150th anniversary

Vintage wines: what early Wine Society members were drinking

Our archive of old wine Lists and written histories provide a fascinating insight into what our ancestors were drinking and track the changing tastes over time. Here we take a look into the Lists spanning our first 50 years.

Vintage wines

We are fortunate to have had a leading wine expert’s perspective on our historic Lists through Edmund Penning-Rowsell’s accounts of the early days of The Wine Society. Edmund was Chairman of The Wine Society from 1964 to 1987, wine correspondent for the Financial Times, author of several books on wine and a leading authority on Bordeaux, in particular. 

And it is Bordeaux that has traditionally led the field when it comes to talk of a vintage’s reputation, this being the source of the largest quantity of fine keeping wine. But in the early days of The Wine Society, vintages were not that remarked upon. Port and Champagne were far more likely to have their vintage mentioned than the still table wines listed. Looking back through our sources, we have picked out those wines and vintages that were headline grabbers in their day and give a flavour of the wine of the time.

The days of the Belle Epoque 

In the late part of the 19th century, there was a real explosion in Champagne imports into Britain and Wine Society Lists reflected this trend. The vintage of our birth year was of particular note: a Committee report of 1877 mentions the purchase of an 1874 Brut Champagne, ‘not surpassed by any Champagnes known to fame’. It became renowned as the vintage that changed people’s views on which style of Champagne was superior: André Simon’s History of Champagne talks of ‘a magnificent vintage which settled definitively any controversy as to the relative merits of sweet and dry Champagne.’  In 2021 a single bottle of Perrier-Jouët Brut Millésimé from the lauded 1874 vintage sold for a record-breaking price of over £42 thousand for fine wine auction house Christies.

Champagne flyer
Our first piece of ‘marketing’? The promotion of a long list of Champagnes that didn’t sell as well as expected included in the 1903 List
To view a larger version of this image, open the PDF here.

The Wine Society’s oldest partnership is with Champagne house Alfred Gratien who have been supplying members with fine bubbles since 1906. Though, it was in fact a sparkling wine which we first shipped from Gratien & Meyer,  their Saumur-based business in the Loire, established in 1864, a few months before their Champagne house. At the time, the wine might well have been labelled as Champagne though!

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Crémant de Loire 2020

Chenin Blanc
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From sparkling specialists and long-term partner Gratien & Meyer's own Saumur...
Price:£14.50 Bottle
Price:£87.00 Case of 6

A new era for Port 

The Methuen Treaty of 1703 helped establish Port as the drink of choice in Britain but though it was shipped to Britain in vast quantities in the 18th century, it is believed this was fairly rough and ready stuff intended for immediate drinking. It wasn’t until the 19th century that high-quality vintage Port intended for cellaring started to appear, opening up a whole new era for Port.

1880 List Port listings
Extract from the 1880 List, our oldest surviving copy, showing our listings of Port and Portuguese wines.
To view a larger version of this image, open the PDF here.

The first vintage Port to appear in the 1879 List was Quinta da Noval 1873, subsequently described as the last of the pre-phylloxera years (the vine louse which destroyed much of Europe’s vineyards) and a single-quinta Port that wine lovers know and love well today. This stood out from the long list of Ports available at the time, not just for having the vintage referenced but for stating its origins; rarely were shippers’ or producers’ names mentioned in the Lists. By the time of the 1914 List there was a trailer for the 1912 vintage Ports, which could be viewed as our first en primeur offer. The 1912 vintage, declared by most Port houses, was seen as the last great classic vintage of this period.

Extract from the 1914 List with a trailer for 1912 vintage Ports which could be seen as our first ‘en primeur offer
Extract from the 1914 List with a trailer for 1912 vintage Ports which could be seen as our first ‘en primeur’ offer
To view a larger version of this image, open the PDF here.

As Port featured so predominantly in our early Lists we just had to commission a special bottling for our limited-edition Generation Series range which pays homage to this era. We turned to Quinta do Vale Meão, producers of our Exhibition Douro red, and an estate whose history is so inextricably linked to that of Port production, to craft this wine especially for us.

