Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter on the best from Victoria Wine

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VICTORIA WINE was already a giant before taking over Augustus Barnett last year, but it now has 1,353 shops nationwide, topped only by the Thresher group (Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up). A select 11 Victoria Wine shops have been converted into super-smart 'Victoria Wine Cellars', with a much bigger range that includes many more fine wines. There should be 40 Wine Cellars by the end of the year, increasing to 150 next year.

The following are my favourites from a recent tasting of their wines. All are available at the Wine Cellars and at about half the Victoria Wine Shops, the next step down. The wines marked (WS) can be bought in all the Victoria Wine Shops. Victoria Wine Off Licences (OL) and small local shops stock a reduced range, but even the tiniest will order you anything from the Cellars list.

Two scrumptious, affordable Chardonnays are top of my white list. The elegant ***1993 Colonnade Chardonnay ( pounds 5.99 WS), from Moet et Chandon's Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, Australia, is soft and rich, very buttery and honeyed; and the nicely oaky ***1993 Chardonnay, Vigneto di Caramia ( pounds 5.99), made in Puglia, southern Italy, by two Australians, is crisp but full-bodied, with lovely pineappley and peachy fruit. White Chateauneuf-

du-Pape is fairly rare and usually overpriced, but the ***1993 Chateau de Valdieu Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape ( pounds 8.89) is a good, interestingly-

flavoured one, nutty, and crisper than most. Drink it now - this isn't a wine for keeping. Arriving at the end of this month (August), is a new Alsace wine for drinking now or keeping: the lovely, lean, lemony ***1990 Riesling Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, Turckheim ( pounds 8.99). From South Africa, a crisp, not-quite-dry **1994 Neetlingshof Gewurztraminer ( pounds 4.49 WS) is more gently, rose-petally fragrant than Gewurztraminer from Alsace. **1993 Soave Classico Superiore, Anselmi ( pounds 6.89) is one of the few really interestingly-flavoured Soaves, crisp and rich, with greengagey fruit and a slightly smoky flavour.

Tops for value among the reds is the delicious ***1991 La Cuvee Mythique, Vin de Pays d'Oc, Val d'Orbieu ( pounds 5.59), a serious, smoky, firmly tannic wine bursting with perfumed raspberry fruit. ****1991 Cornas, Thierry Allemand ( pounds 15.99) beats it for flavour, but at a price - this is wonderful raspberry fruit again, with complex flavours of malt, tar and coffee. There's a good red pair from Portugal, which I mentioned last week: the lean, savoury **1989 Quinta de Camarate ( pounds 4.89 WS) and ***1988 Garrafeira TE, Jose Maria da Fonseca Successores ( pounds 6.99 WS/OL).

Star of the sparkling wines and better than a lot of Champagnes is the ****1991 Croser ( pounds 10.79) from Australia, a fruity fizz with very savoury, chocolatey, yeasty complexity. The English **Heritage Brut ( pounds 7.99) is crisp, with flavours of gooseberry and apple, and the sweet, fizzy **1992 Clairette de Die, Cuvee Cybele, Grande Tradition ( pounds 6.79 WS) is a good substitute for Asti - crisp and lemony and grapey with hints of tea-like flavour. Yummiest of the still dessert wines is a lovely, delicate and complex ****1992 Stellenzicht Noble Late Harvest Weisser Riesling ( pounds 3.99 WS) from South Africa, deliciously pungent, honeyed, floral and pineappley, with good, refreshing acidity.

My pick of the inexpensive wines is stocked at a wider range of shops. **1993 JP Lurton Rosado, Tempranillo ( pounds 3.99 WS) is a crisp, fruity, fragrant rose for late summer. **1993 Oak Forest Hungarian Chardonnay ( pounds 3.39 WS) is brilliant value, crisp, pineapple-fruity and nicely oaked, *1993 Bear Ridge Bulgarian Chardonnay ( pounds 3.19 WS/OL) softer and simpler, but also pineapple-fruity. **1993 Big Frank's Red ( pounds 3.99 WS), made by a Polish American in the Minervois in the South of France, is a lovely, gluggable wine, ideal for parties, packed with plum-and-raspberry Syrah fruit with hints of smoke and oak. **1991 Caliterra Cabernet Sauvignon ( pounds 3.99 WS/OL) from Chile is also yummy, grassy and blackcurranty, with some tannin. Soft, cherry-fruity *1993 Puerta de la Villa, Cencibel, Valdepenas ( pounds 2.99, all) is labelled 'Casa de la Vina' in some shops. And two young Eastern European wines are good: the dark, tangy and very fruity *1993 Debut Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon ( pounds 2.99 all) and the soft and meaty *1993 Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon, Szekszard ( pounds 2.99 WS/OL) with slightly jammy blackcurrant fruit. And if you're celebrating on a tight budget, *Sparkling Chardonnay, Barbero ( pounds 4.99 WS) is soft and easy-drinking.

****complex, exciting; ***excellent; **very good; *good