Grapevine: Katherine McWhirter on the best from Marks & Spencer

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The Independent Culture
MARKS & Spencer's wines have suddenly acquired the zing of finely-tuned knicker elastic. They have always been sound, but a little overpriced and often lacking lustre. Now they've snapped into form, and there's a high proportion of lovely, competitively priced wines in this season's batch.

The best buys at the moment are three stunning reds, all of them costing pounds 4.99: a lovely, very oaky ***1990 Gran Calesa, Costers del Segre from Spain, with delicious blackcurranty and savoury flavours; a characterful, dark and powerful northern Italian ***1991 Il Caberno made in a not-too-tannic style from the usually tough but flavourful Nebbiolo grape with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon; and a wonderful Australian ***1993 McLaren Vale Shiraz which has lovely smoky and blackberry jam flavours and a hint of rummy oak.

But there's excellent value now at the bottom of the Marks & Spencer price range, too. Delicious, cheap reds include a raspberry-fruity *1993 Domaine St Pierre, Vin de Pays de l'Herault (pounds 2.99); a plummy *1993 Barbera del Piemonte, S Orsola (pounds 2.29, being promoted throughout October as M & S's wine of the month); a dark, jammy-fruity *1993 Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 3.49); and a lovely **1993 Domaine Rocha Blanche, Vin de Pays d'Oc (pounds 3.99), rich and fleshy with plum and raspberry fruit and a dark, smoky character.

Stars among the cheaper whites include a very crisp, lemony and slightly floral *1993 Cotes de Gascogne (pounds 2.99); a crisp, tangy *1993 Conca de Barbara (pounds 2.99); and steely and gooseberry-flavoured *1993 Hungarian Sauvignon Blanc (pounds 3.49). The *1993 Bordeaux Sauvignon (pounds 3.49) is just as good, flinty-fresh, and the *1993 Vin de Pays du Gers White (pounds 2.99) is quite full-bodied for a wine of this price, honeyed and peachy. Two excellent white buys slightly upmarket are **1993 Rothbury Estate Chardonnay/Semillon (pounds 4.99), a rich, pineappley and slightly toasty Australian; and **1993 Kaituna Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (pounds 4.99), with a strong and aromatic gooseberry and asparagus character.

The mail-order division of Marks & Spencer has some excellent bargains, too. Among them is ***1989 Drohner Hofberg Riesling Kabinett, Marienhof, Franz Reh (pounds 59.88 per case), a mature classy German wine which makes a delicious aperitif. It is medium-dry, ripe and honeyed with fine acidity and the characteristic 'petrolly' flavour of Riesling (sounds poisonous, tastes wonderful). Also delicious on their mail-order list is the traditional, figgy ***1990 Lirac, Domaine Andre Mejan (pounds 71.88 per case), a light, soft and savoury Rhone red. For enquiries or orders ring Marks & Spencer Home Choice (0925 851100). There is a delivery charge of pounds 3.90 per address.

***excellent; **very good; *good