Full Marks for wine foray
I think we all have a small place in our hearts for Marks & Spencer. And as an enthusiast of wine, I'm happy to admit to more than a little affection for this Great British institution.
This month, M&S is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first venture into wine. Has it really only been 40 years? For a dynamic enterprise launched by Polish refugee Michael Marks back in 1884 (he was joined by Tom Spencer 10 years later), waiting until 1973 to get into wine looks like dawdling.
Better late than never. M&S, after all, only launched into food in the 1960s. And in spite of starting a long way behind the grocery giants, it has been in the front rank of wine retailing from the word go.
Chris Murphy, who has worked at M&S for 38 years and in the wine department since 1985, looks back fondly to the early days. "The first range was a small selection of eight wines, four sherries and a few beers," he says, giving an incidental reminder that back then, sherry still represented a significant proportion of the wine market. Today, the fortified Spanish wine accounts for less than 1 per cent of total sales across the trade.
At M&S that tiny original range, all of generic wines labelled in terms such as French Dry White, and at first stocked in only 12 stores, grew steadily, closely reflecting the rising interest in Britain in proper wine.
Marks' wines were their own, and as such could be trusted. Smoking was forbidden in wineries supplying the company. It can't have gone down well with the Gitane-puffing workers of the day, though they might have been consoled to know that M&S had banned smoking in all its stores back in 1959 – an act of extraordinary prescience.
Pricing in the early days was simple. The first advertisement bore this matter-of-fact slogan: "Wines about £1 at Marks & Spencer."
It started to get serious in 1980, when that familiar, though now sadly dropped, badge of quality, the St Michael trademark, first appeared on the wines. At the same time, a new Vintage Selection range of upmarket bottles was added. Among them was a single-estate red wine from Spain's premier wine region, Rioja Marques de Romeral. Wine from that same estate is still part of the range today, and the current offering, Marques de Romeral Reserva 2007 (£11.99) is one of six wines Chris has chosen for the 40th-anniversary case of six bottles (£68.94 online at M&S), all of them very long-serving names. "They're iconic classic wines," says Chris, "our favourites and yours."
He's certainly right about the Rioja. It's a dense, dark and muscular red with the unmistakable blackcurrant and vanilla (from two years' oak contact) aroma of aged Rioja and a long, silky intense fruit. You feel it will develop for years more in the bottle, but it's already very delicious.
By the mid-1980s, M&S was selling wine in about 250 stores. Having been the first mass retailer to launch "own-label" wines, it now pioneered the informative back label, too. On each wine, you were told which grape varieties were involved. And there were suggestions of good food matches. I remember this development well – and doubting whether it would catch on.
It did. This was the era of "varietal" wines, where the name of the grape variety appeared on the label, rather than the place of its origin. And varietal wines, of course, came from mysterious places. "In the early days wines from 'The New World' were only just being talked about," says Chris, "and M&S was at the forefront of this pioneering spirit."
Chris was among the buyers who sallied forth to the southern hemisphere from 1988 in search of flavours new. One of the wines they came back with was the ancestor of the current Hunter Valley Shiraz 2012 (£9.99), another of the six wines in the anniversary mixed case. It has been supplied from the start by the Tyrell family, now headed by outspoken patriarch Bruce. As Chris puts it, "the Hunter Valley is not for the faint-hearted; its capricious climate requires skill and dedication to master." This wine, robust and spicy, also has an elegant definition of flavor and genuinely stands out from the crowd. It is, Chris says, "as much a reflection of the man as the valley".
New Zealand has also long featured. Kaituna Hills Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2012 is just the 20th successive vintage supplied to M&S by the largest Kiwi wine producer, formerly called Montana, now redesignated (can't think why) as Brancott. This is my note on the current, 2012 vintage, priced at £11.99 (also included in the anniversary case): "Utterly consistent M&S brand is again fabulous in this vintage, bright with gooseberry aromas, lush with classic meadow-grass-at-dawn Kiwi Sauvignon fruit."
I've been getting carried away with M&S wines for years. The original eight wines and four sherries have now been extended to a choice of nearly a thousand, including an outstandingly good, crisp, tangy, bone-dry Fino Sherry at £6.99. Here's to another 40 adventurous years at M&S.