fine wine

Not all great wines are expensive - not all expensive wines are great. Kathryn McWhirter takes her pick of top-price wines and commends some more affordable bottles that deliver the taste of luxury
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The Independent Culture
HOW TO define a "luxury" wine? Is it one that costs more than you can really afford? More than you would usually pay? (How much is that, anyway? It might be anything from pounds 5 to pounds 30 - perhaps more for Champagne - if a quick poll of my friends is anything to go by.)

No, price is not the best criterion, since even a pounds 30 price tag is no guarantee of fine quality. Particularly in the top areas of France, too many wines trade on the cachet of their name.

A Meursault grower sets his price according to the region's reputation, whatever the individual wine's quality. High price in this case is not a matter of scarcity. There is more white wine made in Meursault than in any other village of Burgundy's prestigious Cote d'Or. Some 80 different growers bottle and sell a Meursault from their own tiny vineyards, and many more sell their wine to merchants who blend it into a larger-scale Meursault of their own. Some are skilful, knowledgeable and conscientious; others are not. Some produce wines to swoon over; others can't, or don't. There's no real plonk, but plenty of pounds 12 or pounds 20 bottles that would leave you feeling puzzled or downright cheated.

So, forget price. For me, a luxury wine is distinguished by its taste. An Australian Shiraz, for instance, costing a modest pounds 7.99, can be exquisite; a Burgundy for the same money is likely to disappoint. What sets a great, luxurious wine apart from a merely good one is complexity, intensity, balance. In a mouthful of the finest wines (whether they sell for pounds 6.99 or pounds 96.99 a bottle) you can discern different, interlinked layers of flavour, and new nuances of taste that develop and change as you savour and swallow. A good but not great wine, by comparison, is simple, straightforward. Intensity of flavour can be common to both good and great wines, but complexity lifts a wine on to an altogether higher plane.

When the time comes to drink the perfect wine - and the ideal moment might be several years after you bought it - its constituents should be harmonious: any astringent tannin and oakiness should have softened so as not to obscure fruitiness and flavours; the acidity should be neither too sharp nor too soft, and the alcohol just high enough to give the wine the right body to match the flavour, tannin, fruitiness and acidity. A great wine maker has to succeed in this balancing act. A good wine merchant has to judge in a young but fine wine how the tannin, fruit and flavours are likely to develop, and whether they are likely to fall into perfect balance in five or 10 years' time.

The most sublime examples of complex, intense, perfectly balanced wines do tend to come from those top areas of France and, in years when the Riesling grape ripens to the full, from Germany .

White Burgundy at its most delectable is almost unbeatable: you can't go far wrong with any grower on the tip-top Burgundian white vineyards of Le Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne. And that is as it should be, at prices soaring way up from pounds 55 a bottle for a young wine, not yet ready to drink.

Over in Bordeaux, few other clarets ever manage to achieve the complexity of taste of the famous names of the Medoc: Chateaux Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. A bottle of Sauternes or Barsac from a good year can be bliss: lush, immensely sweet, creamy in texture, the very essence of luxury. Chateau d'Yquem is the pinnacle, but Chateau Climens and a few others follow close behind.

Champagne is, of course, synonymous with luxury. It is thought of as the ultimate indulgence, a reckless and heady extravagance. But you have to crash through the pounds 30 price barrier to find truly luxurious, truly sublime, complex taste. You might, for instance, spend pounds 40 and more for Krug's Clos du Mesnil, Moet et Chandon's Dom Perignon, Roederer's Cristal, Bollin-ger's RD, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne or Veuve Cliquot's La Grande Dame. Vintage wines from any of these firms would do the trick, too, a little more cheaply.

The Syrah grape (Shiraz in Aust-ralia) reaches those highest levels of complexity in the best wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie, the two finest of the northern Rhone areas. In Cote Rotie, the ultimate wines are the single-vineyard offerings from Guigal. Fabulous wines for fabulous prices, they make even the top Hermitages, from Chave and Jaboulet La Chapelle, look cheap. Australia's famous Penfolds Grange (almost entirely Shiraz, although some vintages have a little Cabernet Sauvignon too) is a monumental wine, which keeps and gains complexity for years and years. Henschke's Hill of Grace Shiraz is nearly as good.

