Judging by last month's wine tasting, something is stirring in the wine department of Marks & Spencer. Until recently, M & S has stood aloof from the wine war between the big supermarkets. But while the M & S list is still largely populated with safe- bet, St Michael labels, a few little sparks of adventure have appeared.

Chris Murphy, head of the five- strong M & S wine department, confirms that changes have taken place. 'There were gaps that needed addressing,' he says. One such gap was the new world, which, says Mr Murphy, 'has gone from strength to strength'.

His appreciation of South African wine was displayed by a good-value trio (all at pounds 3.29) of the new seasons's whites from KWV, the giant, Afrikaner-dominated co-operative. The 1994 Cape Country Colombard, with its tropical guava fruitiness, was the most exciting in aromatic quality; the 1994 Cape Country Sauvignon Blanc, showed pleasing varietal character; the 1994 Cape Country Chenin Blanc was a soft, refreshing soave. Good value, too, were the 1993 Stellenbosch Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, with its nutty oakiness and fruit, and the minty bordeaux-blend style 1993 Stellenbosch Merlot/Cabernet, pounds 4.99.

Australia is now represented by more than 20 wines, including a spicy, fruity quaffer, St Michael South Eastern Australia Shiraz Cabernet, pounds 3.99, from McWilliams. The selection relies on a mixture of safe, if uninspired, names such as Lindemans Bin 65 and Len Evans chardonnays, although the superb, intensely flavoured Capel Vale Reserve Chardonnay, pounds 9.99, in the 'fine wine' section, does justify its price tag. If, as Mr Murphy says, 'M & S customers are not looking for cheap wines, but are prepared to pay more for quality', why not take them on more antipodean adventures of this kind? At pounds 4.99 apiece, the two New Zealand whites

were good value: refreshing, gooseberryish 1993 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and a buttered oak Kaltuna Hills Chardonnay.

Thirteen of the Italian range, including chianti, valpolicella, montepulciano d'abruzzo and soave, come from the giant Trento merchant Girelli. If this seems excessive, Girelli did garner bronze medals this year for the 1992 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Merlot del Veneto and chianti, suggesting at least a satisfactory level of quality. Wines with more personality, though, were the 1993 Giordano Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, the plum-and- cherry fruit of the 1993 St Michael Barbera del Piemonte, pounds 2.99, and the aromatic, plum-rich 1991 Il Caberno, pounds 4.99, an 85 per cent nebbiolo, 15 per cent cabernet sauvignon blend.

M & S's real strength lies in French wine, with some of the best- value bottles from the up-and-coming Mediterranean south. Among them were a fruity, fresh 1993 Chasan, Vin de Pays de l'Ardailhou, pounds 3.49, the

full-bodied 1993 Domaine l'Argentier, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Thau, pounds 3.79, made by roving winemaker Jacques Lurton, and the citrus, unoaked 1993 Chardonnay, Domaine Mandeville, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 3.99. Best of the southern reds were the succulently fruity 1993 Domaine Roche Blanche, pounds 3.99, and the sweet, rustic 1991 Fitou, pounds 3.79.

The 1993 Bordeaux Sauvignon, pounds 3.49, had more gooseberryish character than is normally found in a bordeaux at this price, while a floral, medium-sweet 1993 Vouvray, Domaine de la Pouvrale, pounds 4.79, had plenty of typical Loire chenin blanc character.

From Burgundy, I liked the rich, soft, buttered fruit of the 1993 White Burgundy from the Cave de Lugny, pounds 4.49, while the Jeunes Vignes, pounds 4.99, deserves its reputation as an M & S classic - as does the delicate 1992 Chablis, pounds 6.99.

A rather smelly house red would have been better kept under lock and key, I felt, and I did not go a bundle either on the dull beaujolais from the Cellier des Samsons co-op. From the claret selection, I enjoyed most the stylish 1990 Christian Moueix St Emilion, pounds 6.99, with its toffee ripeness. My favourite red, however, was the 1990 Lirac, Domaine Andre Mejan, pounds 5.99, a smooth red from an excellent vintage with the distinctive pepper-and-spice personality of the southern Rhone.

From Spain, Hugh Ryman's 1993 Santara Dry White, pounds 2.99, offers fair value in a boiled-sweets, confected sort of way. I preferred the toasted vanilla oak and strawberry-sweet ripeness of the 1990 Costers del Segre, pounds 4.99, a Hispano-bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and merlot, to the riojas on offer. Nick Butler's capsicum-like, almondy 1993 Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 2.99, has not only the smartest label for an eastern European wine at this price, but was smart on quality, too.

Chris Murphy has revamped the fine wine section to bring more bottles into the pounds 7- pounds 17 price bracket, such as the 1989 Volnay, Louis Jadot, pounds 12.99, with its ripe strawberry fruit, and the seductive, if rather oaky Jacques Prieur 1991 Beaune Clos de le Feguine, 1er cru, pounds 16.99. Big Medoc names such as Lynch Bages and Cos d'Estournel, good wines in a patchy 1987 vintage, are expensive at pounds 19.99. Better bets were the soft, seductive merlot fruit of the 1988 Chateau L'Hospitalet, Pomerol, pounds 10.99, the second wine of Chateau Gazin, whose superb rich 1987, pounds 14.99, shows the quality of that year's merlot.

It is no secret that Marks & Spencer takes one of the biggest (if not the biggest) profit margins in the high street. This presumably does not help the wine department. It would be nice if the St Michael label had the sort of imaginative range that makes browsing at Oddbins, Majestic or even Sainsbury's such a pleasure.