ESCAPE FROM THE MOB

Although bewildering, the London Wine Trade Fair also has its high points
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The Independent Culture
IN MAY, every year, the London Wine Trade Fair fills Olympia with tens of thousands of bottles. Open only to the trade and to press visitors, it is truly an awe- inspiring sight. Drinks writers like me could, in theory, do all their tasting and talking for the year in the space of three days.

The bottles bear corks and caps. They are cheap and expensive, great and good, bad and indifferent. Every wine-producing country is represented, whether in national stands (from Uruguay to France) or through wholesalers and importers. Someone who was so inclined could eschew sobriety for 72 hours - but the intensity of the deal-making and tasting would put the reveller at a disadvantage. The LWTF is for professionals; don't try this at home.

Having never been before, I found the fair completely bewildering. Tasting in a mob is not my strong point, and I simply couldn't face up to the challenge. I decided to wimp out by gravitating to the quieter upstairs section, away from the huge stands on the main floor, and while there I found a few tasty nuggets that seemed worth passing on.

The tastiest was a small stand run by a firm that acts mostly as an importer and wholesaler, with clients concentrating on restaurants and clubs, but does do retail business as well. It's called Peter Watts Wines (01376 561130), it's based in Coggeshall, Essex, and it does most of its buying directly from small producers who have a tendency to become friends of Mr Watts. This is a place for wines with personality, not necessarily the best examples of their appellations but each of them good, and many of them not sold retail anywhere else.

From the short Watts list I was particularly impressed by one of the cheapest, a Sauvignon Melon 1997, Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France (pounds 3.95), which takes the Muscadet grape and gives it extra character through blending 50:50 with Sauvignon Blanc. More interesting still at the cheap end was an oddball called Domaine de Lacquy, Vin de Pays de Terroirs Landais, "Sables Fauves" 1994 (pounds 4.25). This Colombard-dominated blend from a Cognac- producing area bears an obvious similarity to wines from the Cotes de Gascogne but beats most examples for complexity. Mr Watts informs me that it has good potential for ageing, which is almost unheard of for these wines; note the vintage to see that it's true.

Higher up the price scale lie better- known appellations with serious distinction. The basic Chablis 1996, Domaine des Marronniers (pounds 9.95) is fine, flinty, very traditional stuff. Of a clutch of clarets from off-years I enjoyed a lightweight Listrac-Medoc cru bourgeois called Chateau Cap Leon Veyrin 1992 (pounds 9.25), decent depth of blackcurrant fruit and a good buy at the price. And they sell a wonderful grower's Champagne, Nomine Renard Cuvee Speciale Brut (pounds 14.95), with the tiniest pinprick bubbles and well knitted, toastily mature fruit from spend-ing three and a half years in the bottle before release.

If you want something less costly, try the Minervois, Chateau La Grave Rouge 1994 (pounds 5.35) for its peppery, berry-rich fruit and tannin to keep it going for a couple of more years in the bottle. But the best of all was another special- occasion wine, Gigondas Domaine du Grapillon d'Or 1994 (pounds 10.40). The tannins here are still a bit chewy, but they won't be for long; another year in bottle and that sumptuously dark blackberry fruit will be singing in full voice.

Mr Watts said that he doesn't get much press coverage because of the mostly local nature of his retail business. I was delighted to make his acquaintance, and our meeting persuaded me that there must be other independents like him - people who deserve the attention usually given to retailers with nationwide coverage. Do you have one in your area? Drop me a line and let me know.

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