One big retailer has decided to stop fighting its big rivals. It wants to snap at the heels of the exciting, creative, specialists

Marks & Spencer seems to have nothing but trouble these days, at least on the corporate front. It can't seem to please anyone with its clothing, it lost its chairman and its share price is languishing. But there is one bright spot in the picture, and that's the spot that hits home with this column: its wine. While the wines sold by many other multiples tend to lack excitement, M&S has been trying to make its vinous products fizz. And it's been succeeding with admirable consistency, if not always complete success.

Marks & Spencer seems to have nothing but trouble these days, at least on the corporate front. It can't seem to please anyone with its clothing, it lost its chairman and its share price is languishing. But there is one bright spot in the picture, and that's the spot that hits home with this column: its wine. While the wines sold by many other multiples tend to lack excitement, M&S has been trying to make its vinous products fizz. And it's been succeeding with admirable consistency, if not always complete success.

The M&S approach to wine is unique among UK retailers. All take an active role in setting quality-control standards - often aimed at improving hygiene - and collaborate in the selection and blending for own-label wines. At M&S, by contrast, every wine is regarded as being in some sense an own-label wine because every bottle it sells is unique to it. And it takes an active role in making the great majority of its wines: some 70 per cent according to Sam Harrop, one of the winemakers in the team. "That level of technical control separates us from the others," he says.

The interventionist policy has been in place for some years, but not always with great results. For a long time there was a "nice but dull" uniformity to the wines. That policy no longer applies. M&S is trying to get more into its range than safety and solidity. Harrop says that the aim of the new policy is to let the company "compete with the specialists and independent."

The most striking effect of the new policy is a huge increase in size: from 190 wines to 350. That increase will slow from here on - it's not trying to match the 800-plus ranges of other multiples. Its great achievement lies in allowing far more variety into its wines. Four years ago, for instance, it had one Riesling; now it has 11. And this is real variety, not just a multiplicity of overlapping choices. Where some supermarkets might develop three Chilean Merlots, all from the same supplier, and all stylistically consistent, M&S prefers to swell its range by increasing its supplier base: the doubling of the line has more than doubled the number of suppliers. That makes more work but it also means that the wines will be distinctive, each one expressing something about the place it comes from. The French word for this is typicité, which might be translated as fidelity to origins.

The effort shows in numerous places. In Australia M&S has been trying to "home in on stylistic differences" from region to region, and to differentiate for customers. Fruits of its labours include a wonderfully eucalyptus-rich Tatyara Limestone Coast Shiraz 2001 (£6.50) and a very pure, softly acidic Snapper Cove Unwooded Chardonnay 2003 (£5.99) from Western Australia. It's put in a brilliant range from Germany, and has made a more serious effort with Austria than any other multiple. It's also making a bold show of authentic - meaning sometimes weird and challenging - wines from Italy. It's working with its Spanish suppliers to cut down dependence on oak. It's discovering Greece, and building up an organic range to good effect.

The crucial point in supermarket wine buying lies in resisting the natural eagerness to please; in which case the temptation will always be to play it safe. This may avoid causing offence, but it in the long run it will also cause a severe case of boredom. Wine should express individuality, not any kind of commercial formula. M&S is going in the direction of individuality. I hope it continues, and I hope its customers get the message.

Top Corks: Three sparks from Marks

Martin Estate Riesling 2003 £9.99, M&S Heavyweight lime and floral characters, creamy texture and steely acidity, from a great producer in the Kremstal region of Austria.

Gobelsburg Estate St Laurent 2002 £9.99, M&S A brave buy, not only Austrian (the Kamptal region) but red. Aromatic oak, warm red-berry fruits, refreshingly tart twist.

Evangelo Single Estate 2003 £9.99, M&S From Evangelos Gerovassiliou (star of the Epanomi district in Thessaloniki), a Grecian god: herbal and mineral qualities, robust tannins. Wonderful.

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