The best of mature ports, sherries and Madeiras are in the top echelon. So are the finest sweet Rieslings from Germany. In that coolish climate, the Riesling grape reaches its full ripeness in only about four years out of 10. When it does ripen enough to make the sweetest styles (Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese), the wines are very expensive. Quantities of these are always small, and most are snapped up in Germany itself. Eiswein is another stunner, pressed from grapes picked at night while frosted solid. The juice in the grape stays frozen and as a result is highly concentrated in sugar and acid, making a very sweet, high-acid wine that will keep forever - if you can bear not to drink it.

Just a few other wines around the world make the luxury of luxuries grade, but if your budget won't stretch so far there are more affordable treats.

If you can't afford top white Bur-gundy, you can set your sights a little lower and, by choosing your grower and vintage with care, you should find the taste of luxury for under pounds 10. At leading Sainsbury's stores in December, the 1993 Montagny Premier Cru, Jean-Marc Boilleau (pounds 9.95) is lovely, elegant, complex, classy stuff (it beats hands down the Sainsbury's Meursault, which cost pounds 18). Otherwise, go for the lighter, subtler style of top New World Char-donnay. 1992 Hunter's Chardonnay (pounds 10.99 Wine Cellar) from New Zea-land is delicious, elegant and complex.

If you can't afford top red Burgundy, California Pinot Noir is probably the wine to go for, though there are exciting ones from New Zealand and Oregon. The best is the delicious 1993 Saints-bury Pinot Noir (pounds 11.50 The Wine Society) from the Carneros Valley of California. The 1993 Sterling Vine-yards Winery Lake Pinot Noir (pounds 6.99 Oddbins) is also delicious and complex.

If you can't afford top claret, the second labels of good chateaux are often a fine substitute. 1992 Clos du Marquis (pounds 11.99 Wine Cellar) is an excellent example, classy and elegant despite a difficult vintage. 1990 Chateau St Bonnet (pounds 7.45 selected Sainsbury's) is another classy claret from the Medoc, all cedar and blackcurrant. California is another source of good Cabernet-based wines, whether blends of more than one grape variety, such as the rich, oaky 1992 Flora Springs Trilogy (pounds 14.99 Oddbins), or stand-alone Cabernets such as the supple, elegant 1992 Ridge Santa Cruz Cabernet (pounds 14.99 Oddbins, pounds 7.99 per half, Majestic). The Australian 1991 Pen-folds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 7.99 selected Somerfield) is also ripe, blackcurranty and astonishing value.

If you can't afford top Champagne, given the price of any decent bottle, the countries of the New World offer much better value, but really complex sparklers are thin on the ground. Pelorus Brut, from New Zealand (pounds 12.99 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk, Bennetts of Chipping Campden, Peter Green of Edinburgh, Harvey Nichols, Justerini & Brookes, Selfridges, Oddbins Fine Wine Shops) is particularly good, rich and savoury; while Louis Roederer Quartet (pounds 12.99 Wine Cellar; Majestic - buy two, save pounds 5, in a special Christmas offer), from California, is subtle and quite delicious.

If you can't afford the top northern Rhone reds or Grange Shiraz, you'll be stunned by the powerful, concentrated complexity of 1992 St Hallets Old Block Shiraz (pounds 9.25 King & Barnes of Horsham, pounds 9.49, Portland Wine Co of Manchester, Hale and Macclesfield, pounds 9.98, Reid Wines of Hallatrow near Bristol, pounds 9.99, Australian Wine Club by mail order on 0800 716 893), or 1992 E&E Black Pepper Shiraz (pounds 10.95 selected Co-op branches, pounds 12.99 Wine Cellar and Davisons).

If you can't afford top Sauternes or Barsac, try a rich, classy but less highly rated Sauternes, 1990 Chateau Bastor Lamontagne, Sauternes (pounds 8.99 per half, Waitrose and Findlater Mackie Todd). Or go for the luscious, complex, 1992 Tesco Noble Botrytis Semillon (pounds 6.99 a half bottle) from Australia.

If you can't afford sweet German Riesling, the best substitute is a New Zealand late harvest Riesling. With its fine acidity, it is nearly a match for the German. Protectionist European regulations have kept it out of Britain, but look out for 1994 Villa Maria Noble Riesling next spring or summer. Mean-while, substitutes are hard to come by, but 1991 Apetloner Bouvier Trocken-beerenauslese (pounds 7.49 per half, Co-op) from Austria is intense, very sweet and apricoty, and the sticky, raisiny German 1993 Kirchheimer Schwarzerde Beerenauslese, Zimmerman Graeff (pounds 3.99 per half, Co-op, Majestic; pounds 4.35 Waitrose) is brilliant value.

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