Given that the British Monarchy has been much in the news of late we thought it a good time to look at another of the country’s great institutions, The Wine Society. Proclaiming itself “the world’s oldest member-owned community of wine lovers,” it was founded in 1874, and rather than having external shareholders, it is a not-for-profit co-operative. Lifetime membership costs £40 (€46) and gives access to what British wine writers regularly describe as the best value wine range in the country.
It holds long-standing relationships with some of Spain’s most respected wineries who make The Wine Society’s own label wines, including a best-selling Rioja Crianza made by Bodegas Cosme Palacio, the Society’s Exhibition Rioja Reserva made by La Rioja Alta, the Society’s Southern Spanish red from Juan Gil in DO Jumilla, an Albariño from Pazo de Señorans and a range of sherries made by Sánchez Romate.
Smaller wineries and lesser-known regions also get a look in. In September 2022, the ever-changing roster of wines included the likes of Mancuso Garnacha from Jorge Navascués in DO Cariñena, El Veneno Monastrell from Pepe Mendoza in Alicante, several Garnachas from Cuevas de Arom (Fernando Mora MW’s project in Campo de Borja) and Astobiza Txakoli as well as an en primeur offer to buy an exclusive bottling of Garnacha from Viña Zorzal in Navarra.
Much of The Wine Society’s success is down to its buying team who are among the most experienced in the trade. Since 2017, Pierre Mansour has been at the helm as director of wine, as well as having been the buyer for Spain since 2008. Half-Lebanese, Pierre studied French at University and didn’t know what he wanted to be until he fell in love with a glass of Bordeaux, Léoville Las-Cases 1982 to be specific. He was encouraged to go on a Christie’s wine course by Steven Spurrier and after working in sales at the Antique Wine Company, he became tastings manager for the now defunct Vinopolis wine museum in London before joining The Wine Society in 2000. Originally in the tasting and events team, he started buying for the USA, Australia and NZ.
We caught up over the summer to find out more about his vision of Spanish wine.
Tell me about your start as Spanish wine buyer. Did you already know Spain well at that time?
I'd only just started buying a few years before but as my role developed, the business wanted me to get more involved in an area that was commercially more significant, because Europe overall represents a much larger part of our sales. So it kind of fell into my lap but I was absolutely over the moon because I love Southern European wines.
I did know Spain quite well back then as I’d been to Spain a lot and I studied Spanish as a second language when I was at university, but not from a wine perspective apart from being a fan of Rioja. But you only become a specialist of an area or a country once you have time to get under the skin of it; I think it takes at least three years.
Obviously the wine scene has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. What changes have you seen since you started buying Spanish wine?
There's just been incredible change. I was lucky to start buying Spain at the end of the 2000s, when momentum was building and being new to the country as a buyer meant that I also was able to start with a blank sheet of paper. I would say that the overall quality standard of every style of Spanish wine has improved dramatically across the board. I think the best example of that is the revolution in the quality of white wines driven by Galicia, by Albariño, by Verdejo, showing it was possible to produce aromatic, fresh, very clean white wines in Spain.
In classic areas, Rioja has also gone through quite incredible progress over the last 20 years. The traditionalists have hung onto traditional approaches, they haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water in that respect, but on the same token, they’ve introduced styles of Rioja that are now much more reflective or come from specific sub regions, villages, even vineyards. This represents a huge change from the classic model of a bodega buying in fruit from right across the region and then ageing it very carefully and grading it accordingly. So Rioja now offers a whole range of styles of red wines.
What about Ribera del Duero? Is it still a hard sell in the UK?
