Fresh from the south

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The Independent Culture
When they were launched in 1989, Wine Rack, with their tidy wooden shelves, bins and barrels, were Thresher's well-researched riposte to Oddbins, offering an upbeat range of fine wines and opportunities to browse. Since then Wine Rack have struggled to break free from their conceptual chains.

Three years ago, Thresher's South African range consisted of just five wines, the existence of which was something of an embarrassment to the firmly anti-apartheid buying team. Now, to give stuffing to the proud boast that "Wine Rack leads the high street in authority and innovation", Thresher have launched 45 wines from South Africa - and a third of the wines in their new range are available exclusively in Wine Rack's 118 stores.

The wine buyer for South Africa, Lucy Warner, has ventured into co-ops, big wineries and small estates to show the country's burgeoning diversity of styles. In particular, the range reflects this buyer's enthusiasm for the chenin blanc, and pinotage, the Stellenbosch-bred pinot noir-cinsault crossing, which can produce wines with banana-like undertones and plenty of fruit, spice and poke.

For example, at less than pounds 4 it's worth waiting for the 1996 whites, which will be fresher and spikier than most of their 1995 counterparts. KWV remains an anachronism, its apparently popular wines improving but still lacking the vibrancy of the Cape's more modern styles. The best whites are in the pounds 4-pounds 6 bracket, where Hartenberg is a welcome arrival with a well-crafted l995 Sauvignon Blanc and a fragrantly lime-citrussy l995 Riesling at pounds 4.99, Mosel-like in its classic riesling, petrol character.

The showcasing of Jeff Grier's Villiera Estate is justified by this Paarl estate's continuing surge in quality. His l995 Villiera Oaked Chenin, pounds 4.99, is ripely concentrated and peachy, with a touch of oak to add complexity. There's plenty of weight and mingled herbaceous and gooseberry characters in the Villiera Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 5.69, Wine Rack/Bottoms Up, and partial barrel-fermentation adds a smoky, Graves-like touch of class to the 1995 Villiera Blanc Fume, pounds 5.99.

The Winelands range from Kym Milne underpins the new Cape reds with a clutch of vibrantly berry-fruity wines: the 1995 Winelands Cinsault/Tinta Barocca, pounds 3.99, a juicy, strawberry-ish halfway house between good young Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone; the 1995 Winelands Pinotage, perfumed with gutsy blackberry fruit, and the 1995 Winelands Premium Shiraz/Cabernet, pounds 4.99, sweetly spicy, with plum and blackberry flavours. Boschendal Red, pounds 4.59 (also at Bottoms Up and Thresher), a spicy, Mediterranean-style red, adds variety.

Six new pinotages represent a significant investment in this most original of South Africa's grape varieties. The best are the sweetly oaked, characterfully rich l995 Beyerskloof Pinotage, pounds 5.49 (also at Bottoms Up), and the gentle, plummy fruitiness of the 1994 Delheim Pinotage, pounds 6.79. In contrast, Jeff Grier's 1993 Villiera Merlot, pounds 7.39, is deftly oaked and intense; and the fine, complex, vanilla-laden 1990 Woodlands Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 6.69, is Meerlust's Rubicon by another name.

With only 22 wines in their South African list, Oddbins are almost restrained, by the standards of their enthusiasm for the southern hemisphere - although they have fleshed out the range with the 1995 Beyerskloof Pinotage, pounds 4.99, and a rich, sweetly oaked 1995 Springfield Estate Chardonnay, pounds 4.99. Where Wine Rack are committed to South Africa, Oddbins trumpet Chile in the new summer list as "unquestionably the hottest wine in the world!" With characteristic swagger and a degree of justification, Oddbins give themselves a giant pat on the back: "Those who laughed when we ventured into Chile are busy wiping the egg off their faces."

The strategy has paid dividends, with Oddbins' proud boast of listing Chile's best producers - among them Carmen, Casablanca, Caliterra, Errazuriz and Cono Sur - not wide of the mark. The 1995 Andes Peaks Sauvignon Blanc displays the clean, fresh, gooseberry character of the variety, while the new 1995 Santa Carolina Chardonnay Semillon, pounds 4.49, is sumptuously endowed with barley sugar and honeydew melon richness. The 1995 Errazuriz Chardonnay, at pounds 4.99, is excellent value, an elegant Maule/Casablanca blend with a touch of vanilla and clean, apple-and-pear fruitiness. Reds include the wildly sensual, intense, oak-tinged fruitiness and grassy bite of the 1993 Casa Porta Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 4.99, and the l995 Cono Sur Reserve Pinot Noir, pounds 6.49, whose sumptuously concentrated pinot character has a delicate spicing of oak.

Chile adds glamour, too, to Marks & Spencer's line-up. Carmen's 1995 Chardonnay Semillon, pounds 4.99, is a delightfully honeyed and peachy opulent white, contrasting with the tropical pineapple fruit of San Pedro's 1994 Lontue Chardonnay, pounds 4.99. Exuberant juiciness epitomises the 1994 Casa Leona Cabernet Merlot, pounds 3.99, the ideal summer red, while, with more weight but still vibrantly blackcurranty, the 1994 Carmen Central Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 4.49, is elegantly textured, with the emphasis on instant gratification. Carmen's 1994 Maipo Cabernet Reserve, pounds 5.99,with backbone, vanilla and lovely fruit definition, is the classier proposition