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A Brave New World - M&S takes a daring stab at a Mediterranean wine range.

(First posted on Harpers Online on 14th May 2012 at

Lemonia, the most family-friendly, plate-smashy, authentic Greek restaurant in all of London was the venue for Marks & Spencer’s latest press tasting on Friday.

It wasn’t entirely evident why, until, in their private dining room upstairs, I was confronted with over a dozen new wine listings from the Eastern Mediterranean. So, a lovely Mezze to look forward to for lunch in the lovely company of Hazel Macrae, senior press officer, and the two people responsible for running the project, winemaker, Belinda Kleinig, and wine buyer, Emma Dawson.


So what was their brief? Emma told us that by any standards, it was very simple. Choose as many or as few wines needed to illustrate the interest and the growth in consumer interest in Levant and Eastern Mediterranean cuisine and culture - or something like that.

Well, for Belinda and Emma, the magic number of wines is 15. These new wines have been sourced from Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Turkey, and the Lebanon. Clearly this is a bold move, indeed typically so, from a supermarket buying team that were the first to bring us fine multi-regional blends of German wine, good own-label German Pinot Noir, and things like Nerello Mascaclese from Sicily.

Nice to see that the recession hadn’t spoiled their creative juices.

I found myself tasting with a split mind on the subject. A part of me was thinking how, in respect to the trade, and what I know about these wine regions and their potential, do I think they have they done with sourcing and making these new cuvées, and the other half of my brain was wondering as an uneducated consumer, how would I react to this new, possibly confusing line-up, and which would I most likely choose?

Well, honestly I found the wines to be a mixed bag. There are no bad wines here, not technically anyway, but there are definitely wines that I personally wouldn’t choose to drink. Compared to the ones that I would, I think I am looking at a 50 50 split. Some of the wines are just too expensive, I imagine, for the average customer to take a blind punt on, but in fairness these are the most cult in the line up too and no doubt cost the most to source.

Istrian Malvasia for one, or Malvasia Istarska (that won’t put them off at all, will it?) is experiencing a but of a global gold rush, being the hippest thing since English fizz. £12.49 is what this one will cost the customer, and while it ticks the boxes, it didn’t quite show the “terrarossa-derived terroir” that it claimed in the notes.

Don’t shoot me, but I believe the best examples are those not planted entirely on their fabled red soils either. They are making a virtue of it, clearly because it is what they have.

Other Istrian producers have shown me wines that makes it clear to me that one way to seriously pimp your Malvasia is to blend it across soils, where for the same price it shows vastly more mineral complexity and texture, two things after all that the variety is famous for.

Although, there are on-line specialists selling better wines for this sort of money, it is a sound if not stunning effort.

The wines I was most interested in are the ones that I knew most or least about. It was great to see a Santorini-sourced Assyrtiko, surely a variety that will conquer the world some day. It was a typical example at a fair price. At 10.49 it showed the focus, fragrance, precision and volcanic undertow that explains the surge in popularity of Santorini whites over the past 10

Another Croatian wine, this time from Slavonia, nearer the capital of Zagreb is the first commercial own-label release of a Grasevina in the UK. The Croatians have done a very good early job of reinventing this variety, formally known as Welchriesling, but I think that it is limited in its fine wine scope, and I would have been happier to find a cheaper one at this quality level.

With interesting things happening with a Tsunami of decent Laski Rizling (basically the same variety) now being made in Slovenia, I predict prices might have to come down.

Anfora Trio, the red from Turkey was the cheapest wine at £7.49 and actually, when all is said and done is the one that I liked the most. Drinking this is how I imagine it’s like to be given a massage from a hairy-forearmed Turkish masseur.

It was smooth in a rough sort of way, if that makes any sense. It was supremely tasty with our Kleftiko later on too. Perfect gourmet kebab fodder and a lot of wine for the money.

While on the subject of Turkish wine, perhaps the most surprising turn up for me was liking the Turkish Sauvignon Blanc the most too. At a cool £9.99, it wasn’t all precision, thiols and pyrazenes, but boy did it have character. It had the texture and presence of the pith of a lemon. It was crying out for wild mountains herbs, dill and maybe some sweet barbecued shellfish protein.

And that’s what we got. It was as delicious with our mezze, and was as at home with with taramasalata as it was with salt cod and dill croquettes.

Final mention in dispatches has to go to Lebanon. Everyone seems to be talking about Lebanese wine at the moment, but I remain pretty much unconvinced. The examples here, if they are representative, and with the might of Marks and Spencer buying team behind it, it would be really odd if they weren’t, were a bit so what.

The white Domaine des Tourelles 2011 at £8.99 was on the verge of flabby, but had an interesting rich brown apple quality. Like drinking a dry but buttery Egremont Russet Tarte Tatin.

The Château Ksara sourced red, I did not like. The oak was laboured, rustic and far too heavy on the toast, with a diactyl buttery character that will no doubt get tougher, not softer with age. Mind you Emma Dawson’s mum loved it, reminding me that this game really is horses for courses.

However, the Cadet de Ka 2008 for £8.99 was better. Much more stylish, and it wore its bottle age with pride. Dare I say it, it was like claret from a very hot year, say 2003. For a claret that would be a criticism, but for Lebanese red, that is most definitely a compliment.

And drinking it later on top of Primrose Hill, in the sun, out of a paper coffee cup (thanks for the take-out, Hazel), it ended up being downright delicious, full of swirling tar, leather and cedar.

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