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Reserve Port

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A vivid and refined young wine, its floral bouquet marked by purity and fresh...
Price:£20.00 Bottle
Price:£120.00 Case of 6

Bordeaux, but not as we know it

Old engraving of Château Lafite
Old engraving of Château Lafite

As for Bordeaux, which has come to predominate perceptions of vintages in modern times, only a minority of those appearing in early Lists bore château names and often these were non-vintage wines. In the 1884 List, for example, out of 24 clarets listed only ten were château wines. There were sometimes brief descriptions – Château Latour 1875, for example, which although described at the time as ‘a wonderful light year’, went on to last 50 years or more! We can only speculate as to whether this underestimation of the keeping-quality of the vintage had more to do with scarcity of wine following the devastation of European vineyards in the 1880s by the phylloxera vine louse.

Lack of wine due to the dual ravages of the vine louse phylloxera and oidium, a powdery mildew which swept through the vines, resulted in few older vintages appearing on the Lists. But in the 1900 List, Château Mouton Rothschild made its first appearance with the 1895 vintage. The history books tell us this was the year when winemakers first learnt to deal with late heat and drought conditions, cooling down the fermentation vats with ice brought in from the city of Bordeaux, for those estates that could afford it. According to Michael Broadbent, (cited in Neal Martin’s excellent book The Complete Bordeaux Vintage Guide), this was a technique recommended by  Professor Ulysse Gayon, a friend of Louis Pasteur, who was resident at Lafite Rothschild at the time. 

A star of Bordeaux’s right bank, Château Pétrus also made its first appearance on our List at this time with the 1893 vintage, described as an extraordinary year, and was offered at 2s 7d a bottle.

1897 List Pétrus
1897 Bordeaux listings

A curiosity of the 1914 List was the appearance of second growth claret producer Château Ducru-Beaucaillou as a sparkling white Médoc, described as, ‘most interesting light wine where Champagne is inadvisable’.

The first release of our special Generation Series would not be complete without a claret, the wine so consistently loved by Wine Society members throughout the ages, so we asked one of our most popular châteaux to come up with a unique bottle for our members and Château Beaumont did not disappoint!

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Haut-Médoc 2019

Cabernet Sauvignon
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A silky smooth blend of 55% cabernet sauvignon and 45% merlot from the superb...
Price:£14.95 Bottle
Price:£179.00 Case of 12

Hock at its heights

In Victorian times good German wines, and those from the Rheingau and Franken in particular, were extremely popular. Notable that the first wine bought by The Society, a medium-dry white from Bucellas, was described as ‘Portuguese Hock’. Despite this, our early wine Lists contained very few vintage or single-vineyard German wines. For example, on the 1900 List, there wasn’t a single wine from the 1893 vintage, widely regarded as one of the best of the 19th century. The same List only had one single-vineyard wine Berncastler Doctor 1889 (at 3s 9d a bottle). By the time of the 1914 List, however, Germany was much better presented and was even the most expensive wine on the List, Scharzhofberger Auslese 1907 (at 68 shillings a dozen).

In 1917 all German wine was ‘patriotically disposed of’ only making a reappearance on the 1923 List with the 1921 vintage, described by Michael Broadbent in Vintage Wines as ‘the greatest vintage of the century. Small crop of extremely ripe, healthy grapes picked early after a scorching summer. Exceptionally rich wines.’ 

The vintage (2021) chosen for our Generation Series bottling was also an extraordinary one, as is its origins. We worked with top estate Bürklin-Wolf to produce a riesling exclusively for us from two Wachenheim vineyards, something this 400-year-old estate isn’t in the habit of doing!

