What it gained in return for trough-avoidance was a corresponding lack of acquaintance with the peaks. When I commented to a fellow taster that the tables were packed with well made, inoffensive wines, he said: "They would take that as a compliment." When I made the same point to someone from the company later on, they affirmed that that was indeed their view. "People trust us to deliver consistently", she said.
And that's what their list does. If I didn't taste many wines that made me want to break into song, maybe that's my problem - or a problem that we wine-hacks create for ourselves. We want stuff that will awaken our senses and breed good copy. Shoppers want good bottles at whichever retailer supplies their daily meat and drink. And good bottles, moreover, at price levels suiting every financial condition from end-of-the-month insolvency to pay-day euphoria.
The big surprise at the Marks & Spencer tasting was the number of high- quality cheapies. This company does not sell itself on price, yet they've got a handful of good bottles selling for pounds 2.99, which is an Impossible Dream for some retailers and an Undrinkable Crime for others.
Easy winners of the Party-Wine-of-the-Month Award are two Italians, Bianco di Puglia and Rosso di Puglia. Both of the 1997 vintage, both made by Casa Girelli, both possessing a pleasant, friendly charm. The red contains Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) and Negroamara, and its spice-kissed berry fruit should make you pay attention even over the din of a drinks party. The white is made from Bombino Bianco, and prolonged contact with the lees after fermentation lends a bit of depth to its fresh, grapefruity character. Both delicious.
Other winners in the less-is-more category include Hungarian Chardonnay 1997 and Hungarian Merlot Kekfrankos 1997. These unoaked wines, both pounds 3.99, hail from the Meszmely Winery, which does not seem to sell any bad wines in this country. The red is especially good, with ripe soft Merlot given a bit of rough by its indigenous bottlemate.
Needless to say, Marks & Spencer would like to sell you bottles at un- humble prices. And some are worth the money. Chablis 1996 (pounds 7.99), from the La Chablisienne co-operative, is a choice specimen of the nervy, minerally leanness this appellation can achieve even at its most basic. Their Pouilly Fume 1997 (pounds 8.99) has intense, prickly gooseberry and melon fruit with good richness even in the absence of oak. The new vintage of a semi-super-Tuscan, Canfera Vino da Tavola 1995 (pounds 8.99), which I have recommended in an earlier form, keeps all its complex flavours in superb balance - and will continue to do so, with steady improvement, over the next few years.
Finally, a special mention for St Gall Champagne. Marks & Spencer has long had an intimate and mutually satisfying relationship with the Union Champagne, producers of its own-label shampers, and the chemistry continues in three Blanc de Blancs. The one to draw a bead on is Champagne Orpale 1988 (pounds 22.50), with grapes sourced entirely from Grand Cru vineyards and matured on the lees for eight to 10 years. The creamy yeast, the completely mature Chardonnay fruit, the fine mousse - these are qualities for which you could easily pay another pounds 10. Truly fantastic value, and an indubitable Red Rum among the solid, steady runners in the Marks & Spencer list.