint and pepper characters from Mount Langhi Ghiran.

1999 Terrunyo Carmenère, Peumo Valley, £12.95. Richly-flavoured, berry-fruity red with a touch of capsicum and a blade of fresh acidity.

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