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Wachenheimer Riesling 2021

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This riesling to celebrate our anniversary is a blend of two Wachenheimer vin...
Price:£19.00 Bottle
Price:£228.00 Case of 12

Burgundy – ‘frankly uninteresting to modern eyes’ 

This was how Edmund Penning-Rowsell described the listings of Burgundy in his brief history of our first 90 years. Though Burgundy is now the home of some of the world’s most highly sought-after wines, it wasn’t always so. Victorian and Edwardian wine drinkers didn’t appreciate it as much as Bordeaux as a vintage wine for cellaring and the early Lists reflect this. Like the German listings, there were few vintage or single-vineyard wines, perhaps also because Burgundy was dominated by merchants and négociants.  The region was also hit by phylloxera later than Bordeaux. Even by the 1900 List the most expensive wine was a non-vintage Pommard (at 4s 3d) followed by an 1889 Volnay (at 4s 1d). As Burgundy wasn’t traditionally cellared to the same extent as Bordeaux, fewer records exist citing the merits of these early vintages. We know from buyer Tim Sykes’ piece on historical pricing that cru Burgundy was only a little more expensive than cru Beaujolais at the time: ‘In 1889 we were charging 19 shillings (£0.95) for a dozen bottles of simple Beaujolais while Beaune was marginally more expensive at 20 shillings’ 

White Burgundy, then as now was clearly a popular wine, though for many years was just listed as ‘Chablis’ offered at varying quality levels with the lowest of these referred to as ‘Pouilly’! 

Along with claret, white Burgundy has been a constant love of Wine Society members, our own Society-range bottlings vying for top place in members’ hearts over the years. So, of course, we had to commission a special Generation Series white Burgundy to celebrate our history and who better to do this than the people behind our Society’s Mâcon-Villages? Challenged with coming up with something even more special than our best-loved white, the team at Jacques Dépagneux switched up a gear, pulling in some great blending material from some top terroirs for this one-off wine.

The Wine Society’s Generation Series Mâcon-Villages 2022

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This is an attractive and complex blend of different Mâcon villages with 8% o...
Price:£16.50 Bottle
Price:£198.00 Case of 12

Going further afield

True to its original mission ‘To Introduce Other Foreign Wines Hitherto Unknown’, the early Lists did go further afield than one might expect. In the 1880 List for example, there were already half a dozen Australian wines, five from Greece and four from Hungary. 

Perhaps due to the dearth of European wines as a result of the ravages of phylloxera and oidium, there were wines from further afield too. The 1890 List had a California zinfandel and ‘hock’, and these were vintage wines too, both 1885s from Fountain Grove Vineyards, Santa Rosa.

California Fountaingrove Mountain Zinfandel
An advert for Fountaingrove Mountain Zinfandel, extolling its many virtues, by Winterschladen, a chain of off licences in the North East
To view a larger version of this image, open the PDF here.

In 1883 a Mount Lebanon wine came in for high praise from the Committee, then in 1885 we saw the first ‘Cape of Good Hope’ wine, Klein Constantia Drakenstein. The same year saw a first wine from Asia Minor, known as ‘Boujas’. It was made from the sultana grape and described as ‘a white wine of strong body’, which became a popular, regularly listed wine. Supply was interrupted by the Turco-Greek conflict, but the wine was clearly fairly robust for a white, as in the 1900 List the 1889 vintage was still listed! 

After the First World War there were few vintage wines left on the List for members to enjoy. War and disease had taken their toll on the vineyards and winemakers of Europe. The Committee minuted that they would look to stock more ‘Empire’ wines to bridge the gap. This demand for wine no doubt helped to accelerate the transition from fortified wines to still wines in those colonies where Europeans migrated to, though strong wines were undoubtedly better able to withstand the long sea crossings. 

The inter-war period was a boom time for The Wine Society and it saw a surge in membership. Those European vineyards that survived the war and phylloxera were coming back to life with increased knowledge of vineyard management, leading to better-quality wines. The world of wine would see a transformation with wine consumers also becoming more sophisticated and wine a more democratic product. 

>> Explore our Generation Series wines chosen to represent this era of our history

Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

The Generation Series 1 – 1874 to 1924

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