Beverage report: Now I lay it down to keep

You don't need a cellar or a platinum card to enjoy wine at its best, just our guide to laying it down
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The Independent Culture
ONE of the great things about being a wine writer is that you get to taste so many thrilling wines. One of the frustrating things is that often, they are nowhere near ready to drink.

If it's frustrating for me, it's positively depressing for people in the trade. Hugo Rose of Lay & Wheeler said wistfully that he rarely drinks any of his company's wines at their prime. They're long gone by then, and all too often to homes or restaurants where they'll be cut down in the prime of youth: "In restaurants, vintages - like policemen - always seem to get younger." Mark Reynier, of La Reserve, pleads with customers not to pull corks prematurely. His company specialises in fine Burgundy, and with great vintages like 1995 and 1996, he says, "drinking these wines now is criminal".

I can hear you snorting sceptically: "He's talking about wines that cost more than the `Mandellium' Dome, wines that need laying down for a decade or two. They sell to people with cellars that can store hundreds of cases. I store wine under the stairs, on a budget the size of a budgie cage. For me, laying down wine means keeping it till Tuesday."

Desist from that negative thinking! I would like to plant a thought in your seasonally laid-back brain. The thought is this: anyone can lay down wine. All you need is pounds 80 to pounds 150 a case, and the patience to wait as little as one year.

This assertion raises three questions. Why? Where? What? The first question is deliciously complicated, but it boils down to this: most wines costing more than (this is an approximate figure) pounds 7 will taste much better if they spend extra time in the bottle after you purchase them. Their flavours will form a more complete and attractive picture. You will, in effect, be drinking wine that's worth more than it cost you. It will also be unobtainable, because the merchant will have sold it all and most people will have drunk it, too soon.

The effect of time on wine means that lesser wines may become superior, paradoxically, to a great wine drunk too young. This was pointed out to me by Richard Berkeley-Matthews of Layton's while I was tasting with him. A pounds 6 1996 Bourgogne Blanc tasted far better than a pounds 25 Chassagne-Montrachet. Yet many people buying that wine today will drink it tomorrow. They might as well flush their pounds 25 down the pan. Or, as Berkeley-Matthews puts it: "Why waste pounds 300 to pounds 400 for the sake of pounds 10 or pounds 15 of storage charges?"

That question answers my second query: where to keep the stuff. The solution: at the place where you buy it. Many independent merchants will store a case of wine for around pounds 7 a year. They've got the space, and the conditions, for keeping wine at the right temperature and humidity.

Now, storing wine in a merchant's cellars unnerves some people, largely because of the well-publicised failure a few years ago of the Hungerford Wine Company. Many customers lost the wines they'd stored on the premises when the company went belly up.

I will not place hand on heart (and head on chopping-block) and say that no such thing can ever happen again. But I do feel confident that the companies I propose as sources will not let you down. Also, the annual charge you pay should include an insurance premium to repay the value of the wine at current market value in the event of loss. Wines should be marked with the buyer's name and a code, and stored in the premises of a separate company, even if it's on the same site as the merchant's. One last thing, check to make sure that the wine cannot be moved without your written permission.

Now that we know why and where, question number three - what to buy - rears its comely head. Answers follow next week: a selection from top merchants of wines costing a maximum of pounds 12.

In the meantime, if you need something pret-a-boire for a New Year's dinner, here's a trio to muffle the tolling of the bell. Star of the show is an exceptional Champagne bargain from Layton's (0171 388 4567): Deutz Extra Aged, pounds 19.39. This special bottling combines wines from 1990 to 1992 which have spent four to five years on their lees. Creamy, toasty and rich, this is, in effect, vintage wine for NV money. Follow with Bridgewater Mill Chardonnay 1996, South Australia (selected Sainsbury's, pounds 6.99), a lovely cocktail of tropical/citrus fruits and well-judged oak. To finish: Grant Burge Late Harvest Muscat 1997, Barossa, a very pure expression of the grape, sweet but not cloying and in perfect balance. From Fuller's, Great Northern (0113 246 1200), Charterhouse (01775 630 680 or 0171 587 1302), and Oxford Wine (01865 820 789) at pounds 4.99 to pounds 5.99. Cheap. See you next year.

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