Since its foundng in 1874, The Wine Society has become one of the most respected wine merchants in the world; renowned for the quality of its wines and service. Given its heritage and its co-operative ‘members own the business’ model, one could be forgiven for thinking its list would be somwehat old-fashioned. A list overwhelmingly populated by old world wines with an Australian collection that would be small and classically-focused. Yes, you’d expect to see wines from the Barossa Valley and Coonawarra, but look for something from a cool climate region such as Tasmania or an alternative Australian varietal wine and your hopes of success may not be high.
Happily this is not the case. The Society have been proud promoters of Australian wine for many years and innovation and a willingness to explore the nation’s bounty has always abounded. A quick look at their website shows they offer nearly 80 Australian wines online, ones that include everything from (a frankly superb) The Society’s Exhibition Tasmanian Chardonnay to Blind Spot Barbera by way of Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley. And with a range of wines that run from £5.50 up to around £400 a bottle, they really do offer something for everyone.
To gain some insight into The Wine Society’s attitude toward all things Australian, Wine Australia recently caught up with their Australian Wine Buyer, Sarah Knowles MW, to get her take on things.
How strong is demand for Australian wine from Society buyers?
Members enjoy our Australian range of wines, with the category seeing moderate growth over the last 5 years.
Are you seeing any trends in terms of grapes/styles of wine?
The classic grapes remain popular with Shiraz and Chardonnay leading the pack, but Pinot Noir, Riesling, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and increasingly Iberian blends are popular too.
Are customers willing to pay more for Australian wine?
The fluctuation in exchange rates over the last few years, coupled with our determination to work with smaller producers, mean that Australian wines have increased in price generally. The wines The Wine Society stock from Australia, however, still offer great value, and are rigorously checked against other suppliers within Australia and compared blind to other wines of similar styles from around the world to make sure that those we choose to work with offer great value, allowing members confidence at any price point.
Do you think Australian wine still offers value at all price points?
At The Wine Society yes, although there is less choice than there used to be under £7. For me Australian wine offers exceptional value between £15-25 where you can really try some very fine wines, at approachable prices.
You have an Exhibition Tasmanian Chardonnay – was that created in response to demand or was it simply a reflection of the quality of the wines of the region?
It was selected by Pierre Mansour when he was responsible for Australia over a decade ago purely on taste. The wine had (and still has) great elegance with complexity, balance and freshness – attributes we always look for in wines. It is a cool climate style of Chardonnay with huge charm and shows the consistency of the buying team’s taste at The Wine Society. It has also always been received well by members who have supported the wine’s listing since conception.
Chardonnay: The Making of an Australian Legend
Can you foresee any other new Australian Exhibition wines being added to the list – if so from where? One from Adelaide Hills, perhaps?
I am looking at a Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon – it won’t be new-new as we have had one in the past, but I think that Coonawarra really is an incredible region for fine wines and great value at the moment.
I am also looking at a new Society label Semillon from the Hunter Valley as I think the modern fresh young low alcohol style of Semillon is delicious and likely to be popular with our members.
The Society have a history of innovation when it comes to Australian wine – what would you say is set to be the next big thing?
Many of the winemakers we work closely with are starting to do less – less oak, less manipulation, less blending etc. I think there is a realisation that, as the vineyards show maturity, the quality of the grapes, if picked at the right time, are so good that careful winemakers can let that shine through.
Which producers are exciting you at the moment?
We work closely with Mac Forbes and he maintains his awesome reputation as a great ‘man-on-the-ground’ not only as an innovative winemaker, but he is also in touch with the bigger picture of what’s on-trend across Australia.
Mac Forbes - Australian Wine’s Deep Sub (Regional) Mariner
I also love hearing from established winemakers like Steve Pannell, Chester Osborn, Peter Gago, Vanya Cullen, Louisa Rose, Andrew Spinaze, David LeMire MW … the list goes on! There are some super, young winemakers coming onto the scene in Australia but there is a great depth of knowledge about too.
Has your Australian list changed over the last decade? If so, how has it changed?
The Wine Society has always had a broad and representative list of Australian wines, and this hasn’t changed. Certain producers have come and gone, but usually on a cycle – as we enjoy long-term relationships with many winemakers.
Sub-regionality has become more prominent over the last 10 years, as has specific indication of oak use – so that it is clear to members who either love or loathe oak.
If you were on a desert island, which Australian wine would you choose as your luxury?
Pirie Brut NV, as the choice of still wines is too tough and in the heat on a beach an unlimited supply of Tassie bubbles would make it feel like a holiday!
Thank you, Sarah.
Australian wine in the UK: A maturing scene
Many of the points Sarah touched upon – the rise in the popularity of Iberian or ‘alternative’ varieties, the often-superb value of fine Australian wines in the £15 - £25 range, and the bevvy of exciting new winemakers coming on to the scene – are ones we have heard over and over from other quality-focused merchants in recent years.
Such sentiments are concrete evidence that the changes that have swept across the industry in terms of premiumisation, producing lighter, less oaky, food-friendly wines are finding receptive audiences. For some time now many industry professionals – be they critics, journalists or sommeliers - have been talking about the revolution in Australian wine and it’s now apparent that, that revolution is an unstoppable benign force.
With the continued support of forward-thinking merchants like The Wine Society, this changing market place can grow and develop to the benefit of producers, merchants and consumers alike.
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