Beverage report: GREAT CHEAP WINE, NOT

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The Independent Culture
It gives me deep pleasure to announce that I have discovered a truly great wine which costs pounds 4.49 a bottle. This is less than you would pay for a large mouthful of Montrachet 1994, Etienne Sauzet (pounds 176.25, Domaine Direct, 0171 837 1142). And the name of the wine is ...

Sorry friends, I was lying. Great wines do not cost pounds 4.49. If you want world-beating quality, you have to pay world-beating prices. It's been said many times, but it can never be said too often: the less you spend on a bottle of wine, the more you're spending on fixed costs such as bottling, duty and a cork. And the less you're paying for the wine itself. A drinkable pounds 3 bottle should be regarded as an accident, an aberration, or maybe as a miracle.

On the other hand, the concept of cheapness in wine is always relative. A pounds 10 bottle is cheap if you get quality for which you could pay pounds 20 elsewhere, while pounds 2 is expensive for wine that makes you want to gag. If money is the prime consideration, you're better off drinking beer. Un-less, of course, you like gagging.

Well, it doesn't happen often, but there are good cheapies out there. And for reasons that I'm not clear on, a number of them come from France - though not, of course, from Bordeaux or Burgundy, which are increasingly the exclusive preserve of people with more money than sense. (That's another way of saying, "I wish I were rich.") In no particular order, here are a few that have recently come my way.

WHITE: Somerfield has an own-label Bergerac Blanc, a war-horse of cheap and cheerfulness, which until recently they were giving away for pounds 1.99 and is now up to an exorbitant pounds 2.99. Made by the reliable Yvon Mau, it's a good buy (even at the higher price) for uncomplicated summer garden quaffing. At the same price, Oddbins (which has never tried to sell itself on low prices) has a Vin de Pays de Vaucluse called Le Secret 1996; attractive full fruit and a slightly spicy finish. ASDA has a few low-price stars, especially their own-label Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne 1996 from one of the area's he-men: Yves Grassa of the Chateau du Tariquet. At pounds 2.99, this has balanced, slightly prickly fruit which would be the perfect companion for any dejeuner sur l'herbe.

RED: Oddbins has a rubicund stable-mate to Le Secret selling for the same price of pounds 2.99 which is perfectly sound, but for pounds 3.19 (a tiny difference) you can move up in quality to Cuvee de Grignon 1996, a Vin de Pays de l'Aude with mouth-filling cherries 'n' berries flavour. Yum. Better still is a Vin de Pays d'Oc from ASDA, Montagne Rouge Noire 1996, a Merlot-based blend with a little oak and a lot of plummy flavour. This one comes in at the magic pounds 2.99 mark, and at that price it is five-star VFM. So too is ASDA's Rowan Brook Cabernet-Malbec 1996, even at pounds 3.49 (which I still regard as cheap-cheap-cheap). This Chilean charmer is incredibly fresh and juicy, from the carbonic maceration of the Malbec, but with well integrated depth coming from the Cabernet. Look no further for your barbecue bottle.

And finally ... A few years ago, the name Penfolds of Australia seemed to be on the labels of half the good wines that came my way. At the moment something similar is happening with Jacana, a South African producer. These people have the knack of packing maximum flavour into every wine they turn out, both reds and whites. Their Chardonnay and Pinotage are both available from Somerfield at pounds 6.99, and the Pinotage and a wonderfully rich Chenin Blanc (same price) can be had at Fuller's among others. They're not exactly cheap, but they are an undoubted bargain for this level of quality. If you're ever stuck for a bottle to take to someone else's dinner party, Jacana is a good name to look for.

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