Beverage Report: Sunshine wines

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After returning from holiday in New York and California (which I recommend) with a tooth abscess (which I don't), I found myself facing a metre-high pile of post. This is the downside of returning from holiday, but happily, there was an upside in my case. In many cases, to be precise - a couple of dozen bottles waiting to be opened and tasted. I waited till the abscess had been tamed, then started swilling energetically.

Some of the bottles came from California, which made me feel as if I were back at Raley's, our local Lake Tahoe supermarket. We drank nothing but local wine out there, and some of it was splendid stuff. But some was way too expensive. Even with sterling playing Arnold Schwarzenegger to the dollar's Woody Allen, the French wines we bought on the East Coast looked like much better value.

Californian wines are a funny bunch. You can get solid value at low prices, such as Gallo's range of Turning Leaf varietals for around $6.99 (around pounds 5.99 here), or the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge range at a similar level. Then you climb a notch in price and you're in danger. We bought several bottles for $15 or so which were big in alcohol but low on everything else, especially finesse. You admire them for a few sips, then wish you were drinking Cotes-du-Rhone with your barbecued lamb chops in soya-and-lemon marinade.

Climbing higher still, to the $18 to $25 range, you may find wines that compare with the best of France. Top-class Chardonnays in particular, such as Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres, pound the living daylights out of many Burgundies costing more than pounds 10. We drank the 1994 in New York, and it truly was glorious. Avery's of Bristol (01275 811 100) has the 1993 for sale at pounds 19.90, with the 1994 due soon at the same price. Nerve-racking, I agree, but this is a wine you can keep for years while waiting for The Right Occasion. Another great Californian Chardonnay to look for is Au Bon Climat, which costs less than Les Pierres.

I was particularly underwhelmed by the Sauvignon Blancs we drank while there, especially since a lovely New Zealand specimen such as Coopers Creek Sauvignon Blanc 1996 can be had over here for around pounds 7.50 from Somerfield, Unwins, Selfridges and elsewhere. So remember, where white wine is concerned, California remains Chardonnay country.

The undisputed star of our trip was Clos du Bois Sonoma County Merlot 1994, which I plucked from the shelf simply because my colour-conscious daughter Rebecca admired its kingfisher-blue capsule. Where her eye led, our palates followed: this is a show-stopping cavalcade of opulent berry flavours. Much of its complexity, I would guess, comes from the addition of 15 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon. You can get it here for around pounds 11, though stocks are dwindling. Ring Yates Brothers (01204 391777) for a list of stockists, or you can buy by mail order from them. The best thing about this wine is the back label, which states: "This is a rich wine. Enjoy it with decadent food."

Anyway, back to the boxes in the front hall. One was from Beringer, a house that's had its ups and downs but now seems to specialise in ups. Their 1994 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a joy, bursting with supple fruit flavours that flatter any red meat. It tasted even better the day after I opened it, which suggests that it might be worth decanting. With judicious mixtures of Cabernet Franc (10 per cent) and Merlot (2 per cent), this wine beats many comparable clarets of my acquaintance. You'll find it in the piles at Majestic for pounds 9.99, alongside some Californian bin- ends (until 15 September) including a powerful Clos du Val Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1992. This one's reduced from pounds 14.99 to pounds 10.99, and it, too, can use some air before it springs into action. Worth leaping for, while the bottles are still around.