Wine Champions is a unique labour of love at The Wine Society, but its relatively simple concept conceals an enormous amount of work. One of the key people in our tastings is buyer Matthew Horsley, who is tasked with organising as well as participating in them. To give members a peek behind the curtain and find out a little more about what Wine Champions is, I asked him a few questions.
An alien has just parked its spaceship in Stevenage, its mission to discover more about our Society: how would you explain to them what Wine Champions is?
Gosh! OK. Earth, humans, The Society’s 1,500+ strong range of available wines can be intimidating, overwhelming and (in some cases) confusing. So we make things easy for you, by choosing the best of the best for drinking now. We do this by way of blind tastings, so that there’s total impartiality. So even extraterrestrials can be assured the bottle they choose to buy has the full backing of some of the best palates in the business.
Thanks. I can only imagine more spaceships will follow after that endorsement. What is a blind tasting, and how different it is to tasting wines under usual circumstances?
In its simplest sense, blind tasting is assessing the quality of a wine without knowing what it is, where it’s from or how much it costs. This removes any preconceptions about a particular region, producer, grape or vintage. As Society buyers, we don’t buy wine for our members based on blind tastings: while it can be a useful exercise, we’re keen to know as much about a wine as possible before making a purchasing decision for our membership. However, once a wine has already achieved our very high quality standards to be listed, Wine Champions offers a unique opportunity to level the playing field and find what we believe to be the best from across our range.
Why do you think Wine Champions has been a success for so long at The Society?
So many reasons! It helps give members a helping hand if they’re struggling to sift through a chunky range of wines, gives members full confidence to explore new wines or regions knowing they’ve been fully endorsed, and it highlights wines that are drinking now rather than need further ageing. Each wine we buy has the backing of one buyer – a specialist in that region – but Wine Champions has the collective backing of the whole team. The process throws up all manner of great stories and themes which help build great content for our membership.
It’s also something unique to The Wine Society. No other wine merchant on the planet will open and taste close to 1,000 wines from their range and suggest which small few you should buy. It’s integrity above all else, which is a core value of The Society.
Finally, from an internal point of view it also allows us as a buying team to keep an eye on our range, spot any gaps (or areas where we’re over-indexing) and share stories and thoughts on our regions and trends. All of these genuinely help us provide better value and breadth to the membership.
How are the sessions laid out and how many wines are tasted?
With approximately 1,000 wines tasted each year, we have to break them up somehow. We do this by dividing the tasting sessions into categories, based on either grape variety (such as chardonnay, pinot noir or sauvignon blanc) or style (for example sparkling, sweet/fortified or aromatic whites). Each category’s tasting will range between 50 and 90 wines.
All the wines (which are placed in blind tasting bags and have their neck capsules removed) are put into a rough tasting order, typically going up in price bracket or sweetness levels, depending on the tasting in question. The buyers will be given a blank tasting sheet that gives them the number of wines, price bracket (for example ‘1–10 are all sub-£10 chardonnay’) and (where appropriate) sweetness level.
The buyers then taste at their own speed through all the wines giving them a score out of 2:
- 0 points means the buyer does not think it is a Wine Champion.
- 1 point means it is a potential Champion.
- 2 points mean they think it is a definite Champion.
Any wine that gets a minimum of 70% of available votes is then confirmed as a Wine Champion, with any wine scoring between 50–70% being tasted again.
This repeat tasting is still blind, but this time with an open discussion between buyers, with those who scored it highly arguing for its inclusion, with those who didn’t score it justifying their reasons for doing so. Some may be pushed up into Champion status, others may be brought down. While we try to keep things friendly it can get quite heated, so onlookers are advised to keep their distance during this part! Once the discussions have finished and we’ve all hugged and made up, we have our Champions – those that have achieved the minimum score, with no exceptions!
After all the tastings have concluded (14 sessions, 959 wines and more than 250 tasting hours), it’s time to start building the campaign. Wines are ordered, copy is written, videos are produced, and booklets are designed. Approximately four months later, Wine Champions arrive on doorsteps and in boxes.
What are the price ranges of the winning wines?
Wine Champions always throws up an exciting range of wines at all prices and styles. This year we go from as low as £6.50 all the way to £56, giving members plenty to choose from. What’s even better is that, as rough price brackets are provided to buyers during the tastings, every wine that wins can genuinely be seen as great value – no matter what the price.
The tastings also throw up a number of interesting themes and stories, such as particularly strong vintages, regions, grapes or even winemaking trends. We’ve tried to highlight these where possible for a selection of fantastic mixed cases.
You’ve been involved with organising these sessions for some years: are you noticing particular trends, or does every year have its own surprises?
A bit of both. There are regions and styles that have been winning more consistently over the past two or three years (such as English sparkling, Greece and lesser-known regions of Italy and Australia), but the classics still bring smiles to our faces. The Society’s Champagne stands out every year for that extra dimension at a great price, with the Rhône, mature Bordeaux, Rioja and Burgundy always standing out as hunting grounds for exceptional wines.
In terms of styles, we certainly adhere to the ‘wine professionals who love German riesling’ trope, with complex dry sherries, fresh and elegant whites such as Vinho Verde or well-managed oaky chardonnay from cooler regions such as Limarí and Adelaide Hills really appealing in recent years. For reds, there’s definitely been a move towards the lighter and less heavily oaked styles (such as Loire cabernet franc and grenache), providing wines we see ourselves drinking more and more.
Which were your personal stars of the 2023 tasting bench?
A real highlight for me was our Exhibition English Blanc de Blancs 2018, a unanimous Champion that showed great complexity for the price. Another that I simply couldn’t believe the quality of at such a reasonable price was our Society’s LBV Port 2017 – you would genuinely struggle to differentiate this from proper Vintage Port given its richness and concentration. Other lovely surprises were the new Society’s Austrian Riesling and former Vergelegen head winemaker, Andre Van Rensberg’s new Bordeaux blend – both stonking wines!
Be still, my beating thewinesociety.com wishlist! Thanks for your time, Matthew.