RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: French tears

Children and the French vineyards really don't mix - especially when it's hot

Three tips for would-be explorers in the vineyards of Bordeaux: one, leave your children at home; two, don't go in August. Having spent two weeks of it within wine-spitting distance of both St-Emilion and Bergerac, I can tell you that children do not like vineyards much, especially in the scorching heat. We did most of our oenological research at the places where we bought wine for the evening meal. Tip three: take a Peppercorn. David Peppercorn, to be precise. His books on Bordeaux have long been my guides, and the one we had was Wines of Bordeaux (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 8.99), part of the publisher's Pocket Guides series. I'd planned to carry it on shopping trips, but plans have a way of slipping out of memory when you're on holiday. I chose mostly by guessing, and sometimes came up trumps.

At this point I would like to describe the wonderful things we drank and then tell you where to buy them in the UK. Instead, I have to report two pieces of bad news. The first is that we had some pretty dull bottles, especially everything under 40FF(pounds 4) from Bergerac. This area seems to have lost its way, with more southerly appellations taking up the running in the lower price ranges. The other bad news is that hardly anything we drank in France is sold here. Well, I call it bad news but it's also reassuring, in an age when the same products are sold from Bangkok to Bournemouth, that some can only be found in or around the region of production. And in any case, holiday wines don't always make a happy journey to home ground. If you've ever brought back that delightful 72-pence plonk you so enjoyed in Cyprus/ Provence/Siena and found that it actually tastes like vinegar, you know what I'm talking about.

We did drink a few good things, however. One was a cheapo rose, Comtes de Negret 1997 Cotes du Frontonnais (17.95FF), a Syrah-Grenache with good weight and lively, lush, cherry-ripe fruit. Other wines from the producer are sold over here, and the importers promise to let me know if they get the rose. Of the obscure clarets on our drinking list, the one that stands out is Chateau Ruat-Petit-Poujeaux 1995, Moulis (50FF) which I only found in a tiny, lovely shop called Le Tire-Bouchon in Mont-pons-Monestrol. One wine you may be able to locate is Chateau Larose-Trintaudon 1994, light but well-structured, and cheap at 45FF. If you have to pay much more here, forget it.

I did do a little chateau-touring with my 12-year-old daughter Rebecca. The vineyards were as busy as a creche at midnight, this being August, but the grapes - now they were busy. At the few properties we visited, notably La Lagune and Giscours, we could almost feel them ripening by the second. There is something deeply moving about the thought of all that energy in those wonderfully situated, lovingly tended vines. Rebecca loved the idea that the La Lagune grapes would be fine wine by the time she was old enough to drink. I may buy a dozen of their 1998 en primeur, in the unlikely event that I can afford it.

But I'm more likely to stick with Chileans like a trio sampled since our return. First and best: Errzuriz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 1996 (pounds 7.99 at Thresher, Victoria Wines, Fullers, Tesco and elsewhere), a sumptuous slug of ripe fruit and silky tannins. Totally delicious, and the sort of wine to make Bordeaux producers quake in their boots. The others are 1996s from Veramonte, a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (both pounds 6.99 from Oddbins). The Merlot is sweetly slurpable, with good concentration and nice finish. The Cabernet is better still, great gobbets of cassis coming through fairly hefty tannins. Decant it to get some air in, and drink with lamb.

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