Eating & Drinking: Astonishingly cheap wine

AN ACQUAINTANCE in the wine trade, having praised a bottle of something-or-other I'd given him to taste, went on to say: "We could buy that wine, too; but we wouldn't be able to sell it." This person works for a smallish High Street chain of high quality. The wine came from an independent, the kind that can buy a few dozen cases of something interesting and sell it for around pounds 4 more than a comparable wine costs in the High Street. The indie can do that sort of thing; the chain cannot. Between those two worlds of retailing lies a universe of difference.

There's a similar gap in the world of supermarket wine-selling. Not as big, but a gap nonetheless. I'm thinking about it at the moment after recent tastings of wine from Tesco and Somerfield. Tesco is emphasising an improvement in quality between the mid- and the high-price levels, with interesting results. I'll be reporting on them next week.

Somerfield concentrates its attentions on wines selling at rock-bottom prices. Recognising that people come through the doors looking for bargains (only 30 per cent of wine sales top pounds 4 a bottle), it wants to make the cheapies as drinkable as they can possibly be. It doesn't matter that these buyers are not likely to say, "Hey, the pounds 2.99 Lambrusco at Kwik- e-Mart tastes much better than this!"

For Somerfield's wine-buying supremo Angela Mount, the commitment to the cheap wines is almost a personal mission. How else to explain why she taught herself Italian so she could work more closely with the suppliers of her pounds 2.99 Sicilian White? "I spend ages on those pounds 2.99 wines," she says, "because I think my name is on every bottle." And also, it might be added, because it's so much harder to get something decent when you sell it for that price. Many UK supermarkets work with wine suppliers to raise quality. Few try to sell so many for so little.

Not only does Somerfield concentrate on lower-priced wines, it also offers discounts on wines that were already cheap to begin with. This practice has always perplexed me. They do it, says Ms Mount, for good commercial reasons. "Regular customers want to try new things but are sometimes afraid of paying the full cost. The discounts are a way of reducing the financial risk of the trial. And usually it works. Sales are usually higher even when the special offer ends, because new drinkers are willing to pay full price." Thus, you have only two more days to catch their well- made Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon for pounds 2.99, if you're lucky. Normally the price is pounds 4.49, and even that's a bit of a bargain.

A Somerfield tasting is weird. Whereas most tastings start being fun when you leave pounds 3 behind, here the cheap wines are most satisfying. No oenological orgasms, just competent, enjoyable wines at sometimes stupe- fyingly low prices. That Somerfield Sicilian White 1998, for instance, is the nicest swallow of citrussy, appley fruit you could imagine for pounds 2.99. Somerfield Vin de Pays Comte Tolosan 1998 (pounds 2.99, available from May) is another white with clean contours but a full flavour. If you really want to push the boat out, pounds 3.25 will buy fatness and elegance in Somerfield Vin de Pays de Coteaux de l'Ardeche White. Three reds in the same price- bed are Somerfield Portuguese Red 1998 (pounds 2.99), which is peppery, spicy and tart; Somerfield Vin de Pays de Coteaux de l'Ardeche (pounds 3.29), with hugely appealing black-cherry fruit and whispering tannins; and a liquoricey, jammy Portada Red 1997 (pounds 3.49), made in Estremadura by Jose Neiva.

With due respect to Ms Mount's autodidactic endeavours in Italian, the French and Iberian ranges remain the company's strengths in Europe. I have raved about several in the past, and would add another: Bright Brothers Navarra Garnacha 1997 (pounds 3.99), a fat bag of juicy black fruit, surely a candidate for house wine anywhere outside Millionaire's Row.

As much as I love any company that takes such trouble with its cheapest wines, I have to add that the most impressive wine in my tasting was also the most expensive. This will not be available until early summer, but snap it up when you see it. Somerfield's Prince William Millennium Champagne 1990 (pounds 19.99) has cheerful acidity in balance with lots of yeasty fruit flavours. It compares favourably with wines costing pounds 10 more. OK, it's not quite the bargain you get in the pounds 2.99 wunderkinder with which Somerfield is so proudly obsessed. But it's close enough.

To drink now

The wines made by Gordon Russell at Esk Valley in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, are hard to find outside restaurants. Quantities are small, UK allocations even smaller. This is a damned shame, because many of them are exceptional. All the more reason to try to track down a bottle of Esk Valley Chenin Blanc 1997 (about pounds 5.50-pounds 6.50), whose delicate, mineral-and-pineapple flavours are lightly sweetened by oak. This grape is an Esk speciality, and while this is one of the basic versions, it is well suited either to early annihilation or a lengthy period in suspended animation. Telephone Hatch Mansfield (01753 621126) for stockists.