Like many English boys, I grew up hating Marks & Spencer. Now I’m middle-aged, do I have to succumb to their wine? To say nothing of their elastic-waisted trousers…
Marks & Spencer are hailed universally for the quality of their goods; so it’s perfectly credible when a wine critic of the calibre of Tim Atkin suggests that M&S may be currently selling the best value Pinot Noir in the world. It’s credible, it’s financially appealing (£8.99!), and its only problem is years of ingrained prejudice against M&S. Which, as a middle-aged man and potential core customer, it’s perhaps time I overcame.
Kids, you see, often hate M&S. Because when they want some overpriced hip brand of clothing, their parents insist instead on buying them good quality, cheaper versions from M&S – which almost look the same. This makes the children a playground laughing stock. See a teenager wearing M&S jeans, see a victim of bullying in waiting.
But then, as you grow older, and start working and earning, Marks & Spencer pulls you in from a different direction. For the aspirational young professional is lured into M&S not by their clothes, but by their food.
It may be worth taking a moment to try and explain Marks & Spencer food to readers from our former colonies and elsewhere. Unlike their largely practical clothing, their food is unashamedly indulgent. M&S are known mainly for their ready-made dishes, which as their TV ads once breathily intoned, is not just food – it is M&S food. This means it is very good, but also very expensive. To illustrate the cash-rich, time-poor nature of customers of their pre-prepared food, one need only look at the frightening price of, say, their pre-roasted potatoes (£4.98 for approximately £0.68p worth of potato)
And their notion of “pre-prepare” can be as broad as, say, peel, chop and put in bag. Hence, and I kid you not, their bags of pre-cut carrot batons…
The thing is, M&S food is really food for yourselves. Most people would feel “cheated” if they went out to dinner and someone served them pre-prepared M&S food. It looks as if you have made no effort. Well, you have made no effort. Unless you count queuing.
What, then, about a recognisably M&S wine? The store consistently win awards for their wines – but again, the “no effort” issue rears its head. Rightly or wrongly, it looks like an afterthought. Turn up at a dinner party bearing a bottle of Marks & Spencer wine, and it looks like you popped in to get some elasticated – sorry, Active Waist – trousers, and grabbed a bottle of wine just because you were there. No effort. Social faux pas.
So why, I ask myself, why do they always declare on the label that it is an M&S wine? Some kind of misguided brand status? “We take the awards, you take the praise” they announced in one of their wine ads. Praise for what? Your ability to find an M&S? Your disposable income? Your understanding of the command, “Cashier number four, please”?
CJ once declared his taste for an M&S House Red; but in his house, spying an M&S wine label is something of a relief, given the menagerie which usually parade across the front of his bottles and announce another ugly compromise between flavour and finance.
At least in one’s own home, one can decant a wine and hide its label. If this really is “the best value Pinot Noir in the world”, then I will happily disguise its provenance. If it looks like Burgundy…
Few people go to M&S specifically to buy a bottle of wine. I can honestly say that I was the only person in my (lengthy) queue holding just a bottle of wine. Most people are clearly buying their supper, an entire meal for one or possibly two; I looked embarrassingly as if my whole evening was going to be spent with only a bottle of wine.
(I must just relate the story of the chap arriving at a checkout with a basket containing a small loaf of bread, a half bottle of wine and a pre-prepared meal for one. “Single, are you?” asked the checkout girl.
“Yeah,” said the chap, “Can you tell from the food?”
“No,” she replied. “You’re just bloody ugly.”)
Anyway, it has to be said that this is a delicious, fragrant Pinot Noir. It has a light, strawberry bouquet with a hint of spice, all elements which carry through to its delicate, easy, almost ethereal flavour. It is as good as many Burgundies. It received fulsome praise from Mrs K, who then drank too much of it. No, it is not the Labouré Roi Échezeaux Grand Cru 2007, which I pretentiously told CJ tasted like choral evensong; but it is, as they say, singing from the same hymnsheet. And, even though a single bottle was actually £9.45, that is one-tenth of the Burgundy's price. Very good value indeed.
But. It does not like being decanted for long. That fragrant delicacy disappears like smoke after an aerated hour. You really should serve this to a gathering, and from the bottle. Which means revealing where you got it.
And I can’t do it yet. I just can’t. Any more than I would pour it wearing shoes which almost look like Sperry Topsiders. Giving up the effort, like succumbing to Active Waist trousers, means abandoning the reward.
So – recommended for those who would serve, in M&S terms, not just pork, but a prime cut of Scottish out-door bred pork matured for tenderness, de-boned and tied to make carving easier. For family, therefore, not guests.
For guests, you’d surely want to go the whole hog.