Richard Ehrlich's Beverage Report: No More Mr Safe Guy

Next time you're entertaining, create a frisson with a truly bizarre wine
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The Independent Culture
SOMETIMES you want to play it safe with wine when you're entertaining. Other times it pays off - at least in the form of stimulating disagreement - to give people something they've never seen the likes of.

I've got a quartet of contention I'd like to highlight this week, and I hope you'll consider them if you're seeking a break from the usual run of Chilean Cabernet and Vin de Pays de N'Importe-Quoi. The first two are both Greek bottles from Oddbins, Nafsika 1996 (pounds 5.49) and Amethystos 1996 (pounds 7.49). Both are among the fruits of the Oddbins buyers' trawl through the new wines of Greece, and both are worthy of your consideration. Given the choice between drinking household bleach and Retsina, I would take a good deal of thought before making up my mind. It therefore gives me great pleasure to recommend Nafsika, a wine made partly from Retsina's principal grape, Saviatano. Blended with another unique Greek called Assyrtiko, and vinified with great skill, it produces dry, vegetal, almost twiggy fruit with a bit of citrus pungency. Weird and worth a punt.

No such doubts about the other of the Oddbins Greeks bearing gifts, this one bearing a deliciously inapposite name. Silken, voluptuous berry fruit with tannins built to last, and a marvellous companion to any red meat. Don't look this gift horse in the mouth: it's delicious stuff. The third wine is a bit of mouthful to say: Freie Weingartner Wachau, Terrassen Thal Wachau, Gruner Veltliner, Smaragd 1995 (pounds 7.99 from Tanners of Shrewsbury; Wine Cellar, Croydon; Philglas & Swiggot, London). This would remind you of a good Mosel Kabinett if it weren't so full-blooded, and of an Alsace if it had a bit more perfume and finesse. But don't think about what isn't there. Think, instead, about very full body, a rich, unfamiliar set of spicy fruit flavours. This is a savoury, enjoyable wine capable of matching well-spiced Thai or mild Indian cooking (which is what I drank it with). Worth seeking out for the curiosity value alone. The fourth wine, Kautz Ironstone Symphony (Majestic, pounds 3.99), is even more likely to cause fist fights at your next picnic. Some will say: "why are you serving me sweet wine before the pudding?" Others will see through the superficial sweetness of the fruit and spot the dryness of the wine through the peachy, sweet-melony aromatic pungency of the initial attack on the palate. You decide: love or hate. I think it's wonderful, and if you like Alsace and Mosel Rieslings you will probably agree. NB: the price above applies only until 3 August, so try and make up your mind before then.

And finally ... You, unlike me, may be wondering whether to buy 1997 claret en primeur. You don't object to the still-insane prices, which should have collapsed after the fiscal melt-down in the Far East, and perhaps you've got used to buying this way and seeing the value of your bottles float gently (or violently) upwards.

If this is the case, you know where to buy the stuff. Before you buy, however, heed the words of a delightfully candid press release from Fine & Rare Wines Ltd (0181 960 1995). F&RW is not impressed with how the 1997 vintage has been developing in the market. In the bottle it's developing fine, they think: "easy and attractive to taste back in March" and "ultimately of some positive merit generally and reaching very fine quality in limited cases." But they are appalled by the prices, similar to those for the (excellent) 1996 vintage and in general representing a "titchy-tiny" discount on "matching wines from nearest equivalent vintages".

Reading between the lines, it would appear that this company is advising you not to buy at these levels unless "you like to collect certain wines in decent vintages for drinking (because they are never likely to be cheaper)." And they may indeed just keep getting more expensive, whatever happens in the Far East. It's crazy, but who ever said the world always behaves rationally?

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