FOOD & DRINK: Cross-Channel tasting

Try it at home, buy it in France. Kathryn McWhirter on a new Euro- service for wine lovers
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The Independent Culture
A WINE-BUYING day trip to Boulogne with three small children in tow should be a nightmare. But this time no one was sick, and no one screamed the hypermarket to a standstill while we scoured the wine shelves for likely bargains. After a peaceful day we slipped on to the 4.50pm train back to Folkestone, the car boot loaded with wine for the Christmas party - wine that we knew was good.

The first trick was to take the Tunnel - a smooth, vomit-free 35 minutes to France. Trick number two was to pre-taste and select our wines back home in England. All that was necessary in Boulogne was a five-minute, no-nonsense pick-up.

This wasn't just a wine writer's privilege. There are four British companies now offering the opportunity to taste at home and then scoop up the order in France, paying the cheaper French prices either in advance here or when you are there. The biggest, The Grape Shop of Boulogne and Clapham Junction, south-west London, boasts 800 wines, including 105 smart Australians and many French wines from small-scale growers. You taste samples bought either directly or by mail-order from Clapham (at British prices), then order a year's supply of your favourite finds. These will be ready for a quick exit from the Boulogne shop, which is right in the middle of the Hoverspeed port.

Scoops among the whites are a light, sharpish but honeyed 1993 Chardonnay Vin de Pays du Jardin de 1a France, Secher Frres (F13/£1.60); a soft, savoury, greengagey 1993 Domaine l'Argentier Terret, Vin de Pays des Ctes de Thau, Lurton (F17/£2.00); a 1993 Chardonnay Vin de Pays du Gard, Auvigue (F25/£3.00), which is full, ripe and peachy; an excellent value, rich, toasty white Burgundy, 1992 Bourgogne Chardonnay, Mestre-Michelot (F49/£6.00); and an easy, crisp, ripe 1994 Henry Lindeman's South East Australian Semillon- Chardonnay (F19/£2.30).

Reds include a stunning value 1990 Cousino Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon (F36/£4.40), Ribena fruity and oaky, a wine to drink or keep for a year. The outstanding 1991 Crozes-Hermitage Bernard Chave (F45/£5.50) is intense and complex; and the 1967 Berberana Rioja Reserva (F33/£4.00) is mature and savoury. At the cheaper end, Megre Merlot, Vin de Pays d'Oc (F21/£2.60) is soft and ripe; 1992 Domaine Saint Franois Ctes du Rousillon (F22/£2.70) is darkly blackberry fruity; the 1992 Chteau La Grave Singalier, Bordeaux Suprieur (F24/£2.90) is quite a big but soft, meaty claret; and the l991 Madiran, Domaine Sergent (F26/£3.20) is rich and mature with a range of dark, farmyardy, tobaccoey flavours.

Also in Boulogne is the warehouse of the Wine Collectors Club, a new venture by a respected British wine brokering firm that also owns The Dorking Wine Cellar. Membership is free until the end of the year, and will then cost £7.50 a year. For this, members will receive lists and glossy information sheets on the wines three times a year, plus a programme of wine events. They can order samples (single bottles to mixed cases) from Dorking, then collect their selected wines (by the complete case only) from a storage warehouse on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Boulogne.

Best buys among the 27 on the list are the white, gooseberry-fresh 1993 Ctes de Duras, Cuve Bois de Lamothe (23F/£2.85); a firm, figgy, peppery and really fruity red 1992 Faugres, Domaine du Fraisse (23F50/£2.85); and a lovely claret, 1993 Chteau Lyonnat, Lussac-St-Emilion (40F/£5.00) which is good now or to age for a year or two. Also good value are a grassy Vin de Pays de Coteaux du Libron (14F/£1.80); a very good honeyed and buttery 1993 Chablis Olivier Tricon (41F/£5.10); and a finer 1991 Chablis Premier Cru Mortmains (F57/£6.95) that will be better given a year or two to mature. The 1993 Beaujolais Suprieur, Vignerons de Bully (F24/£2.90) is fruity, light and easy; the 1992 Givry, Clos de la Barande (F36/£4.35) is excellent value for a firm but fruity red Burgundy. The wonderfully rich 1988 Champagne Serge Mathieu Brut (F102/ £12.45) could reasonably cost another £4, and the 1986 Chteau Montbenau1t, Coteaux du Layon (F41/£5.10) is a lovely sweet white.

For those still taking the ferry to Cherbourg the fourth outlet is five minutes from the boat. Richard Harvey Wines, run by Richard Harvey, Master of Wine, operates in Britain by mail- order from a Dorset office. The 130 wines, three out of four bottles French and mostly from small properties, are for sale by the bottle, mixed and whole case. You can pre-taste in Britain, or tuck into a dozen open bottles in the Cherbourg shop with the aid of friendly, knowledgeable staff. Some of the best buys are a lively, grassy 1993 Chteau Bauduc, Bordeaux Blanc Sec (F24/£2.90), a 1993 Domaine de la Ferr, Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Pays d'Oc (F16/£1.95), which is ripe, curranty and grassy, and three fizzy bargains: Domaine de l'Aigle, Jean-Louis Denois, Brut Tradition, Blanquette de Limoux (F39/£4.75), an attractive, Chard-onnay-like sparkling wine from south-west France; Seppelt Great Western Brut (F29/£3.50) from Australia; and a lovely soft, easy Champagne Brut Prestige, Alexandre Bonnet (F85/£10.40).

The Wine Society (life membership £20) also offers a pick-up service for 100 of its wines from a showroom in a warehouse in Hesdin, an hour's drive from the tunnel. Two Vins de Pays des Ctes de Gascogne are excellent value: 1993 Le Prada (F23/£2.85), lively and floral, and 1993 Domaine de Lahitte (F23/£2.85), serious and lemony. The Australian-made 1993 Chardonnay, Nagzrede (F22/£2.70) is rich and honeyed, and I find 1991 Sumarroca Cava Extra Brut (F40/£5.00) quite appealing, unlike most Spanish fizz. The 1993 Minervois, Domaine du Moulin (F24/£2.90) has lovely, ripe fruit, and two Bulgarian reds are a snip: soft, very fruity 1990 Lovico Suhindol Merlot Cellar Reserve (F21/£2.60) and 1989 Lodovico Suhindol Cabernet Sauvignon (F21/£2.60), which has mint, blackberry and elderberry fruit. The 1989 Chteau Beaumont, Haut-Mdoc (F54/£6.60) is a fleshy claret. From Australia the 1992 Lindeman's SE Australian Cabernet Sauvignon (F33/£4.00) is good, but you might also try the stunning 1991 Chteau Tahbilk Shiraz (F44/£5.30), a big, spicy red.

8 The 1985 edition of `The Cross Channel Drinks Guide' by Tom Stevenson (Absolute Press £6.99) was published this week.

WHERE TO BUY

The Grape Shop: Hoverspeed Port, Boulogne/ 135 Northcote Road, London SWll 6PX (071-924 3638).

La Maison du Vin: 71 Avenue Carnot, 50100 Cherbourg/Richard Harvey Wines, Bucknowle House, Bucknowle, Wareham, Dorset BH20 5PQ (0929 480352).

Wine Collectors Club: Warehouse in Boul-ogne/enquiries to Glebelands, Vincent Lane, Dorking, Surrey RH4 3YZ (0306 881062); the wines are also available by the case at British prices from The Dorking Wine Cellar at the same address.

The Wine Society: Warehouse in Hesdin, Normandy/Gunnels Wood Road, Stevenage, Hertfordshire SG1 2BG (0438 740222).

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