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Drink: Mixed pickings

Anthony Rose gives his verdict on the latest offerings at Asda and M & S
A couple of years back, the Grapevine wine guide handed Asda the Supermarket of the Year award for bringing what we called "much-needed pizzazz" to the supermarket sector. Along with its impressive value-for- money wines and eye-catching labels, Asda had also dared to stand conventional sales wisdom on its head by selling its wines by style instead of by country of origin. The effect was not simply cosmetic.

Today, the successful Leeds-based supermarket chain has moved into third place behind Tesco and Sainsbury's in the supermarket wine-retailing pecking order. By taking more interest in what goes into the bottles, as well as on the label, Asda practically doubled wine business in two-and-a-half years. The public perception of Asda has changed, too, from what one unkind critic referred to as "a load of bog-trotting northerners" to one of the more innovative wine retailers out on the high street.

Much of the credit for the buzz about the new Asda range had to do with the swashbuckling style of its former wine supremo, Nick Dymoke-Marr. With such things as his upmarket Wow! wines, Dymoke-Marr managed to slice through the stale marketing jargons to inject some much-needed irreverence into what had been, if not bog-trotting, at least rather bog-standard.

The preamble to the spring wine tasting, the first since Dymoke-Marr's departure, rang alarm bells. "We believe the new fixturisation on show today will demonstrate our range much more clearly." For "new fixturisation", read "return to selling wines by country of origin". Fair enough, but I'm not sure that the range is any clearer as a result.

Asda's new London Fine Wine Range, according to the introduction, "gives different trading areas the opportunity to trail new concepts and experiment with points of difference". This is a little hard to swallow, given that the entire London range has been bought off the shelf at Bibendum. What is more, the Primrose Hill wine merchant, and the supermarkets it supplies, are selling the same wines at the same price or cheaper.

A preoccupation with marketing at the expense of content seems to be creeping into the range. Presumably it sells well, but most of the southern French range under Asda's Tramontane brand name is uninspiring, if safe. Apart from the attractively oaked 1997 Arius Carignane, the Arius range from California is similarly inconsequential. Meanwhile, it looks as though some of the wines which did excite, wines such as the Stellenzicht Zinfandel, Baron de Ley, Villa Pigna Rosso and the Californian fizz, Scharffenberger, may be delisted because their faces don't fit.

The credentials of the win- buying team and its new wine manager, ex- Safeway buyer Russell Burgess, are not in dispute. What seems to be happening, though, is a switch in emphasis to safety at the expense of innovation and excitement.

A while back, I would have called it Marks & Spencerisation, but that would be to do a disservice to M&S, which, with a far more limited range than Asda, seems to be getting its white coats and sanitised hands dirtier in the positive sense, getting out and about in the vineyards and involved in what goes into the bottle. I could just about drink the pounds 2.99 house red, but pounds 2.99 is not an M&S forte. Still, efforts to compete with other supermarkets have at least brought one bright star, the fragrantly grapey and exotic 1997 Hungarian Irsai Oliver, pounds 2.99 from Neszmely. Despite a difficult vintage last year, the M&S southern French range from Domaines Virginie looks far more convincing since Aussie winemaker Richard Osbourne took over the project. M&S do still rely heavily on Trentino merchant Girelli for their Italian range, but even Girelli can come up with some attractive wines, such as the dark cherryish 1996 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico, pounds 6.99.

Taking individual stars from the range, the new 1997 Pouilly Fume from the excellent Chateau Favray, pounds 8.99, has an intensity of flavour that even New Zealand's Marlborough finds hard to match. Witness also the unusual 1997 Domaine Jeune Counoise, pounds 4.49, a fascinatingly fragrant southern Rhone red, made from one of the rare, traditional grape varieties of Chateauneuf- du-Pape.

It is into the New World, however, that M&S has most successfuly leapt since Master of Wine, Jane Kay, joined the team. With Carmen and Casa Leona in Chile (the 1997 Casa Leona Chardonnay at pounds 3.99 remains one of the best value Chardonnays on the market), with Rosemount in Australia, Montana in New Zealand and Norton in Argentina. And while the number of suppliers may be limited, the quality of what goes into the bottle is undisputed. Try Montana's deliciously buttery, relatively complex 1997 Kaituna Hills Chardonnay, pounds 5.50, Rosemount's 1997 Honey Tree Semillon Chardonnay, pounds 5.99, a blend of elegant, melony fruit with a clean, refreshing aftertaste

White of the week

1997 Tesco Langhorne Creek Verdelho, pounds 5.99. The Verdelho grape was once one of the mainstays of Aussie Madeira, but, come the table wine revolution, it's been transformed into a genuine white wine style in its own right, in this instance making a ripe, candied wine from Bleasdale Vineyards with spritz-fresh, ripe tropical fruit flavours.

Red of the week

1995 Conde de Valdemar Rioja Crianza, Martinez Bujanda, pounds 5.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. With a sleek bouquet of vanilla, the irresistible fruit richness of Rioja's Tempranillo grape is balanced by refreshing damsony acidity from a dash of Mazuelo. The best crianza I've yet come across from this dynamic Riojan bodega. Anthony Rose