FOOD & DRINK : GRAPEVINE

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS no hoax phone call. The major star of French cinema, Gerard Depardieu, had been bowled over by a delicious bottle of white wine in a Rhone valley restaurant, and was phoning the vineyard on the steep, craggy hills above the river to ask if he might visit the cellar. Alain Paret was busy with his vines just then, and had no time. But Depardieu came back months later, and this time he met the gentle, stocky winemaker. The star's helicopter landed on the playing fields of the village school, to the delight of local infants.

It was Paret's white Condrieu that had taken Depardieu's fancy, although the Parets (Alain and his Swiss wife) are more famous for their prize- winning red St Joseph and Syrah Cotes-du-Rhone. Paret had only two hectares of vines producing the fragrant white Viognier grapes that make Condrieu. But he had just inherited another two-and-a-half hectares of virgin hillside that was entitled to the Condrieu appellation. So Depardieu went into 50/50 partnership with the Parets and planted the vineyard; then together they bought another Condrieu vineyard called Lys de Volan. "It's an exceptional microclimate that produces very small yields of wonderfully intensely flavoured grapes," according to Paret.

It takes about eight years for a vineyard to mature and begin producing really concentrated flavours. The first wine from the Lys de Volan vineyard, the 1994, will arrive in Britain in the new year (around pounds 23 a bottle, imported by Walter Siegel: 01256 701101). But the wine from their first property, 1993 Condrieu, Les Ceps du Nebadon, Paret & Depardieu (pounds 16.99), has just arrived at the Wine Cellar chain in the north of England, Epsom and London W4. This is a lovely dry, exotically fruit-flowery white. Drink it now, young, since Condrieu and other Viognier wines fade with age (01925 602986 for mail order.)

The label doesn't even mention "Gerard"; it's strictly surname only. "We've never talked about the partnership," says Paret. "I prefer people to come to me to buy a wine of quality rather than to buy a prestigious name. Anyhow, we make so little, and it all sells so easily in France just on its taste. This year, with the hot weather, we had a small harvest, so the flavour is very concentrated. We'll have made only 15,000 bottles.

"Gerard and I are the same age - 46 - and we share a passion for wine. We get on well. In the past year, however, he has hardly been down here. He's been very involved with films, always in the USA. Now he says he wants to rest a bit, and that we'll see more of him."

Depardieu, whose passport apparently now gives his profession as "acteur et vigneron", has also bought the Chateau Tigne and its vineyards, near Angers in the Loire valley. There he makes sweet Coteaux du Layon and various dry Loire wines, getting involved himself in the winemaking, although he still lives just south of Paris.

RED Burgundy rarely justifies its price. There are disappointing bottles at pounds 30 as well as at pounds 6. But sometimes the flavours are so wonderful that, if the bank balance permits or, better still, someone else is paying, you can sip away into a luxury world where no one counts the cost of each grain of caviar. Three of the new, up-market red Burgundies at the top 20 Sainsbury's stores have those sort of flavours. Stunningly intense but elegant 1992 Vosne Romanee, Gerard Mugneret (pounds l6.95) is ideally a wine for keeping a few years, but it's already seductively drinkable. The 1990 Nuits St Georges, Camille Giroud (pounds 18.95) is just as stunning. And very nearly as wonderful is the 1992 Pommard Les Perrieres, Jean-Michel Gaunoux (pounds l5.95), ideally for drinking in two to three years' time. All these wines are expected to sell out by the end of this month. For advice on your nearest "top" store, telephone Sainsbury's Customer Services on Freephone 0800 636 262 (8am-6pm every day but Sunday).

FOR something white, different and brilliant value, try two new Hungarian whites from Waitrose. 1994 Deer Leap Dry White, Hrslevelu, Debro (pounds 2.99) is an intriguing, crisp wine with something of the grassy, honeyed flavours of Chablis, but also an extra floral dimension. Hrslevelu (the 's' is a drunken 'sh', the 'u', pronounced as in French) is one of the grapes that goes into the famous sweet wines of Tokay, but it is grown and turned into dry wine all over Hungary. The Hungarians don't mind it tasting rather soft (short of acidity), but most dry Hrslevelu lacks the crispness Western drinkers demand. But the Australian Nick Butler and his Hungarian associate winemaker Akos Kamocsay have achieved crispness as well as flavour in the 1994 vintage. The other new Wait-rose white is a little more expensive, but still stunning value. The rich, subtle, dry and honeyed 1994 Disznoko Furmint Tokay, Hungary (pounds 4.99) is made by a Basque winemaker in a spectacular new winery built by a French insurance company that also owns major chateaux in Bordeaux. The winery's main product is sweet Tokay, but they also make a little dry wine from the main Tokay grape, the Furmint.

UNLESS you have an illicit still in your back garden, you won't have tasted English pear brandy; the Hereford Cider Museum (a non-profit making charitable trust) claims that the one they are offering later this month is the first ever made. In 1984 the museum persuaded HM Customs & Excise to grant them a licence to distill cider into apple brandy - the first licence in Britain for more than 200 years. Hereford Pear Brandy was an experiment seven years ago; 520 half bottles go on sale from the end of November. It's a gentle, mellow brandy with hints of almond and a subtle flavour of pear. Half bottles (pounds l4 each) can be reserved by sending pounds 5 deposit to King Offa Dis-tillery, 21 Ryelands Street, Here-ford, HR4 OLW (0432 354207). The Hereford Cider Brandy (pounds 21.50 for 70cl, pounds 12.25 for 35cl mail order, or from local Safeways) is also good: smooth, gently woody and full of vanilla and toffee-apple flavour.

The only other apple brandy now distilled in Britain makes an interesting contrast. Somerset Royal Cider Brandy (pounds 9.95 per half bottle in Sainsbury's in London and the South West, or sold in miniatures in major Waitrose) is less smooth and oaky, but very attractive indeed with its fresherl livelier, cidery character.

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