I have to admit that when I took over Spain, I didn't really understand the fuss about Ribera del Duero. You would read about the endorsements being given to the region, but then I would taste the wines and they were impressive, but for me, they were just going down a route that was almost more New World in style with lots of heavy extraction, too much winemaking. I guess that was, and maybe still is, a style that the domestic market likes, but my customers are less keen on it. But in the last five years, I've really expanded what I buy from Ribera del Duero. I think they've really taken their foot off the winemaking pedal and instead, focused much more in the vineyard. So now you have wines from Ribera that have their own sense of place, their own interpretation of Tempranillo. It's not Rioja-like, the wines still have intensity and punch, but they've got this freshness and purity that I find really appealing.
What about other grape varieties and styles? What have been the key changes in recent years?
I think the key in terms of resurgent varieties is Garnacha. I adore what's happening with Garnacha and I've really followed that since I started to buy Spain. I think it's probably Spain's most exciting grape at the moment, and I love the varied interpretations of Garnacha from different regions right across Spain, whether single varietal or blended with other grapes. I think it’s just exhilarating at every price point. And sort of connected with that, but also an overarching theme is the younger generation that is going back to the basics from a vineyard perspective. So a move away from international grapes, and a move towards indigenous grapes, rediscovering older vineyards and ancient grape varieties. Even looking at opportunities, given climate change pressures and drought pressures, for vineyard sites that are north rather than south-facing. So it’s all bubbling away with excitement, and I haven’t even mentioned sherry and what’s happening there, such as En Rama, which was a relatively new thing when I started. It was my predecessor Toby who instigated the first shipment of En Rama from Gonzalez Byass. The Wine Society was the first to take that risk and now it’s become a phenomenon.
And your customers? Have they embraced the changes in the Spanish category?
I think online at the moment, we might have 70 to 80 Spanish wines, but in a year we'll sell more like 300 different Spanish wines and very much part of our approach is what we call exploration. We always provide room in our range for buyers to introduce things that might be slightly unusual, things they are backing in order to try to generate some interest. And we can do that because our members are really into drinking wine and discovering new things. In terms of what has really worked, the amount of white wine from Spain we are selling is significantly up from 15 years ago. And that growth happened quite quickly as the first thing that hit me when I started to go to Spain on my first trips was the quality of the white whites. I hadn’t expected that but I was blown away. So when I came back to the business, I said we need to give loads more room in our range to Spanish whites. And we backed them, so now Albariño, Godello and Galician blends sell particularly well. Verdejo strangely has not done as well and I think that might be because Verdejo is so similar to Sauvignon Blanc. Our members have other wine styles from around the world that can play the same role so it takes a lot for them to go to Verdejo over, say, a Loire or New Zealand Sauvignon.
And in terms of red wines?
When I started we’d find it really hard to sell any red wines that weren’t Rioja. That has really changed. We sell a lot of Garnacha from different parts of Spain, particularly from Navarra. Monastrell from Southern Spain does very well for us as well. Our Cava sales have gone up significantly, probably as a result of us introducing our own-label Cava about ten years ago. Maybe we don’t sell as much Ribera del Duero or Priorat as we could do. Priorat is interesting as our members write in and ask for Priorat, but when I put them on the list they don’t really move. I think there’s a value for money barrier there.
Overall, the mix is much greater, and not just reliant on Rioja, which is great news. I think the other thing that also helped is that when I took over in 2008, we had the recession, we saw a lot of trading down and actually what happened within the Spain section was that our members, because they were looking for inexpensive wines, would say, well instead of Rioja, I'll try this, I’ll try Navarra. And they would try things that they wouldn't normally, and then go “Wow, these are really good wines.” That helped create some momentum outside Rioja.
What are your biggest selling Spanish wines in volume and value?
In terms of bottles, it’s the Society’s Rioja Crianza – which I put together and blend with Bodegas Cosme Palacio. It is made in a traditional style so it does not reflect the style of Cosme Palacio’s own wines; it’s nothing like Glorioso, for instance. The other wine that is really flying is the inexpensive Garnacha from Viña Zorzal. They’ve made a really delicious 2020 Garnacha and it’s just a joy to drink. It’s getting lots of positive reviews on our website, which has created more demand. And in terms of value, we’re doing really well with the relatively new Lopez de Haro Riojas from Vintae. They’ve released a white Gran Reserva from the 2012 vintage and a red Gran Reserva from the 2004 vintage and they’re around 30 pounds a bottle but proving really popular given that they’re up against some of the big names.
