THE SALES PITCH

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT; In which Mr Ehrlich resolves to track down some spectacular bargains
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The Independent Culture
New Year's Eve is not my favourite holiday, but I never fail to observe it in some way. And it seems to me that anyone who boycotts the event - cup of Bovril, bed by 11 - is cheating. They don't have to risk life and limb in Trafalgar Square. They don't have to stagger into bed, seeing double if they're lucky and quadruple if they're not, at six. But the ineluctable milestone must be observed in some way. And that means partaking of beverages more interesting than Bovril.

Party-poopers can begin the year by planning their purchases in the Bin End Sale season, when wine merchants clear out to make room for new bottles. The sales occupy a good part of January, and we'll be surveying the options in weeks to come. First off the mark is the sale at John Armit Wines (0171 727 6846, e-mail: info@jarmit.co.uk). This one is for serious buyers only, since cases must be unbroken and you pay pounds 10 for delivery anywhere nationwide if you don't buy three cases or more. But there are some enticing prospects, with reductions in the 10 to15 per cent range and a choice including serious claret and a few Rhone reds at cuddly prices.

Another London highlight is the sale at Bibendum (0171 916 7706). Their list ranges from everyday prices to truly dizzying numbers readable only with a zillionaire's eyeglasses. Everyday: La Serre Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (pounds 2.99 from pounds 4), a solid Vin de Pays d'Oc which has at times served as my house wine. Dizziness: Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1982 (pounds 399 from pounds 441.90). But the best part of their annual sale is the pounds 50 Lucky Dip feature. This is a mixed case whose contents are unspecified but which may contain one bottle taking the value of the case way over its selling price. Supplies of the Lucky Dip cases are strictly limited: around 50 this year. And they are a hot item, so you have to move fast. The sale begins at 10am tomorrow.

Outside London, and selling as little as a single bottle (if you can resist the temptation of buying heavily), is Lay & Wheeler's annual bash. Its long sale list includes some real honeys, including wines previously featured in these pages. One that wasn't featured is the utterly beguiling Pinot Auxerrois 1995 from Albert Mann, one of the most delicious wines I drank this year and a snip at pounds 6.55 (from pounds 7.39). But what really catches my eye is an eight-case parcel of Meursault 1994, Pierre Morey. Knowing that other devotees of white Burgundy will be buying it for pounds 16.45 (from pounds 19.24) puts me in touch with my anger.

If you're buying for the evening itself, I hope you have something special set aside. This is no time to be rushing round looking for a festive bottle - we've had quite enough rushing over the last couple of weeks.

In the event that you are still looking for something to celebrate with, here's a one-stop-shop at Marks & Spencer to save your shoe leather. First off, two good-value Champagnes from the house of Oudinot - Champagne NV (pounds 9.99 till New Year's Eve) and Vintage 1990 (pounds 12.99, ditto). Both very sound, and a good price. With the money you've saved by not buying pricier fizz, splash out on a bottle of Carmen Wine Maker's Reserve Chardonnay 1996, Casablanca Valley (pounds 9.99). This medium-weight Chilean has a nice oaky, citrusy nose and clean fruit which will go well with anything fishy or feathered; but it's also buttery and voluptuous enough to be worth sipping on its own, if that's what you like to do with Chardonnay. There is a cheaper alternative, however: Chardonnay Mendoza 1996 (pounds 4.99), from the La Rural winery. Lovely tropical fruits on the nose and palate, with a nice crisp, lemony edge.

If Hogmanay is your way of noting the passage from Old Year to New Year, or even if you just want to treat yourself to something truly wonderful, take heed of Dallas Dhu 21 Year Old cask strength single malt. This precious bottle contains a skull-cracking 61.9 per cent alcohol, and when I tasted it neat I nearly jumped out of my skin. I diluted it, and the alcohol abrasion turned into a vigorous rub; I diluted it further and was transported to Malt Heaven. Musky, smoky, toffee flavours - if this isn't the best malt I've ever nibbled at, I can't remember what is. And since the Dallas Dhu distillery is no longer producing, it is also a taste of history.

The bad news: it costs pounds 62.99 at selected Oddbins including Fine Wine shops, and in Scotland. The good news: it is worth the money, if you've got that much to spend for a bittersweet taste of Auld Lang Syne.

And finally... if you are celebrating in any form on Wednesday, remember the description of Jim Dixon's condition after an indiscriminate raid on his hosts' drinks cupboard in Lucky Jim. "A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by the secret police." I hope that doesn't ring any bells on Thursday morning. You have been warned.

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