Thursday, 22 November 2018

Fortnum & Mason: a corner shop's wine

Which retailers’ names would you happily see on a Christmas dining table? If you were buying a Christmas pudding, whether for your own table or as a gift, you might well rely on a retailer’s label to convey its quality. And “It's a Fortnum & Mason pudding” is a bit more impressive than “I got this from Spar”. But what about the wine?

At home or as a gift, I’ve always been wary of retailers’ own brand wines. It can look as if you just grabbed a convenient bottle off the shelf along with everything else. And just because a retailer is well-known for one thing doesn’t mean that their reputation extends to wine. However fashionable the bottle, I’m not sure I’d turn to a Harvey Nichols Vin de Pays D’oc. Especially when, if you’re looking for advice, the web page suggests you “speak to a stylist”.

But what about picking up a branded Fortnum & Mason wine along with a pudding?

Fortnum & Mason succumbed last decade to the allure of shiny modern luxury, “refurbishing” its ground floor in the manner of a Duty Free in a Middle Eastern airport. Beneath ferociously surgical lighting lie the materials of the newly moneyed, the marble and limestone, the glass and brass. And in the centre, a shiny spiral staircase lifted from the style guide to a dictator’s palace.

Much of their food is clearly marketed at tourists, a mélange of supposedly Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian foodstuffs, things with pseudo-English names like “savours”   “hamperlings” and “smackerels”, all rolled together in a faux aristocratic world.

But ignore the jostling transit lounge entrance on Piccadilly. Enter instead around the corner, in Duke Street St James’s, where beautiful old doors are still opened by a proper doorman. And take an original dark, creaky, carpeted wooden staircase down, back in time, directly to the wine department. There you can browse amongst a splendid selection of wine, without too many offers of assistance, unless you stare too long into the locked cabinet of massively expensive bottles which you are clearly unable to afford.

Amongst an impressive selection of wines you’ll find their own brand “house selection”. And there are over 100, from all over the world, covering most conceivable varieties. Yes, they do have a “Fortnum & Mason Claret”, but they also have a Pomerol, a Pauillac, a St Emilion etc… and then, unexpectedly, amongst the usual suspects, a Fortnum & Mason Dão Tinto; a Greco di Tufo; a Gavi; a Priorat. It’s a frankly astonishing range, with each stating on the label the specific chateau or producer from which it has come.

And they have resisted the urge to colour the label eau de nil, to decorate it with an illustration of a  Wodehousian clubman, or stamp it F&M. Perhaps they have realised that visitors are unlikely to fly back nowadays with a bottle of wine as a souvenir; and so London consumers are granted a quietly distinguished typographic design.

I went for the most generic Burgundy, a Joseph Drouhin nevertheless, “seasonally reduced” from £15.50 to £13.95 (although why you would “seasonally reduce” Burgundy at Christmas I cannot fathom). And it turned out to be a graceful pinot noir, with a breeze of fruit, a bit of body and a hint of the agricultural around the edges; not a heavyweight, but clean, light and eminently drinkable.

As a place, Fortnum & Mason may not be what it was; but that’s true of most Piccadilly shops now. (Apart from the wonderful Cordings, and of course Hatchards.) But the old corner shop's label ought to be well received by those who don’t know one wine from another – and on this encounter, its wine ought to be well received by those who do.


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