GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: Little ole' winemaker me
Marks & Spencer is a bit different from most of the high street chains which sell wine. It doesn t do brands, even on a limited scale. It wants exclusive wines – and that doesn t simply mean an own label on the bottle. So it employs wine-makers, rather
Marks & Spencer is a bit different from most of the high street chains which sell wine. It doesn't "do" brands, even on a limited scale. It wants exclusive wines - and that doesn't simply mean an own label on the bottle. So it employs wine-makers, rather than buyers who choose from finished tanks or tweak a near-completed blend.
The three of them - Jo Ahearne, Sue Daniels and Gerd Stepp - get their hands dirty in vineyard and cellar, and they enthusiastically initiate brand-new projects which can have an impact way beyond M&S shelves. Ahearne's championing of rare Italian white grape varieties is one example.
For this summer's range, a particular focus has been on two areas of southern France. One project is with a little-known cooperative winery in Roussillon, in the hills north-east of Perpignan. It had fallen on fairly hard times, with many members accepting EU subsidies to grub up their vines. But it's just along the valley from Domaine Matassa, where Tom Lubbe and Sam Harrop (Harrop is an ex-M&S winemaker) are making pretty special wines.
Stepp met the forward-looking new director of the Vignerons du Chateau de Calce, was given access to the best of the old, low-cropping vines and a free hand in the cellar - and the result is Los Orris Rouge and Blanc 2007 (both £8).
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The red, fifty-fifty carignan and grenache noir, is immediately appealing, stylish and long. The fruit is ripe and pure with a touch of spice on the finish, there's a light minerality, soft tannins and a freshness which makes it a lovely summer wine - don't serve it too warm.
The white, from grenaches gris and blanc and carignan blanc, is unusual - there's an earthy, mineral element in both scent and taste. The flavours are fascinating, evolving as you sip, and the finish is long and perfumed. Try both and you'll begin to understand why serious wine people are so excited by this area.
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Project number two is set in the Rhone valley, where Stepp has been working with Pierre Perrin of Perrin and Fils, highly respected in the area. GSM Cotes du Rhone 2006 (£8) was designed, in Stepp's description, "to challenge Australia with what the Rhone has been doing for ever".
GSM stands, as it does at the other end of the wine world, for grenache, syrah and mourvedre, blended in equal quantities to produce a deeply-coloured, richly-scented wine, with concentrated, perfumed fruit and a firm yet smooth tannic background - a fine expression of the region and excellent value.
Stepp couldn't resist going further, however, to add a big brother, Cotes du Rhone Nord Sud 2006 (£16). He persuaded Perrin to blend across the region, using syrah from Crozes in the north and grenache from Chateauneuf du Pape much further south. Intense and classy, it is a powerful, serious wine.
There are pleasures (and stories) all through the M&S range, but there isn't room to recommend as many as I'd like. These, though, are some favourites.
Whites: Collioure 2006, France, £10; Alto Adige pinot bianco 2007, Italy, £10, Sauvignon de Saint Bris 2007, France, £8; Margaret River semillon-sauvignon blanc 2007, Australia, £8; Vinha da Urze 2007, Portugal, £8.
Reds: Clos du Pioch 2006, France, £8; Vina Ulmo cabernet sauvignon 2007, Chile, £3.80, Dominio de Plata cabernet sauvignon 2006, Argentina, £7.50; L'Aigle pinot noir 2006, France, £8; Paladin cabernet-tempranillo, 2007, Spain, £6.