Beverage Report: Rules of the waiting game

All in good time: a lesson in the noble practice of laying down wines

CHRISTMAS comes but once a year, and this year it made up for its infrequency by lasting for a couple of weeks. Too long! It was all I could do to scrape the cobwebs off the tasting apparatus and shimmy on down to the year's first tasting. As always, that distinction belonged to The Bunch, six independent merchants of high quality who show a selection at the Groucho Club. As always, it was worth the effort. I found a foursome worth adding to my list of reasonable wines for laying down.

If you didn't see the idea first mooted in these pages, the rules are simple: buy non-classic wines costing pounds 7 to pounds 13, which will improve greatly if kept for one to three years, from a merchant who will store the wine for you. The aim: to encourage the drinking of mature wine.

The foursome in question was found on the table of Yapp Brothers (01747 860 423), the Wiltshire Rhone and Loire specialists, and comprised two reds and two whites. The most drinkable now is a relative rarity, Jasnieres, Clos Saint Jacques 1996 (pounds 10.75). This has the hallmark Chenin Blanc peachiness, already with a honeyed edge, and loads of fine acidity to keep it fresh for years. The same qualities, but with extra crispness and wonderful depth, can be found in Savennieres, Domaine du Closel 1995 (pounds 8.75). Both these whites could probably last almost forever, though even just an extra year in bottle will see their lively flavours form a more perfect union.

Of the two reds in the group, I'd keep Saumur-Champigny, Domaine Filliatreau 1997 (pounds 7.25) for a little bit longer than this. It's incredibly enjoyable at the moment, mind you, but there will be much more complexity arising in time from the ripe-raspberry flavours and soft tannins.

The greatest longevity of the bunch may belong to Brezeme, Eugene de Monicault 1995 (pounds 11.25), made by Jean-Marie Lombard. This tiny, anomalous appellation, south of Valence between the northern and southern areas of the Rhone, barely gets a mention in guides. I was tipped off about it years ago by a French chef and now seize every opportunity to drink it. M Lombard's name is almost synonymous with Brezeme and attaches itself to big, dense, chunky wines made from 100 per cent Syrah. Wait two years or more for the smoky fruit flavours to emerge from the tannic clouds.

If you're not thinking about your cellar, you should be thinking about the January sales. Most are nearly over, but a few gems remain in various precincts, including some of those belonging to Bunch members. One of the best is Seresin Sauvignon Blanc 1998, Marlborough, John Armit Wines (0171 727 6846), reduced from pounds 106 to pounds 90 a case (pounds 8.84 to pounds 7.50 a bottle). On a recent trip to New Zealand, this winery impressed me greatly; and this wine, in a Sauvignon vintage that lovers of euphemism would call "mixed" at best, stood above nearly all the competition. There's a bit of Semillon in there, and around 10 per cent sees some oak. All of which breeds a wine with more complex fruit than most, and with wonderful richness to offset its abundant acidity. Amazing, especially when you consider that Seresin sold its first wine in 1996.

There's another good reason to buy this Sauvignon: it's made with similar methods to those used for Cloudy Bay, and in quality gives that ridiculously scarce wine a good run for its money. But far less money is required here - and there's no allocation system to make you feel like a privileged soul if you lay your hands on half a case. Indeed, you have to buy three unmixed cases to take advantage of the low price. Sale ends 29 January, so don't dally.

In the space remaining, here are a few snapshots taken with the Beverage Report Bargain-Hunter camera. CLICK: Laytons (0171 388 4567) for Bourgogne Rouge 1996, Domaine Jean-Luc Joillot (pounds 5.10), better-than-basic-Burg at a basic price. Sale ends 31 January. CLICK: Lay & Wheeler (01206 764446) for two 1995 clarets at amiable prices: Chateau Saint-Bernard, Fronsac (pounds 4.95) and Chateau Les Hauts-Pontets (pounds 11.95). Or for another great Burgundy bargain, the Macon-Villages Blanc 1997 from Olivier Leflaive (pounds 5.35). Sale ends 31 January. CLICK: Fuller's (0181 996 2000), the London mini-chain of mega-quality, for a raft of offers including Bonterra Organic Chardonnay 1996, Mendocino County (pounds 6.99 from pounds 7.99), previously described here as "a richly oaky, all-singing, all- dancing Chardonnay of the big, fat, buttery school". Sale ends 22 February, happily. CLICK: damn. Out of film.

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