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The Independent Culture
WINE writers, as you know, go to wine tastings. I won't offend you by describing the torments that accompany this privilege, but it will come as no surprise that some are more enjoyable than others.

Of all the tastings, there's one the one that I look forward to with particular eagerness is that of The Bunch, an association of seven independent wine merchants "which meets to discuss matters of mutual interest". They are a diverse bunch, with different areas of specialisation and different policies on minimum purchases and suchlike. One common feature, however, is the offer of a no-quibble right to return any unsatisfactory wine - for any reason - within a month of purchase.

Some of The Bunch are familiar names in this column, while others are less often spied here. The full list, for clipping out and taping to the door of your wine cellar, is as follows: Adnams (01502 727220), John Armit Wines (0171 727 6846), Corney & Barrow (0171 251 4051), Lay & Wheeler (01206 764446), Laytons (0171 388 4567), Tanners (01743 234500) and Yapp Brothers (01747 860 423). All can fairly be described as generalists with the exception of Yapp, whose all-French list is dominated by wines from the Rhone and the Loire.

The Bunch tasting is a small one as tastings go: eight wines per merchant, a total of 56. That's a manageable number, yet somehow I always manage not to have time enough to do them justice. The wines are just too interesting.

These merchants do not seek out wines that they'll be able to sell in huge quantities to large numbers of buyers. What they like, instead, is buying wines of distinct character. They know that certain bottles will appeal to some and not to others, and they seem to take a certain pride in the fact. When I'd finished at the table of London-based unmixed-case dispenser John Armit, they asked me what I thought of the wines. Some I had liked more than others, and some were clearly not ready to drink, and I said so. But I also said: "they all have real character." They smiled broadly and nodded with satisfaction.

Les Bunchistes are in the wine business to make a living from it, but there's something more to the venture than that. They would probably agree with Mr Bernstein, a character in Citizen Kane, who says: "Making money is easy - if all you're interested in is making money."

A list of favourites from the tasting would be hard to publish without taking over the pages of today's paper, so here's a short one. Beginning with Adnams, an old favourite here, I am urging you to climb any mountain for a bottle (or case, better still) of "M" Pinot Shiraz 1996, Montara Estate, Victoria (pounds 6.95). Definitive proof that Australia can produce wines of subtlety to match any wine made anywhere on the planet: lovely aromatic nose, heady Pinot fruit with a good blast of spicy, clean Shiraz. Wonderful depth. A wine to cherish.

Number two from Adnams: Gravisano Malvasia Passito 1992, an Italian sweetie. Sixteen degrees of alcohol and the same at least of residual sugar, to make a dessert wine of wonderful potency, intense dried-apricot fruit, and tremendous length.

Three and four are a pair of white wines from John Armit. One is a Bordeaux, Chateau Grand Village Blanc 1996 (pounds 6.33), which shows that you don't have to go to New Zealand for a Sauvignon Blanc of distinction. This one's on the crisp side, very clean, with a strong but not overwhelming attack of gooseberries. The other is an Australian Riesling, Delatite Hell's Window 1996 (pounds 8.08). This is a light specimen of the great grape, with good acidity nuzzling up to fruit flavours which are rich and refreshing at the same time.

This column will be featuring other wines from the tasting in due course, but, in the meantime, I can't resist some incidental information about Corney & Barrow. They also run a clutch of wine bars with strong and interesting wine lists, and among their attractions is an intriguing enticement for people celebrating birthday parties.

Here's the scoop. On your first bottle of Champagne they'll deduct your age as a percentage of the price of the bottle. So, if you're 35, you'll get it at a 35 per cent discount. My tip: take Grandpa and order Roederer Cristal 1989 (pounds 82.95). If he's old enough, you'll get the magnum for the cost of a couple of bottles of house red. I'd never dream, of course, that you'd order Cristal on Grandpa's discount and Delamotte NV (pounds 19.95) when you're paying full price...