Drink: Drowning in the Rhone

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THINK RED. Think Cotes du Rhone. Think large advertising budgets. Think wine that possesses the familiarity of a brand without delivering the consistent quality that brands imply.

That was the message from the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks ago, when the annual trade tasting for this well-publicised stuff took place. A vast fountain of wine gushes from the region, some 3.5 million hectolitres out of 77,000 hectares in 1997. If my calculator is working, that translates into something over 4.6 billion bottles of wine. This makes the Rhone the second largest AOC area in France. Exports to the UK that year were 148,000 hectolitres, about 4 per cent of total production.

We like the stuff a lot, clearly; but why, exactly? I think part of the reason is brand familiarity. Seeing the words Cotes du Rhone on a label is almost like seeing the words Diet Coke. Another part of the reason is that much of the stuff is cheap: when you are looking for something around the pounds 4 mark for not very serious consumption, the Rhone will always be a chief contender. Perhaps the least important reason is quality. Zipping round the tables at the RFH, I was struck by how perfectly dull many of the wines were. This is always a danger with the Rhone valley, where some wines have to come from properties not particularly well suited to the growing of grapes.

It's particularly problematic in 1997, which was less consistently successful a vintage than its predecessor, especially in the south. Many of the wines showed thin, lacklustre fruit with low acidity. Careful picking is the order of the day. If you're a real fan, grab all the 1996s you can lay your hands on: they'll benefit from extra bottle age in any case. Or just go on to 1998, which was a much better year. Best of all, assume that 1997 is not the vintage for wonderful stuff at the pounds 4 level. Plan on spending more money for Cotes du Rhone-Villages, or for the great crus from the north. Of those 1997s that I've tasted, a few stand out. Majestic has a Vacqueyras, made by the reliable co-operative at Beaumes de Venise, which is light but nicely rounded and not exorbitant at pounds 4.99. For pounds 5.49 they've got a good Sablet, La Ramillade, which carries a heftier punch of spicy Grenache fruit.

Moving up the scale further, ring Adnams (01502 727 200) for Rasteau, Chateau de Trignon (pounds 8) which is everything a Village wine should be. While you're at it, snap up some of their Gigondas 1996, Domaine Cayron (pounds 11). It has a wonderful weight of juniper spice and herbal flavours on top. Splendid stuff, especially if you keep it another year or two.

If the main event was sometimes dispiriting, a subsidiary tasting nearby presented an entirely different picture. This was the room devoted to Cornas, the tiny northern AOC which produces just 1 per cent of the valley's wine. Cornas has long been viewed as one of the Rhone's lesser-known jewels. It certainly is a jewel, even if it's no longer undiscovered.

The wines on show that day were all 1996s, and availability is a problem for the best of them. Take one of my favourites: the Cornas from Auguste Clape. The Wine Spectator raved about it in December and the UK importer, Yapp (01747 860 423), sold out within days. It recommends instead the 1996 Cornas from Jean Louis Thiers (pounds 15.50) or a mixed case of three other Clape wines, pounds 99 including delivery.

Elsewhere on the Cornas table was one that you should soon be able to locate fairly easily: Cornas Domaine St Pierre 1996, from the august house of Paul Jaboulet. At between pounds 20 and pounds 23 from Oddbins, Berry Bros & Rudd and the Wine Society, this is beautiful stuff. So is Domaine Courbis "Champelrose" 1996 (pounds 15) from Bat and Bottle (01785 284 495). The 1996 is running out and you'll need to act now if you want a bottle; orders can still be placed for the 1997. Of even more uncertain availability is Cornas Domaine du Tunnel "Prestige" 1996. This is a really great wine of whose whereabouts I'll inform you when I can.

Bear in mind with all these wines that they are made for the long haul - five years at least, 10 by preference. But if you have the patience to wait, they'll repay you handsomely.

To drink soon

It had to happen. Leading importer Ehrmanns has registered Y2K as a trademark. These bottles have yet to emerge, but there's no shortage of millennial products. Sainsbury's has a surprisingly good Vintage Millennium Cava 1997 (pounds 5.99) and a Cuvee Grand Cru Millennium Champagne (pounds 16.99). To see in the Y2K in really opulent style, grab some Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1990 (pounds 54.99, Bottoms Up and Wine Rack). Stupefying price but wonderful wine, with amazing marmaladey richness for a wine made from white grapes only. Stocks are plentiful, so you can start saving now ...