RUSSIAN CHAMPERS, ANYONE?

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
I have only myself to blame. When newish acquaintances invited me to dinner, I took along my sole bottle of Paul Jaboulet's Hermitage La Chapelle 1983. Without getting melodramatic, this wine can safely be described as a great vintage of one of the greatest wines in the world. I'd bought the bottle years before in a fit of extravagance: it cost far more than I usually spend, and would set me back pounds 40 now.

I placed the precious offering in my host's hand. He whisked it away with the coats. I didn't see it again.

Or not in that form anyway.

The next time I went there, my friend proudly informed me that "that bottle you brought over last time" had gone into the stew.

The bring-a-bottle game is one part gastronomy, one part social etiquette. Unfortunately, there's no foolproof advice here. Buy cheap and you look stingy. Buy expensive and it may disappear while you drink Chateau Shoe- Polish. Buy unusual - a Russian "champagne", say, - and your hosts look bewildered as they deposit the bottle on the draining board. From there, it will migrate to the drinks cupboard and stay there until they (a) move house, or (b) bring it to your place, having forgotten where it came from.

If you have to have rules, here's a trio of them. First: don't take anything that you'll weep over not drinking. Chances are they will not open it, and you'll resent that failing for a good long time.

Rule two: cater your offering to the standards of the house. If you're dining with a stockbroker, he probably won't squeal with delight at the surprisingly quaffable Bulgarian Merlot you picked up at Kwik Save. And the less well-heeled might be embarrassed by a pounds 20 Meursault when all they have is a pounds 2.99 Muscadet.

Finally, the best rule of all: sidestep embarrassment by being totally and unashamedly upfront. Ring your host and find out what's on the menu. If it's fish, say that you've got a bottle of M&S's Chilean Casa Leona Chardonnay (pounds 3.99) which you think is pretty hot stuff. Would it be alright to bring it? Host may say: "that would be lovely." Host may say: "actually I was going to serve Pouilly Fume."

If you're on the receiving end of a wine-surprise, the etiquette is much easier: be gracious at all costs. No bottle is awful enough to justify hurt feelings. Some people want to surprise you, and you should let them. "Russian `champagne' - great! Let's see what it's like!" If the bottle is completely unsuitable, say that you'll drink it next time they come over. Remember not to take it to their house when they invite you back.

The other solution is to avoid matchmaking altogether by offering something that only an idiot would drink with food. Malt whisky, if you're hugely generous; Threshers and Oddbins both offer Glenmorangie ten-year-old at pounds 21.49. Bibendum sells the scrumptious Nieport Senior Fine Old Tawny for a tenner.

Failing that, there's always truffles or a bunch of tulips. Everyone likes chocolate. Everyone likes flowers. And they won't be tempted to sling them in the stew. !

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