BUYING BY ACCIDENT: 2

Beverage Report
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The Independent Culture
Correct Me if I'm wrong, but I suspect that most wine-buying has more to do with inertia and convenience than passion and dedication. It pleases harmless drink-drudges like me to think that our opinions count, that we really can persuade readers to seek out that obscure retailer who happens to be selling the cream of the 1996 Muscadet sur lie. The reality may be that most people just buy from the nearest shop, or one that delivers, or at the supermarket where they happen to do their weekly shop.

If it's true that habit rules over oenophilic dedication, that's all the more reason (as I suggested last week) to let someone else choose your wine for you. Anybody patronising a high-quality mail-order specialist can be pretty sure of getting something merely "interesting" at worst, and memorable at best. So if you want to boldly go where the professionals lead you, and damn the split infinitive, here are three good places to start.

ADNAMS

One of the best mail-order merchants, Adnams offers a selection of 16 mixed cases in their exceptionally attractive catalogue (pounds 2.50). The range includes the usual regions and nations, but I prefer their "Superstar" cases, categorised by price: under pounds 5.50; pounds 5.50 to pounds 8.50; and pounds 8.50 to pounds 12.50. From the mid-priced case I have been particularly bowled over by a Chianti look-alike called Sangiovese di Toscana, Conti Contini 1994 (pounds 5.85) which has a heap more character than most Chianti at that price. If you'd rather let the seasons guide you, then consider the "Seasonal Cellar" scheme: four cases a year at either pounds 79 or pounds 125 per case including delivery. More intriguing still - and touched by the virtuous wand of self-improvement - are the mixed cases based on the Adnams Wine Course. These come complete with tasting notes and information on grape varieties and regions of production. Why not start a Drinking Group (on the model of Reading Groups), and get together with friends to taste and discuss? All in the service of enlightenment, of course .... The number to crunch is 01502 727222.

THE WINE SOCIETY

This venerable organisation operates a "Wine Without Fuss" scheme, offering mixed cases at intervals of your choosing. There are four packages, the cheapest being their "Everyday" case costing a maximum of pounds 55. A recent case included some startlingly fine things, especially Domaine Jouarres, Cotes de la Malapere 1995. This pint-sized appellation near Carcasonne was one that I had previously known only from books, but it's clearly capable of great things: Domaine Jouarres, 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, has a fullness and complexity that belies its pounds 4.10 price tag. You can also buy Regional cases, which change quarterly, at around pounds 85. I'm not a member myself, but my grandmother-in-law was. She gave us a Regional case every year for Christmas, and we never got a duff bottle. Lifetime membership costs pounds 25, a good investment in drinking pleasure. Ring 01438 740222 for details.

THE AUSTRALIAN WINE CLUB

These savvy specialists have 4,200 active members, and the lazy buyers among them have two choices of pre-selected plans: Four Seasons and Wizard of Oz. The Four Seasons plan costs pounds 75 a quarter, for which you get a mixed case (red and white) at a discount of around pounds 9. The Wizard plan offers better wines at the higher price of pounds 89.95, which they guarantee will save you at least pounds 9 over normal prices. You can quit at any time and skip a case (whose contents are announced two weeks before delivery) if you wish to. You also get a 10 per cent discount on other wines bought from them, and all are sold with a "no-quibble" refund policy. Warning: not all the AWC wines that I've tried will be to everyone's taste, although they are certainly full of person-ality. Unwarning: their Oz Rieslings - like the Eldredge Clare Valley Riesling 1996, pounds 7.99 - is fascinating and fantastic. Subscription enquiries to Mark Manson, 0800 852 6004.

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