In terms of the more esoteric wines you list, such as those of Pepe Mendoza or Fernando Mora, do you think they are bought by the consumers of more traditional styles such as Rioja or are they reaching a new sub-set of consumers?
My gut instinct is that part of their success is due to the fact that they are real characters with fantastic back-stories. And on the virtual tastings that we run for our members their personalities come through really strongly. So I think all of that helps not only appeal to the traditional Spanish wine drinkers amongst our membership, but also engages younger, newer wine drinkers because there's something about Spanish culture, Spanish food, the Spanish way of life in general, that the British really respond well to. They're technically very good winemakers, but they make our customers feel really comfortable. They have a down-to-earth, pragmatic, very practical, friendly approach, which I think resonates with the British, to be honest. It's really refreshing, and the joy in their faces when they're talking about the wines that they make is infectious.
I know The Wine Society did well during the pandemic, has this continued? Did you pick up many new customers?
Like many online businesses that do home delivery, we saw very sustained levels of high demand and we did see a significant increase in new members joining to a level that we were expecting to reach in about two years’ time. So it was a real boost for the business. This year, despite the re-opening of hospitality, we are still currently running at about 40% above pre-pandemic levels. So there's been a massive shift in our turnover, demand and level of membership and so far, the members that joined through the pandemic have stuck with us. But this year is a much more difficult year. Every wine business, every retailer would say the same: it’s going to be tough over the coming year because the cost of living crisis and also inflation pressures on the cost of wine, which means that prices are going up. It's hard, but fortunately our members are sticking with us, which is great.
Has Brexit added to these price increases or caused a lot of issues for you in terms of buying wine from Europe?
The pandemic meant the supply chain was really disrupted and then we had Brexit on top of it, which added another barrier, but that stabilized, to be honest. So, Now, the biggest cost increases we are seeing, particularly in Europe, are due to the rising costs of dry goods: glass is about 40% more expensive, paper, closures etc. Our suppliers have tried really hard to keep the costs down, but this is the first year I can remember where some of our longest-term suppliers have got in touch to say they can't sustain this anymore and are going to need to change the price mid-vintage, whereas normally they'll wait until the new vintage to change prices. We’ve accepted those cost increases because we can't have growers not making a sustainable living.
One category we haven’t talked much about is sherry. How is sherry doing?
Sherry does very well at The Wine Society as our members have quite traditional tastes and we outperform the UK market for premium Sherries. The drier styles are the most popular; we've got quite a big range of own label sherry. We have a Society Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Oloroso Dulce, a Cream Sherry… so we cover all bases. And we do the En Rama releases as well throughout the year.
In terms of future opportunities, when I was judging at Decanter on the Spanish panel some of the Spaniards that came over to participate were talking very highly about flor-aged still wines from the region. That sounds like quite an interesting direction that might be fun to look at although I haven’t tasted that many of them yet.
How do you think Spanish wine competes in terms of pricing?
Spain offers great value for money at every level. Whether under 10 pounds a bottle or at 20 or 30 pounds a bottle, you are getting amazing value for money. Think of some of the Riojas that you can buy for 25 or 30 pounds, they're releasing them for you ready to drink, not even asking you to buy them young and to store them for four or five years.
Is Spain is starting to gain a reputation as a source of fine wines?
I think it is happening with Rioja, quantities are starting to be allocated of Gran Reservas and Reservas from some of the bigger names, like Muga, Lopez de Heredia. Cvne and La Rioja Alta. The US market has really cottoned onto Rioja and it started when The Wine Spectator featured a Rioja – I think it was Cvne Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 - for the first time as its wine of the year on its front cover about ten years ago. That really opened up Rioja to that market. The next step is that we will likely see prices increasing. I think that is inevitable.
