The buyers at one of the UK’s favourite wine merchants, The Wine Society, have put together their ‘Wine Champions 2023’, selected through a series of blind tastings. Ben Franks has rounded up all the Society’s own label red wines with the new Champion status – with six making the cut – to see which ones you should buy.
In The Wine Society’s Champions 2023 list, 71 bottles of red wine received the minimum 70% available points from their own buyers to be crowned Champion. From those 71 bottles, 6 were from the Society’s own label range.
Those 6 bottles were: 2021 The Society’s Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo and 2020 The Society’s Exhibition Langhe Nebbiolo from Italy, 2022 The Society’s Argentine Malbec and 2021 The Society’s Exhibition Mendoza Malbec from Argentina, 2019 The Society’s Rioja Crianza from Spain, and just one entry from France: 2022 The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages. For context, The Wine Society has 32 labels under their entry own brand label across all formats, and 31 in their Exhibition label range. I don’t know whether all of these were collated in the blind tasting series, but given just 6 bottles from The Society’s range made the Champions list, I am expecting some superb value for money wines in this line-up.
Let’s dive in.
I am a really big fan of Gamay as a variety. My favourite example is still the Haywire White Label series from Okanagan Crush Pad winery in Canada, but I do enjoy the Gamay from Loire and the New World as well. When it comes to Gamay’s home, the Beaujolais region in the south-east, I have a love-hate relationship with the wines. The boom in natural winemaking in Beaujolais has led to innovation but stark bottle variation, with some wines blowing me over but others – even from the same label and vintage – tasting sour and disjointed. I love a great deal of Beaujolais, but I’ve frowned often at it too. Yet still it is one of my first options in any restaurant.
Now I never like to start with a dud, and I am sure the Wine Soc buyers had a better bottle when they picked their own label as a champion. It wasn’t the case when I tried the Society’s 2022 Beaujolais-Villages. The wine was confected and stalky, with a mix of blueberry and cherry. Normally a savoury bite to a Beaujolais is welcomed, especially when there’s good fruit, but the wine was disjointed with prickly and aggressive tannins. For me it didn’t quite make a BFWR Star, but for £10.50 it is not the worst buy, there’s just better Beaujolais out there.
Luckily, all 5 of the other 6 wines that made the Champions list of The Wine Society own label reds were much better, with a few great picks.
The Wine Society’s Malbecs
Let’s start with the pricier of the two Malbecs under The Wine Society’s own labels, their Exhibition labelling, which has an extra year of maturity and comes from the well-known Catena winery. It comes in at £12.50, £3.55 more expensive than the standard own label.
Immediately the wine’s very dark with a ruby glint. Aromas of blackberry, raspberry, a soy-like umami, pepper and vanilla oak make the nose complex but not overly alluring. On the palate, the wine’s spicy, bold, grippy and meaty with opulent blackcurrant, dark chocolate, plum stone and belt leather notes. The finish is loaded with creamy vanilla, liquorice and herby notes of sage. It’s drier than I had expected but, if nothing else, the wine’s layered and long in the mouth. It is interesting. I always find that’s a loaded compliment.
For me, this Malbec needs food. It’s a hark back to the days when Malbec was raw and deep, pairing beautifully with steak or a good, strong cheese. It is not the quaffing Malbec we’ve come to love. Nevertheless the wine is good and balanced, and those looking to trade up with the Soc’s own brand will notice the difference. Good ★
At £8.95, 2022 The Society’s Argentine Malbec is a winner. This wine nails exactly what you’d expect a modern Malbec to deliver.
Vibrantly youthful with a deep inky purple colour. Nose of fresh blackcurrants, cooked blackberries, star anise, dried plum and strawberry jam. Full, sweet and spicy with well integrated alcohol warmth and surprising freshness. It’s doubtlessly a fruit bomb but, let’s be honest, that’s why you’d buy it. Superbly satisfying with zero posturing. ★★ Great Wine
I sipped this Malbec over three days and there was no loss of fruit. It was as block-bold as when I’d first poured it out the bottle. The fruit has been managed expertly well by producer Dominio del Plata, owned by one of Argentina’s most celebrated proprietors and producers, Susana Balbo, who graduated with an Oenology degree in 1981 becoming the first woman in Argentina to do so. Her winery is based in Agrelo and the vines are managed by the talented Pedro Marchevsky.
That wine’s a must buy!
The Italian champions
Purplish-red at the lip, the 2021 The Society’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo leads with aromas of red cherries, liquorice, leather and savoury vanilla. There’s also something lightly tangy, like redcurrants, on the nose. Slightly savoury on the palate with soft acidity and a medium body. It has some plummy tones and a little tannin at the fore. A nice entry level example of Montepulciano. Good ★
I loved this wine, but if you go on the Society’s website you’ll see a flight of reviews complaining about a fizz to the wine. I didn’t have any petillance so maybe a refermentation occured for some of the batch, which is a shame, because this was a good example of Montepulciano. It’s made by the mega co-op Casa Vinicola Roxan, who manage 1,000 hectares of vines. That explains how the Society can list it at the highly competitive £7.95 tag, making it a steal.
When it comes to Nebbiolo, I’m a big fan. I have had some wonderful, and great value, Langhe Nebbiolo wines in the past as well. In a way that makes it challenging as my expectations for this wine were inherently high. I wanted it to be good.
At £14.50 it’s the highest of the own label reds that made the Champions cut, but it’s a very reasonable price for good Nebbiolo.
I wasn’t wholly enamoured at first, the wine felt closed off and less fragrant than Nebbiolo can be. It also felt a bit one dimensional on the palate. Once I’d given it a few hours, and especially revisiting it the next day, the wine came into its own. Bold and packed with cherry over gently coarse tannins, the wine had also opened up with that familiar rose-like aroma. There’s depth, layers and character in the wine, all of which made it memorable. Good ★
Now I really enjoy Rioja wines; it’s mainly nostalgic, as the style is easily one of my parents’ favourites and I tasted a fair few when I was a young adult. At my first London Wine Fair event, I tasted hundreds of Riojas and filled my Vivino account with them. If you manage to find me on that app today you’ll still find most of my reviews are on Rioja wines.
The Society’s Rioja Crianza is only £8.50. You’d be hard pressed to find a decent wine for that pricing nowadays. It is made by Bodegas Palacio, who are located in the heart of the Rioja Alavesa and source their fruit from 255 hectares of growers. It is a de facto Tempranillo specialist, focusing on that grape for red and Viura for its whites. The Society’s Rioja is dense, jammy and almost thick. If you’re looking for big and bold, gluggable Rioja it’s going to tick the boxes, especially for the price. For me, the oak was laden and messy (despite being a Crianza and only having a year in barrel), but it was saved by the soft and opulent fruit character and gentle spice. It’s a good wine, provided you know what you’re after. Good ★
As always, The Wine Society is a winner for good quality wines at great value
While none of the Champion own label reds are going to get me giddy, the thing that holds true with all of them is you get a lot of good wine for your money. The Wine Society’s buyers nail one thing beyond a doubt: typicity. If you’re looking for a Rioja, Nebbiolo or Malbec, you probably know why you want one, and The Wine Society will deliver. If you’re after a wine that’s going to do something more, I still think a specialist indie is the way to go.
Have you tried these wines from The Wine Society? What do you think?