Wines on the brink of war: 100 years ago at The Society

1914 List In our 140th year we have been looking back at our wine Lists, the theme of the new April List. As this year also marks the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, Sebastian Payne MW reflects on our 1914 List.

There were 108 new members elected to The Wine Society in 1914. The dominant profession was medicine, not surprising since The Society's offices were in the headquarters of The Medical Society of London in Chandos Street.

There was a fair mix of other occupations as well and two names most would recognise today, HG Wells and John Galsworthy, both of whom joined just before the war. Membership recruitment remained steady the next year but had dropped to 36 by 1919, and did not pick up again until 1921, coinciding with a great vintage all over Europe.

The Wine Society's December 1914 List

On the List, port took pride of place with 34 entries, and in addition there was a trailer for the 1912 vintage, which could be seen as The Wine Society's first en primeur offer. The Society had been founded on the back of a consignment of Portuguese wine left over after the Exhibition of 1874, successor to the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Bordeaux list was topped by Montrose 1900, 'a very fine soft wine' and Yquem 1901 ('fine bouquets luscious') at 60 shillings a dozen.

Intriguingly, Château Ducru Beaucaillou appeared as a sparkling white Médoc, 'a most interesting light wine where Champagne is inadvisable'. Ducru's current owner, Bruno Borie, is clearly missing a sales opportunity.

Burgundies, apparently 'possess(ing) more tannin and body than found in claret' – and so almost certainly bolstered with something from further south – went back to Corton 1898.

View a PDF of the 1914 list

Germany well represented

In 1914 Germany was very well represented and included the most expensive wine on the list, Scharzhofberger Auslese 1907 at 68 shillings a dozen. There were a couple of Hungarian wines, which survived the cull of all German wines from this list later in the war. Outside Portugal and France the list had just Chianti and Capri Bianco from Italy, three Australians, five California wines, Grand Canary and a good list of whiskies, brandy and liqueurs. By 1918 the wine list had been much reduced, apart from a long and impressive list of vintage ports. Liqueurs and aperitifs had grown. German wines came back in time for the great 1921 vintage in 1923.

The back pages pictured The Society's cellars in Hills Place, under the Palladium, including the photograph of one of the nine corridors in The Society's 'Bin cellars' (as opposed to Barrel cellar) which adorned the cover of our recent January 2014 List.

Wartime Lists

At the beginning of Lists current during the First World War was a short history of The Wine Society and 'Notes on Wine', explaining how it was made and what to expect, stressing the importance of proper cellar accommodation. 'The modern imperious demand for non-basement villas, maisonettes and flats has sadly curtailed the accommodation for storing wines and spirits, while such as is vouched for by the builder is too often of the hole-and-corner type, and liable to great variations of temperature', the writer complained, perhaps foreseeing the creation of our temperature-controlled Members' Reserves cellars. The recommended 'Order of Serving Wine' gives a flavour of the times:

  • Sherry – As an appetiser and with soup
  • Hock, Moselle or light Sauternes– With fish
  • Sparkling white or still red wines– With various meats
  • Sauternes or sherry – With sweet
  • Fine Cognac or Liqueur – After savoury
  • Fine old bottle claret or vintage port– With dessert

The newly published April-July List celebrates the rich tradition of using design and artwork on the cover of our Lists which really took off in the 1960s. Visit our website to view a gallery of previous List covers and to see some extracts from the 1914 List: thewinesociety.com/oldlists

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