RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: IT'S WISE TO TAKE STOCK

If you're going to the country, take your own wine or stick to supermarkets
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The Independent Culture
A RECENT week in the Brecon Beacons reminded me how hard it can be to find decent wine on this sceptred isle. In some small grocers I could not spot a single bottle I'd be happy to drink. France was dominated by unheard-of negociants and Piat d'Or, the new world by big international brands. The gruesome selection made it easy to understand why supermarkets dominate as provincial wine merchants. Their smaller competitors just seemed not to care - and who can blame them, if their customers don't mind?

As it happened, I didn't mind either. I had taken along my own supplies, mostly tasting samples that had remained unopened past their TBE (Taste Before End) date. Not that they were past it - on the contrary, several had improved due to my negligence. And their quality showed yet again how unfortunate it is that most people buy wine for immediate consumption.

One surprise was an Australian white that is no longer made, though I will be evaluating alternatives and reporting back shortly. The second was another Australian, this one from the Wine Society and called Wattles Wine Company Colombard Chardonnay 1996. Wines of this genre are rarely viewed as candidates for ageing, but the Wattles had plenty of life left till I assassinated it. Generous acidity made it refreshingly crisp, while heady tropical fruits boomed on the palate and finish. The 1996 is now extinct, but the 1997 (pounds 3.95) could be reason enough to join the Wine Society; call them on 01438 740222.

The third bottle was the grower's champagne Albert Beerens Brut Reserve, over which I have swooned in these pages before. Bibendum (0171 916 7070) sells this stuff in huge quantities all year, yet they are discounting it (till 31 July) from pounds 14.95 to pounds 11.99. The bottle I drank, a pur- chase not a sample, was at least a year old. Once again I found that it ages beautifully to a very creamy richness. Buy some for summer drinking, some for Christmas. NB: there are five other sparklers in the Bibendum summer-discount scheme.

The fourth high point of my Wales sojourn, a more recent sample, was the oldest wine in respect of vintage but the youngest in respect of readiness for human consumption. Rouge Feuille de Paul Louis Eugene 1994 (pounds 9.85, Adnams, 01502 727 222) bears a strikingly dreary label and a peculiar pedigree. It hails from Minervois but its contents are a weird cocktail of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and others. The result is a one-off - peasant wine raised to the level of fine art, a distillation of all that is inkiest and deepest in the wines of south-west France, sweet and big and scrumptious. In a year it will probably be even better.

And finally ... Speaking still further of champagne, here's something to make you marvel. While strolling in deepest Mayfair on a recent Sunday, I popped in for a look at the South Audley Street branch of Majestic Wine Warehouses. Naturally they have a shoal of fancy wines right by the till. When I jokingly asked the attendant, "Sell a lot of that stuff?", he told me about a customer who had plonked eight hugely expensive clarets on the counter. Majestic sell a minimum of 12 bottles. He informed the customer of this policy, and the man said: "I know that. I want a case of each one." Total cost: pounds 13,000. Sigh.

You don't need to spend 13 grand to get a good deal from Majestic. Until 3 August it is offering 20 per cent off six bottles of four grande marque NV champagnes: Taittinger, Pol Roger White Foil, Laurent-Perrier and Perrier- Jouet. The one that catches my eye is Perrier-Jouet, the fifth revelation of my week in Wales. After 12 extra months in bottle this was heavenly stuff, all its components in perfect harmony. The cost is pounds 15.19 a bottle - worth every penny if you hold off popping the cork for a while. Incidentally the same deal is on offer at Oddbins who are giving 20 per cent off on a total of 10 different wines. Who needs to be a millionaire?

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