MAKE WAY FOR FAT BASTARD

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
COMMENTATORS on the nation's diet frequently bemoan the death of seasons. Where is the idea of seasonality, they wail, now that we get Zimbabwean French beans and Californian strawberries all year round? They might take comfort, it seems to me, in the world of wine. Greengrocers may not know whether it's August or November, but drinks merchants sure as hell do.

The current season is New Wine Time. The buyers spent January, February and early March travelling, tasting, and writing cheques. The fruits of their labours made landfall last month, necessitating a gruelling ordeal of press tastings. (Reader, they are not fun.) And now all those bottles are hitting the shelves - sometimes alongside old stock being sold cheapish to make room. Here is a random selection of the goodies on offer - and be warned, there's more where this came from.

Each of the various incarnations of Thresher (Thresher Wine Shops, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack) have cut prices on a slew of French wines until 14 May - not much time left. The list includes 17 clarets, among which nestles a very drinkable Cotes de Bourg, Chateau Mercier 1994 (pounds 5.49 from pounds 6.49). Chardonnay fans should head down to Bottoms Up for a saving of pounds 5 when they buy six bottles of the buttery Her- rick Chardonnay 1996 (full price pounds 4.99), while lovers of Muscadet should snap up the few remaining bottles of Chateau de la Cornilliere Sur Lie 1994, reduced from pounds 4.99 to pounds 2.99. Unreduced but worth the full asking price are two new French Chardonnays, exclusive to the group and both with wild and wacky names: Fat Bastard 1996 (pounds 5.99, Bottoms Up only), from Gigondas, and the estimable James Herrick's WR/001/96 (pounds 6.99, Wine Rack only). Both are full-flavoured and totally delicious examples of France's efforts to stem the rising tide of New World Chardonnay.

Over at Safeway, the annual May Wine Fair continues in full swing and has some top-notch bargains. The Spanish Fuente del Ritmo Reserve 1993 (pounds 4.49) is one of them, and not just for its intriguing name - "fountain of rhythm" sounds like a euphemism for an act performed by consenting adults (married, of course) in the privacy of their own home. The wine itself is a Tempra-nillo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend from La Mancha, aged in American oak and with more complexity than you usually get for pounds 4.49. If you're a fan of rose (and I have to admit that I am not), you may like to try Safe-way's Marsannay Rose, Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair 1996 (pounds 4.99). Burgundy doesn't produce many rose wines, and for curiosity alone this one is worth the plunge - but only, as I say, if you're a fan.

While the bigwigs at the Co-Op group were busy fighting hostile takeover bids, the wine buyers at their stores were buying smartly at the lower end of the price scale. Wines on special offer until the 24 May include an Australian port-style wine called Yaldara Reserve Old Tawny (pounds 5.99), made by one of the better producers in the Barossa Valley. Tawny port is a ter-rific aperitif, and this New World challenge has fine nutty flavour along with more raisiny sweetness than most true tawny ports. It is also great for cooking, provided it is used in moderation and combined with something acidic to counter-balance the sugar.

And finally ... apropos of very little, the new catalogue from Adnams (01502 727222) has introduced a feature of real merit - in addition to the predictably fine selection of wines. Having formerly prefaced their list with "Best Buys" at different price levels, they now propose "Quaffing Wines" under pounds 5.50 and subdivide them according to style. An excellent idea deserving shameless imitation.

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