GREAT WITH EVERYTHING

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
I'm still trying to assimilate the lessons of the recent round of wine tastings - all those fleeting impressions captured on stained, crumpled bits of paper. Some people may find it easy sampling 500 wines in a fortnight, but for sure, as Bjorn Borg used to say, I'm not one of them.

One strong impression arises from the vinous mists, and that is the continuing dominance of Chile at the low end of the price scale. Bottles under pounds 5 had a higher chance of ringing bells if those five letter appeared on the label. With Australian wines rising steadily in price - and looking increasingly one-dimensional against the subtler Chileans - it is hard to see how the position will change any time soon.

Which is not to say that the rest of the winemaking world should just turn out the lights and leave. Spanish wines are another bright spot at the moment, and Fuller's, the fast-growing London-based chain, is featuring them until 16 June. And they have some real honeys in there, exceptional value and really enjoyable drinking. Their Vina Calisa Oak Aged Tempranillo, Valde-penas 1993 (pounds 3.99) is about as melodious as any pounds 4 wine ever gets. The Chardonnay Castillo de Montblanc (no relation to the fountain pens) is a steal at the same price, too. This one is made by the ubiquitous Hugh Ryman in the Conca de Barbera appellation in Tarragona, and it has wonderful pineapple-citrus flavours balanced by smooth oakiness. Sherry drinkers will look kindly on Soleo, a new wine from the house of Sandeman. Fresh, very dry, and priced at pounds 6.49.

But it's not only in Spain that Fuller's is doing great things. From France they have bought a superb Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, Domaine de L'Ameillaud, Cairanne, 1995 (pounds 5.49) which is properly spicy and full-bodied, lovely luscious stuff with 13 per cent alcohol. And I can't resist mentioning one Chilean marvel, a Pinot Noir from Concha y Toro which should persuade penurious drinkers that this most difficult of red grapes can produce good wine at low cost. It's called Explorer and it comes from the 1996 vintage, and it's worth every penny that's being asked for it - which means, in this case, a piffling pounds 4.99.

Smaller, independent chains such as Fuller's can allow themselves the luxury of buying wines partly just because they're nice, interesting curiosities. The big chains have less leeway for that kind of thing, but sometimes they too can indulge themselves. One shining example comes from the new Marks & Spencer list, in the form of Domaine Jeune Counoise Vin de Pays du Gard, 1996 (pounds 4.49). If you're like me, you will never have heard of the Counoise grape before. But you'll have tasted it in Chateauneuf du Pape, of which it is one of the many constituents, and will recognise it instantly in this interesting, pleasant, and well-structured wine. If you have any wine-snob friends who like playing the Tasting-and-Guessing Game, spring this little number on `em. Three cheers for whoever bought it.

And finally ... One of the most novel and intriguing wine initiatives of recent months comes from Tesco. They have tried to take some of the pain out of food-wine matching by launching a quartet labelled "Great With..." wines - chosen to go with chicken, fish, steak and pasta respectively. All are priced at an undemanding pounds 3.49. Three come from southern France while the pasta wine is a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. If the idea takes off, I can't wait to see how it develops. "Great With Foie Gras"? "Great With Barbecued Breast of Free-Range Chicken Served on Ciabatta with a Tarragon Beurre Blanc"? "Great With the Leftovers from Last Night's Takeaway"? The possibilities are limitless.

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