Beverage Report: Hardly going for a song

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The Independent Culture
It's the sale of the century, or the millennium, or something. Sothe-by's has been accorded the "great privilege" (Sotheby's own phrase) of hawking the surplus from The Andrew Lloyd Webber Wine Collec-tion. And they're approaching the task with a rapturous obsequiousness that would make you think that they were selling the Queen's Old Master drawings.

Buying wine at auction has a lot to recommend it: you're unlikely to find your favourite pounds 3.99 Cotes- du-Rhone selling for half price, but higher up the scale there are sometimes genuine bargains to be had. And the Lloyd Webber sale (20 and 21 May, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1) may well yield some. The only problem is that the word "bargain", in this context, often has a rather specialised meaning: Chateau Margaux 1961 - pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000 for a dozen. Four bottles of Domaine de la Romanee Conti 1966 - a snip at pounds 2,000 to pounds 2,500.

The catalogue assures us that there are 1985 clarets and Bur-gundies in the sale that "do not break the bank." Well, they may not break your bank, but mine will definitely write a pretty nasty letter if I go bidding at Sotheby's. It is now officially recognised that claret prices, in particular, are certifiably bonkers. So banker-friendly at this auction means stuff like Chateau Palmer 1985 at pounds 400 to pounds 500 a dozen. And if wine-lovers bid enthusiastically - after all, the bottles do come from the cellar of Britain's greatest composer of fifth-rate musicals - the prices will go even higher.

Since I'm unlikely to tempt fate by going along to Sotheby's, I will go bargain hunting elsewhere. Until the end of the month, Oddbins has a pair of enticing clarets, a Graves Rouge 1995 (pounds 3.99) from the distinguished house of Cordier and Chateau La Mouleyre St-Emilion 1994 (pounds 4.99). Southern French in origin but a Really Useful alternative to Lord Lloyd Webber's mortgage-busting Burgundies is Marks & Spencer's Pinot Noir Vin de Pays d'Oc 1994 at pounds 4.99: punchy, good body, a taste of soft fruits, long in the mouth. Not good enough for his Lloydship, perhaps, but fine by me.

For those whose great hopes are white, the Co-op has Peter Lehmann Chenin Barossa Valley Blanc 1996 (pounds 3.99), possessing the fresh, fruity zing you associate with this wine, plus a decent bit of acidity. It's robust enough to stand up to salmon and other meaty fish, and very good at the price. Safeway's Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie 1996 (pounds 4.29) is the exception (see page 59) to the rule that Italian wine fails to hit the spot below pounds 5. It has refreshingly clean flavours with real fruit punch. Drink it right now, as an aperitif, or with fish or shellfish.

And perhaps the best bargain of them all is the Laroche Grande Cuvee Chardonnay 1995, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. This was one of the Wines of the Year in the 1996 Wine Magazine International Wine Challenge. I tasted it recently and can see why: it's a bit like a lemon tart, lusciously sweet and crisply citric at the same time, and at pounds 5 or so a bottle (from Budgens and elsewhere), it can embarrass some white Burgundies costing twice as much. If Lord Whatsit's next show turns out to be a flop, he'd do well to lay in a few cases of the stuff.