Forget the off-licence, get online

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT
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The Independent Culture
An educational excursion into cyberspace brings rich rewards from the virtual vineyards

Back from your hols but still feeling restless? Then sit down at the computer and visit a trio of websites I've looked in on recently. First is the small but fascinating site run by Chateau d'Yquem, at http://www.chateau-yquem.fr/english/. There you will hear about details of visits to the chateau ("groups are limited to 20 people per visit to ensure maximum satisfaction", map of the area shown below), which may be reason enough to send you back to France.

Even if you don't pay an actual visit, you can read detailed blow-by- blow accounts of the last vintage, which convey some high drama. Week one: "We are going to stop the first wave of picking after harvesting almost the entire vineyard (80 hectares) during the past week. This evening, the new vintage will be fermenting away in barrels. We had to eliminate many grapes that were attacked by vinegary rot, or drosophila. Yesterday, 11 September, we harvested the equivalent of 20 barrels with even more than the 20 degrees potential alcohol we had originally hoped for. All the grapes that have reached this level will be picked by this evening.

"We are expecting a little rain," it goes on, "a few iso- lated showers that will be perfect. Outside pickers (the ones who do not work regularly on the estate) were summoned to continue working on Monday morning. This is to start off the second wave of picking because an anticyclone is expected over the weekend, and it is due to last a week. It seems likely that yields will increase as the grapes change gradually, and somewhat capriciously, from the overripe to the truly 'rotten' stage (during which the grapes are round, but coloured), and then on to the 'roti', or fully botrytised stage." By the time you get to the end, you have some inkling of why Yquem costs around pounds 1,000 a case (ex-cellars) the minute it's released.

My tip about Yquem's website came from Tom Cannavan, whose own site has featured in this column before. Following further press coverage (they heard it here first!), he decided to revamp his cyber-cave. And to rename it, to the user-friendly address www.wine-pages. com. Top features for my money are the 650-plus tasting notes (which can be searched), a wine quiz (I won't tell you my score), and a small but growing number of well-informed and provocative essays. The two called "On the dumbing down of wine" and "Taking part in the International Wine Challenge", in which Mr Cannavan was a judge this year, make the site worth a visit alone. With all this, plus expanded guides to regions, restaurant and book reviews, vintage charts and much more, this really is an exemplary wine site.

And finally, not quite on the same level but very interesting in its way for devotees (or prospective devotees) is the Pinotage Club at http://come.to/pinotage. Pinotage is principally a South African grape, created from a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut in the 1920s, so it's amusing to see that this site originates in the Napa Valley. But they're growing Pinotage there as well, and the extreme versatility of the grape may give them international success in due course. Who knows, it may turn out to be the Cabernet Sauvignon of the new millennium. Or do I mean the Merlot of the new millennium?

Anyway, the site reports that the Paarl Vintners Wine Committee selected Paarl's top six Pinotages after a blind tasting last year. While I only know one of them, the one I know is a honey: Landskroon Pinotage 1996, sold here by Asda for pounds 3.99. Incidentally, the same winery makes a very good Cinsaut Shiraz 1996 (Safeway, pounds 3.99) which, though big in alcohol (13.5 per cent), has nicely velvety fruit, light and smooth. Both are a good buy for cheap, satisfying drinking. Just the sort of glass you'd want on your desk while doing a spot of wine- surfing, as long as you didn't spill it on the keyboard.

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