New Wines from M&S

Attended the Marks & Spencer tasting of their latest offerings, here are my notes.

The tasting took place in the cellar of WHPR/Ogilvy & Mather building in Ely Place.

Some of the whites were too chilled, some of the reds a tad soupy but otherwise the event was really well organised – spittoons, clipboards with a catalogue, logical order (mostly), loads of space and a fair bit of cunus (certainly for the early arrivals) – other organisers please take note. Kudos to Claire Guiney from WHPR who organised matters and got Ireland’s top brass tasters there without needing to promise a gourmet lunch. I could get fond of the M&S crisps, though.

At the outset I got genuinely excited over the sparklers when I thought I’d unearthed a quite decent Champagne for €17.49. Alas, the price was a misprint, but **Louis Chaury‘s blend of 40% PN/30 Chard/30PM was still great value for the, corrected, €21.50 – this has got to be one of the better budget Champagnes around.

***St.Gall Vintage Grand Cru 2002 did cost €44 but it’s stunning and worth every penny for its bravura flavours.

On to the whites and an interesting dry *2008 Pedro Ximenez from class act Alvaro Espinoza in Chile’s Elqui Valley. Unoaked, clean party wine, different and distinctive.

A couple of Chardonnays from Argentina demonstrated differing characteristics. The €6.99 Vinalta 2008 was drinkable, commendably bereft of tinned fruit and good value. The Fragoso 2006, €9.99 had some weird dark notes that spoilt the enjoyment a bit, at least for this critic. Both were preferable to the oaked Altos del Condor 2008 (winemaker with the discouraging name of Daniel Pi); described on the back label as as ‘expertly blended by Marks & Spencer’, it wasn’t that expert.

Perhaps the nicest of the budget whites was a **Gavi, Quatro Sei 2008 (€9.99). Clean, smart, modern winemaking of the highest order, I’d definitely buy this for summer drinking.

Abruzzo deserves our support at the minute but that’s far from the only reason to pick this €15.99 white. Rocco Pasettti of Contesa’s **Pecorino 2007 was, despite the name, in no way cheesy. Lemon and apple fruit in abundance, smoothed out by a touch of malo, an immensely interesting change from the usual suspects.

I wouldn’t have guessed the origin of the unoaked **2008 Macon Village from George Brisson in a blind tasting, it seemed more laid back and ‘northerly’. I actually preferred it to its neighbour, a €15.99 Chablis.

A couple of quite savvy and very different NZSBs. *Seifreid 2008 €12.49 could have been re-christened ‘Siegfried’ with its savage attack, my sort of Sauvignon Blanc, racy and mineral. *Flaxbourne 2008 €13.49 gave you some elegance and restraint for your extra euro, in the end it all comes down to what you prefer.

On to Oz, where we kicked off with M&S’s own Chardy 2008, nabbed from Brian Walsh of Yalumba where they know about these things. A quaffer, buckets of tinned fruit, but what could you demand for €6.49? The **Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2008, very traditional, up to 4 months on less then six in real French barrels produced a relaxed yet flavoursome, lean, clean €12.49’s worth. Might buy Her Indoors some of this, it’s right up her street.

The Las Falleras Rosé 2008 €6.49 was well bubblegumesque. *Le Froglet (is this ‘Franglais or what?) at €7.99 was rather better, fresh, bright and clean.

The VDP Ardeche Gamay 2008 cried out for food; the South African Maara Shiraz 2008 was slabby and slightly mucky; I don’t do Pinotage – all I can say is that the Houdamond, at €13.99 won’t attract many admirers, other than those who like the smell of burning rubber I can’t help attributing to this grape. Okay, Houdamond is well made and it’s bush vines and oak barrels (American) but, in the end, it’s still a bit Formula One.

Fellow taster Martin (Moran) asked me “Why does this cost €35?”. All I could say was “That’s what a single-estate Rioja Reserva from a reputed producer in a good vintage fetches”. That said, personally, I’d give the Contino 2004 a miss there’s better stuff around for less money. And avoid the 2003 if you see it.

The Paradiso Carmenere 2008 is ‘vibrant’ all right. Trouble is the tannins are green as your favourite rugby shirt. The new *Vinalta Malbec 2008 is a nicer drink for €3 less, a genuine bargain at €6.99.

Nicest red in the tasting for me was the ***Nebbiolo 2007 €16.49) from Renato Ratti (available from ‘major stores’ so you probably won’t see it everywhere.) Understated, a class act and full of character. You could safely squirrel this away too.

Of the two Pinot Noirs on show, I preferred the **Tasmanian 2007, a typically relaxed and mellow production by Andrew Pirie of Tamar Ridge. Worth every penny and then some of €12.49. The *Clocktower 2007 (€16.49) was a typically exuberant production from Ben Glover and the guys at Wither Hills in the “Hey, let’s set out our stall and see how much fruit, how many nuances we can squeeze out” manner. All a bit OTT really, still a tad one-dimensional like many New Zealand Pinot Noirs away from the top echelon and, to my mind, this uncompromising treatment does take a little of the unbridled fun out of Pinot in an “I Can’t Believe it’s not Shiraz” manner. Bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but I’m sure you’ll get what I mean.

To conclude, a fine and extremely good value Eiswein, big mouthful and that’s not only the name – **Darting Estate Weissburgunder Eiswein, €17.99

Not a bad stab at budget fino with a €7.99 Fino Dry Sherry plucked from Williams & Humbert – interesting pistache and smokey bacon nose; chill the hell out of it and consume at a sitting with whitebait, tapas or somesuch. The Extra Dry White Port (from Guimarens, a good house) was by no means extra dry within the context we’d understand. Tasty though. The Pink Port from the same stable won’t I fear, win many friends. Except maybe as a cocktail mixer, it takes some comprehending. What’s the point of bubblegum that you can’t blow bubbles with?

My recommendations  indicated with an *, rated * to ***