RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: Fine wines are only a phone call away - even if you live in the Hebrides

"I'M JUST popping out to the off-licence for a bottle of horse- piss." No one ever said it, but they sure did it often enough. In the bad old days, let's say 20 years ago for the sake of convenience, it was incredibly difficult to find a decent bottle of wine. Only those who lived near a dedicated independent - or had the dosh to shop at an up-market wine merchant - stood a chance of avoiding the last-minute dash for equine urine.

Now, of course, we are surrounded by good wine at every price level. And even if you live in the Hebrides, you can still drink well through the defining shopping technique of the age: mail order. To be sure, you lose part of the pleasure. Shelf-surfing can introduce you to many a new region or grape variety; it is enjoyable, educational.

But while I hope the shelves remain well stocked and well browsed, I also know that mail-order outfits are a good thing. And regular readers of this column will know that I recommend their wines often. My favourites in the field are a varied bunch, from specialists like the Australian Wine Club (0800 716 893) to generalists like Adnams (01502 727 222). Other specialists of note include Beaujolais supplier Roger Harris Wines (01603 880 171), whose list is a must-read for those who love this appellation, and the Wiltshire-based Yapp Brothers (01747 860 423), who cover the Rhone and the Loire better than anyone in the country.

Latest entrant into the mail-order biz is the "Oddbins Delivers" initiative from Britain's best nationwide chain. They had long sought a way to take the contents of their Fine Wine Shops to customers who didn't live near one, and to sell special parcels too small to roll out into the shops. This is the solution.

Oddbins Delivers' first offering is a case of six cheap but tasty whites: none sold through the shops, all (hurray!) sealed with Supremecorqs. The case includes two interesting blends, the Montesierra Macabeo-Chardonnay 1997, Somontano, from Spain, and a 60/40 per cent pairing of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa: Swartland Dry White 1998. It sells for pounds 36 plus pounds 3.95 delivery, so you will not be spending a fortune. They have a freephone number (0800 328 2323) for this case only. Other offerings (including a dozen mid-priced South Africans sold at a 15 per cent discount to shop prices) can be ordered from the main number: 0870 601 0015. And there's more to come.

In the meantime, two unrelated wines from another couple of my mail-order faves. Sometimes a wine seems a mite pricey when I first see it but then turns into a bin-end and looks like much better value. This is what's happened to Lay & Wheeler's Macon-Fuisse Domaine de la Collonge 1996, Gilles Noblet (pounds 7.94, 01206 764 446). This has been reduced from pounds 10.73, and its fine nose and subtle biscuity fruit are well worth pounds 8. Another higher-priced white worth sampling: Soave Classico Superiore 1996, Stefano Inama (pounds 7.83, Layton's, 0171 388 4567). Big, full of character, and proving that excellence can be found in wines that one usually regards as bog- standard.

Mail order sales are starting around now, and next week I'll be drawing your attention to some of the juciest offers.

And finally ... Further to my deprecating remarks on the prices being charged for 1997 claret, and for the much more successful 1997 Sauternes and Barsac, here's some good news. When Majestic saw what was being charged in Bordeaux they decided to cut margins so they could sell the wines at prices reflecting their true value. Result: prices up to 25 per cent below those offered by some en primeur merchants. Worth a punt? If you think so, the offer list is on show at Majestic stores. Comparable prices can be found at David J Watt Fine Wines Ltd in Leicestershire (01530 413 953) and John Armit Wines (0171 727 6846). But seekers after the great Sauternes/Barsac wines should know supplies are limited. The latest mailing from Lay & Wheeler puts "SOLD" next to most of their Bordeaux sweeties. You have been warned. And I have placed my order.

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