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The Independent Culture
THIRTEEN days of rain last September could not wash the grins off the faces of Bordeaux wine growers. Some grapes rotted, but the lusciously ripe remainder of the 1995 vintage was fine enough to send them skipping to their cellars to pluck a celebratory bottle or two from the racks of older vintages. The rich, smart and famous probably tucked into their 1985s or 1982s, the sort of claret currently selling at auction for pounds 25 or pounds 75 a bottle.

Further down the Bordeaux scale, the producers of petit chateau wine that would sell here for more like pounds 6 or pounds 9 would normally have drunk a recent vintage - that sort of claret is not made for long ageing. But recent vintages were not the stuff that celebrations are made of. In 1994 and 1993 the autumn rain never stopped. 1992 was the wettest summer since the Second World War and frozen, soggy pickers collected big, bloated, waterlogged grapes. In 1991, a vicious frost at the end of April wiped out most vine-shoots, then heavy autumn rain finished the job. So, to find the good stuff, the petit chateau owners had to reach back to the big, fruity, sun-soaked wines of 1990 and 1989, or to the leaner, more classic wines of sunny but cooler 1988.

The same predicament faces buyers of affordable claret on this side of the Channel. Most of the cheaper clarets around are thin and weedy, from wet vintages of the Nineties, and even the cheapest 1995s won't be arriving for a few months yet. The answer is the hunt down the ever more elusive 1988s, 1989s and 1990s.

One of my favourite claret-hunting grounds is the East Anglian chain of Thomas Peatling. (They're handing over many of their shops to Victoria Wine on 12 February, keeping only those at Great Horkesley, Long Sutton and Bury, and also selling by mail order from the head office in Bury St Edmunds: 01284 714466). Almost all Peatling's petit chateau clarets are from the three good vintages. From 1988, I'd plump for the warm-fruited 1988 Chateau Haut St Clair, Puisseguin St-Emilion (pounds 6.25) or 1988 Chateau Belair Haut-Montaguillon, St-Georges St-Emilion (pounds 6.75), a rich claret with heaps of fruit and hints of chocolate. You could drink this now or keep it a year or two.

The long, fiercely hot summer of '89 brought in the earliest harvest since 1893: big, voluptuous, softly tannic wines that set the dollars rustling. The really delicious 1989 Chairman's Claret (pounds 6.98 Eldridge Pope of Dorchester, also mail order: 0800 378757) is a lovely example, thick, chocolatey and ripely fruity. Or raid Peatling's again for the soft, savoury 1989 Chateau Grange-neuve, Montagne St Emilion (pounds 6.19), which is perfect to drink now, or for the firmer, fairly tannic but also ripely fruity 1989 Chateau La Faviere, Bordeaux Superieur (pounds 5.99) to lay down for a year or two.

Plenty of the petit chateau wines of the 1990 vintage will also tide you over until the 1995s are maturing well. If 1989 qualified as the earliest harvest of the century, 1990 could claim to be the second hottest (after 1947) and the second sunniest (after 1949). But not second best to 1989. Disputes raged for a while among experts, but it is now generally agreed that the 1990s are more concentrated in flavour. Like the 1989s, you could often mistake these for New World wines with their super-ripe fruit, deep colour and substantial but soft tannin - far less astringent than that in a young claret of a cooler year. For keeping a while, I'd go for the stylish, ripe but firm 1990 Chateau Fontblanche, Premieres Cotes de Blaye (pounds 5.05 Thomas Peatling) to drink in a year or so, and for future special occasions (a year or two later) the seductively ripe but still quite tannic 1990 Chateau du Valois, Pomerol (pounds 13.99 Majestic).

But many 1990s are irresistible already. Brilliant value is the 1990 Chateau St Bonnet, Medoc (pounds 7.95 selected Sainsbury's), ripe and enticing with lovely cedar and blackcurrant flavours. 1990 Chateau La Verriere, Bordeaux Superieur (pounds 7.14 Lay & Wheeler of Colches-ter, mail order: 01206 764446) is nearly as good, soft and beautifully balanced. Or treat yourself to 1990 Chateau Malescasse, Haut-Medoc (pounds 9.99 Majestic); it is full of blackcurrant, cedar and honey flavours and is perfect to drink right now.