Food & Drink: Richard Ehrlich's beverage report - Some words best red

Where maximum inward wine-flow meets minimum outward cash flow
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The Independent Culture
THERE'S A funny hiatus in the wine business after Christmas and the New Year. Fewer press releases, fewer catalogues, fewer samples. This makes my life easier, of course, lightening the load of bottles and paper. It also makes me wonder what the merchants expect people to drink. For many, myself included, the answer lies in good, cheap bottles which guarantee inward wine-flow without excessive outward cash-flow. Two bottles fitting that bill are highlighted in the wine box (right). But there are others, both red and white, that have come my way of late.

One of the most curious is called simply Chilean White Wine (Somerfield, pounds 2.99). Made from the Pedro Ximenez grape, more usually used to add sweetness to sherry, it's somewhat reminiscent of Verdelho and has an intriguing soft fruit with good balancing acidity. Quite unlike any other wine I've ever tasted, it provides irrefutable evidence that there is Life After Chardonnay, and worth a punt at the low price.

This is more a season for red, though, and Waitrose has a number of good bottles even on the bottom rungs of the price ladder. Their list includes something which I never thought I would see: a good wine from Morocco. Domaine Cicogne Grenache-Cinsault 1996 (pounds 3.29) is a 60-40 blend of the named grapes, and is made from vines imported during the colonial era. The wine is earthy, spicy and warming, with mellow cherry fruit and pretty good length. Perfect stuff for cold winter nights. Cheaper still is a Vin de Pays d'Oc, Domaine de Rose Syrah/Merlot 1996 (pounds 2.99). An unusual pairing of grapes producing a fat, lively, tannic wine with impeccable credentials for parties or midweek pasta. And best of all, another strange blend of grapes from the same territory: Winter Hill Pinot Noir/ Merlot Vin de Pays d'Oc 1996 (pounds 3.89). The wine is made with techniques designed to get everything out of the grapes, and it succeeds: deep colour, big fruit, a lot of depth for a fluid sold so cheap. Highly recommended.

For those seeking richer pleasures, there seems to be a general consensus that the 1996 vintage in Burgundy was one of the best in recent years. The wines are now being offered by a number of merchants, at roughly similar prices. And while the prices are high, as you would expect from Burgundy, the outlandish sums fetched by red Bordeaux make them seem, er, decent value at least. If you're a customer of Tanners, Loeb, Bibendum, or any of the other general outlets offering the wines, you'll have already received the necessary information.

If you're not on a general list, and you're interested, consider the specialist supplier Montrachet (0171 928 1990). Its list of 1996 reds features 21 producers, all of sound mind and body, and offers both a sampling case (pounds 250 excluding VAT) and a list of 14 recommendations at prices starting from pounds 105 plus VAT. Apart from the sampler, all purchases must be in unmixed cases, but you should consider splitting the goods with like-minded friends.

Further news on the Internet front. Berry Bros & Rudd, celebrating its 300th birthday this year, has a vintage chart going right back to 1846, with numerical ratings and guidance about how the wines are drinking now. Claret from 1900, for instance, gets 10 out of 10 but - to my astonishment - is described as showing its age. The 1921 Sauternes/ Barsac, by contrast, gets the same rating but is apparently drinking well. I'll start cracking my case of Chateau Yquem 1921 tomorrow, then. If you're looking for wine rather than information, you can go straight to the order forms for Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne. Interested in the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945? pounds 4,075 a bottle, and how many would you like? The address: http://www.berry- bros.co.uk.

And finally ... The proliferation of pre-mixed cocktails continues as drinks companies seek to "add value" to cheap ingredients through a combination of slick packaging and clever marketing. One of the latest wheezes is Ginzing, a mixture of Gordon's gin with ginseng, guarana, schizandra, muira puama, wolfberry and taurine among other life-enhancing botanicals. The flavour is pretty dire, but I suspect that doesn't matter to the manufacturer. This kind of drink is the alcoholic equivalent of "functional foods" boosted with vitamins and minerals to make a dietary supplement in chewable form. I eagerly await the arrival of high-fibre Martini, and the Banana Daiquiri with folic acid - specially designed for pregnant women.

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