Beverage Report: Drinking my words

Even cider can hit the right note, if not reach the heights of a New York off-licence with attitude
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The Independent Culture
SOME weeks ago I mentioned that I do not like cider. In one of life's funny coincidences, this questionable opinion found expression nearly to the day when I was judging alcoholic drinks in the Organic Food Awards - and giving the top prize to a cider. My fellow judges and I were unanimous in the decision.

It would be nice to announce that the winner originated in a family firm called Pony Withers Farm or something equally quaint. But it's from Weston's, which is about as far from an artisanal producer as you can get. Who cares, when the drink is as good as their Medium-Dry Organic Cider (around pounds 1.70 a bottle, widely available)? It made all of us say: "I'd drink this again happily." A lovely apple taste, fine balance of sweetness and crispness, deeply refreshing even at room temperature. When tasters in other areas asked what they should use to cleanse their organically cluttered palates, we guided them to Weston's. No one complained.

Close behind was the product of another fairly large firm, Sam Smith's Organic Best Ale. The brewery launched it in April, not out of a sense of mission but simply, according to their marketing manager Graham Auton, because it "fitted into our range and we are aware of the way the organic movement is going". If only bandwagon-hopping always had such happy results as this solid brew - sweetness and hoppy bitterness in fine equilibrium. Incidentally, it's finished with seaweed. You will find it at places specialising in organic food and bevvy, but Waitrose also sells it (alone among the big chains). Price: around pounds 2 per bottle.

Leaving the organic issue aside for the moment, a recent trip to New York, apart from introducing me to the joys of the Oyster Martini (reported last week), also led me through the portals of a really interesting and admirable wine merchant. Best Cellars (1291 Lexington Ave, 001 212 426 4200) has a Unique Selling Point of great merit: no bottle in the joint costs more than $10 (except their one Champagne).

Now, it's a bit tricky to compare wine prices in New York and the UK solely on the basis of the exchange rate. Even though ten bucks equals around pounds 6 at the moment, the comparable cut-off point in the UK would probably be pounds 5. People in New York earn more. Really cheap wine there (anything under $7) is more likely to be disgusting than a well bought pounds 3.99 bottle. I would say that pounds 5/$10 is most significant as a psychological barrier - the price over which a sizeable proportion of drinkers (the involuntarily penny-pinching, the unpleasantly stingy, the honourably uninterested) are unwilling to pay, except on state occasions.

Anyone can sell cheap wine, but Best Cellars meets the vital price point (as they say in the marketing biz) and sells interesting wines. While I was able to taste just one of them (a rather over-oaked but palatable New York Chardonnay), I was impressed by the eclectic intelligence of the 100 bottles on offer. From all over the world came a few well-known names (Seaview, Babich, Jaffelin) but many others that were unfamiliar. And in some cases, names were represented by unusual wines. Have you ever tasted Gros Manseng Cuvee Tardive 1996 from Yves Grassa's always reliable Domaine du Tariquet? I sure haven't.

The formula is working. Assistant manager Peter Eastlake, who was in charge that day because the owners were away opening their second shop, said: "Producers want their wines in here. On a Saturday the place is full and you see the vibe. Our customers like us because the wines have soul."

Could it work here? Maybe not. But seeing Best Cellars vibing away on a Thursday afternoon made me think that some enterprising UK merchant should devote shelf space to "Interesting Wines for Under a Fiver". People who buy on price would discover interesting alternatives to the competent but often boring international brands. Those who buy on quality would discover some bargains. Oddbins, Victoria, Thresher's, Unwins - are you listening?

While waiting for them to take up the suggestion, here's a trio of current choices for under pounds 5. From Argentina by way of Unwins, Magdalena River Chardonnay 1997, Mendoza; nutty fruit with a touch of flint or minerals, a cheap present (pounds 4.49) from La Agricola to fans of Big Chardonnay. From Argentina by way of Fuller's: Valentin Bianchi Malbec 1996 (pounds 4.49), full of complex berry flavours and very pleasing. From France by way of Waitrose: Cotes-du-Rhone Villages 1996, Domaine de Cantemerle (pounds 4.99). The peppery pungency of this brilliant stuff, juicily ripe and deeply aromatic, will commend it to anyone who likes Rhone reds as much as I do but can't pay a fortune for them. If all pounds 5 bottles were this good, the world would be a much happier place.