I actually think it would be really good for Spain if there were a handful of big names. Vega Sicilia is probably the one that everyone knows, and although it is beyond the price level that most of our members will pay, it does two really good things: one, it provides a bit of a guiding star for producers in Spain and two, it makes a statement to fine wine drinkers around the world that Spain is capable of seriously, top-end fine wine. It would be great for Spain to have a handful of those. I guess they'll come from Rioja because those are the brands that are really well known. Whether it's 890 Gran Reserva from La Rioja Alta or Prado Enea from Muga, they're well-established fine wines.
Do you think it will ever reach the standing of France or Italy in terms of premium wines?
In our customers’ minds, Spain is already definitely up there with France and Italy, one thing I’ve often said to the Spanish industry is that they need to be prouder about what they do. They don't realize how good they are at what they do. And that pride also comes from a focus on indigenous grapes, understanding that you don't have to be growing and making wines from international grapes to be recognized on the world wine stage. In fact, I think it works against you. Be proud of those local grapes, traditional ways of making wine with a bit of contemporary mix in there, because the results are fantastic. It's like the best Spanish food, it’s very simply made but when it's based on local ingredients, it's just unbelievable. And it's so relevant to what people want nowadays, which is this expression, whether it's food or wine, of what is unique about the country.
And what does that mean in terms of Spanish wine? What do you think Spain offers that you can't find anywhere else?
Sherry number one, it's virtually impossible to replicate in all its styles. Long-aged Rioja, simply because if you're in a part of the world where there are no wine laws - so the southern hemisphere, the New World - there is no business that is going to plant a vineyard, wait four years to make a wine and then not actually release any wine for five years, meaning they are not going to get any income for 10 years after planting the vineyards. It’s not going to happen! So Rioja’s approach with long ageing is something quite special. And the indigenous grapes: Albariño, Godello… I’m also starting to see more interest in white Rioja that's being made to reflect the old-fashioned, oxidised style. Again, that's quite unique. It's really hard to create white wine like that in other parts of the world, simply because Viura is a grape that only responds well to long ageing, and it would take a huge investment to make that style of complex and exciting savoury white wines. Those are things that are difficult for any other country to copy. And Cava as well…
What other country makes wines that you can have with every part of the meal, from an aperitif, to starter, to main, to cheese, to dessert? Rosé, sweet, dry, fortified, it’s extraordinary!
So, if you had to choose your three favourite Spanish wines to take to a desert island what would they be?
It’s not an easy choice to make, but I’d pick the Society’s Cava, made by Sumarroca. It’s not just delicious in the context of Cava, but also when you look it alongside other sparkling wines from around the world. It’s an amazing traditional method, bottle-fermented champagne style wine made using cava grapes.
White wine, I think I’d go for a Godello, probably Valdesil Sobre Lías, although I did consider a white Rioja in the old-fashioned style, because you could drink that cold on an island to refresh you, but you could also drink it at room temperature.
As for a red, I’d be traditional and go for Prado Enea Gran Reserva. And if I could pick a vintage, it would be 2001, assuming I’d get endless quantities!
But it was really hard to select just three, I’ve ditched my sherry, I’ve dismissed Garnacha, white Rioja and Albariño, which I all adore. There’s so much you could choose from! As you can tell I love Spain and Spanish wine and continue to be excited by it.
Can you sum up what you look for in the wines that you buy?
Quality, first and foremost; a wine that has lovely balance, intensity, length and complexity. Alongside that, it should be a pristine expression of the grape and the imprint of the vineyard. And finally, its taste and style should reflect what the winemaker is trying to achieve. And connected to this, I always have in mind the story. The producers that not only make great wine, but also have the ability to sell great wine, are the ones that are able to articulate their philosophy, i.e. their story, in a way that really resonates with our customers.