Marks & Spencer has come a long way from its first handful of wines, writes Christine Austin.
The first TV advert for M&S wine ran under the tagline “Good wine from Marks and Sparks, at around £1 a bottle” and launched a small range of eight wines and four sherries back in the early 1970s. At a time when the nation’s favourite chain store was more famous for its woolly jumpers and underwear, this was a brave step, but 40 years on, at the press tasting last week the wine department was in celebratory mood. With a birthday cake in the shape of a champagne bottle, a collection of old bottles from years gone by and a timeline showing the development of the range over the decades it was a time to review just how much progress had been made.
Now there are 1,000 wines in the range, from all corners of the wine world and this year Marks & Spencer picked up the International Wine Challenge award of Supermarket of the Year. Clearly those early days of wine buying set M&S on the right track.
At this point I must declare an interest, because while I wasn’t there at the start, I did spend several years in the wine buying office of Marks & Spencer when it was housed in its grand offices in Baker Street. I arrived straight from university with a science degree and then spent several years learning about wine, travelling around various wine regions and visiting suppliers. It was my job to make new blends and to work with suppliers to keep quality high. By then the range had expanded considerably but was nowhere near today’s comprehensive selection.
But the process of selecting a wine that was destined to carry the M&S brand seems to have remained pretty much the same over the years. The wine buyers in the M&S team have never sat in their offices waiting for samples to come in. They get out into the regions, taste through the tanks and create their own blends to suit their customers. They don’t just accept the way that things have always been done, they search for new ways to bring fresher, better flavours to the range. All those years ago I was sent off to a German wine university to convert my knowledge of food science into wine science so that I could blend wines and talk competently with wine producers. These days, with winemaking courses rather more readily available, M&S employ several trained winemakers so they can bring the latest developments into selecting the range.
At the latest tasting Marks & Spencer lined up the freshest vintages and newest additions for the assembled press. First into my glass was a range from Eastern Europe which was the result of a 10-day trip around Macedonia, Turkey, Israel and Georgia by M&S winemaker Jeneve Williams and Fine Wine buyer Emma Dawson. They have selected reds and whites from all kinds of indigenous grapes, bringing a completely new set of flavours to the shelves of your local M&S.
There is a deep-coloured blackberry and cherry flavoured Saperavi from Ch Mukhrani 2012 in Georgia (£9.49); a sturdy Vranac and Merlot blend from Macedonia (Tikves Vranac 2012, £8.99) and a bright, juicy Sevilen Öküzgözü (£9.99) from Turkey. Among the whites there is a crisp, aromatic, stone-fruit and minerals Tikves Smederervka and Rkaciteli 2012 blend from Macedonia (£6.99); an aromatic, silky textured Thymiopoulos Malagouzia 2012 (£8.99) from Greece and a most unusual 100 per cent Rkatsiteli wine from Georgia which has been partially fermented in traditional clay pots sunk into the ground. Tbilvino Quevris 2011 (£8.99) has light citrus flavours with herbal and slightly oxidised notes.
To be honest I don’t expect all 12 Eastern European wines to be still on the shelves next year, but this is one of the joys of M&S. They have searched out and sourced a range of well-made, distinctly different wines and will see if their customers like them. If they sell they will stay in the range but if they don’t they will quietly fade away, to be replaced by other new additions.
Other new wines have come from slightly more conventional sources, and I was delighted to taste through the newly expanded South African selection. New on the shelves is a pair of wines from Marc Kent, winemaker at Boekenhoutskloof who has produced a super-zesty, apple-peel and blackcurrant leaf style of Helderberg Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (£9.99) and a rounded, structured, cassis-soaked Helderberg Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (£9.99). Both have depth, concentration and style.
I also liked Charles Back Stonedance Roussanne 2013 (£9.99) for its broad honeysuckle and apricot notes with toasted hazelnuts on the finish. This is a great wine to accompany roast pork or partridge.
With a soft, elegant Pinot Noir 2013 and an aromatic, citrus and minerally Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (both £11.99) from the cool, blustery region of Elgin, sourced from the Paul Cluver Estate, the South African range is a good place to start looking for some bright, fresh flavours.
Rather more traditional but equally well-sourced is the newly expanded Fine Wine range which brings wines such as the smoky, figgy, delicate flavours of Aldo Vajra’s Barolo 2009 (£36); the delicious, ripe, concentrated, polished dark cherry fruit of Finca Villacreces 2008 Ribera del Duero (£31) and a pair of wines, bought in the Hospices de Beaune auction.
The savoury oatmeal and white stone-fruit elegance of Saint-Romain 2011 and the silky, spice-edged strawberry fruit of Volnay 2012 (both £35) are a joy to find on the shelves of M&S.
Forty years on, Marks & Spencer has come a long way from that first handful of wines which were advertised at “around £1”.
Happy Birthday M&S, and here’s to the next 40 years.