Richard Ehrlich's Beverage Report: Real-world drinking

Your own dining-room can be just as instructive about wonderful wines as the tasting-room
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The Independent Culture
YOU might assume that people who write about drinks learn most by going on tastings and winery visits. You'd probably be right. There's just as much to learn, however, from having dinner with friends. This is Real-World Drinking, not the artificially dispassionate examinations of the tasting-room. It shows what people spend their money on, and what they think about the stuff.

For instance, most recently: dinner with my wife's old friend Debby and her husband David, with Debby's brother James and his wife as the other guests. The conversation was the star, as it should be at dinner parties, but the drinking (of which there was plenty) was fascinating for several reasons. One: James brought along a bottle of a minor 1995 St Emilion, which he bought en primeur on a tip from Tanner's (01743 234 500).

Now, we all know that Bordeaux's grotesque expense makes Burgundy look like "better value for money". I'm quoting from the Bibendum en-primeur offer document for 1997 Burgundy. But if you look through Bibendum's offer, you won't find anything selling for less than pounds 50-60 per case, and that's Bourgogne Aligote (ex-cellars). Which means a total of about pounds 6 per bottle, while this claret, a tasty little number, worked out at around pounds 4.50 per 75cl. It's all gone now, but the message I gleaned was very clear: if you want truly cheap wine of drinkable quality, intelligently guided buying in Bordeaux still has plenty of arguments in its favour.

Number two: most of what we drank was a Brouilly 1997 made by Jacques Depagneux and sold by the Wine Society for pounds 5.95 (ref no BJ1181; 01438 741 177). After a few glasses (quite a few glasses), it got me thinking how boring Beaujolais can be. Even when it's good, like this bottle, its one-dimensionality is ultimately deadening to the taste buds. My favourite descriptor is bubble-gum, and this is metaphorically correct as well: Beaujolais is, as Tom Stephenson points out, the red wine for people who don't like wine. (To be fair, it's also the wine for people who want a jolly, undemanding drink to glug without asking too much of their cerebral cortex.)

I've long blamed the Gamay grape for that simple-minded sweetness. Then I read Anthony Hanson's Burgundy (Faber, pounds 15.99) and learnt I was wrong. It's not the grape but the techniques used in making the wine: high yields, careless handling, over-chaptalisation (adding of sugar to boost alcohol) - all these play a part in the sweet insipidity of Beaujolais at its worst. Hanson speaks of "two Beaujolais cultures", one aiming for high volume and low prices and the other for low-volume quality at a suitably higher price.

It was just as well, then, that I had solicited a half-case of wares from Roger Harris, the Norfolk specialist (01603 880 171) who bangs the drum for Beaujolais with an admirably single-minded zeal. Tasting his sextet quickly restored my faith in the region, though some were a bit too young to drink. But there were no complaints about Chiroubles 1997, Cuvee Vidame de Rocsain (pounds 7.75), which overlaid the bubble-gum with cherries and raspberries and a wonderful richness. Nor about Julienas 1997, Francois Condemine (pounds 7.95), with its nice spicy notes and warm earthiness. Nor about Noel Aucur's oak-aged Morgon 1996 (pounds 8.25), in which the cherries mingle with plums and the nose is heavenly.

Beaujolais can age well - you may be surprised given the fuss that's made about Beaujolais Nouveau. But people in the trade often speak of the mystery bottle presented at a tasting which they thought was red Burgundy and turned out to be a 20-year-old Julienas. I'd wager that all these Harris offerings will taste even better in a few years. Banish thoughts of bubble-gum; give these boys a chance; buy from Mr Harris, or from independents, or see what Oddbins (sometimes a good source) has on offer. Be prepared to spend at least pounds 7. Enjoy yourself.

If you're not in the mood to try the best of Beaujolais, here's a trio of reds from other areas making indubitably grown-up wine. First: Delaire Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 1997, Stellenbosch (pounds 9.99, Safeway). Fragrant on the nose, softly sweet on the palate, but abundant black-currant and plummy fruit with a gentle nip of tannin; an ornament to any dinner-party table featuring game or red meat. Second: Cotes-du-Rhone 1996, Domaine Charvin (pounds 7.64, Laytons, 0171 388 4567). This is a Grenache-dominated blend, very substantial, with a nice length of pepper and spice. Third: Navajas Rioja 1996 (pounds 4.99, Waitrose). Mostly Tempranillo, light toasty oak which isn't allowed to rough up the fruit, good depth at the price. All are enough to make the winter of our discontent glorious summer. Well, almost enough.