TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT; Why buy your wine in Britain when Paris is just a few hours away?
CLUNK, CLUNK, clink. All aboard the Eurostar leaving the Gare du Nord at 3.19 on a Sunday afternoon. And the noise you hear over the engine is bottle-booty - the accumulated liquid assets of the cross-Channel shoppers on board.

This segment of the cross-Channel booze market is a drop in the wine lake compared with the day-trippers who use the ferry. No palettes of Kronenbourg here: foot passengers can't manage the volumes. And they're also, one hopes, not the sort who think it a terrific coup to fill a suitcase with wine that costs less than a litre of petrol - and tastes like it as well.

Suspecting that there was liquid gold flowing down the Seine, I made a quick trip to investigate an utterly winning attraction I'd read about in the Time Out Guide to Eating and Drinking in Paris. These are wine- bars where you can drink the stuff and then buy more to take away. I can think of no better way to shop for wine.

There were two I wanted to hit. First was Au Bourguignon du Marais (52 rue Francois-Miron). This place specialises, as the name suggests, in Burgundy. The patrons were said to have brought prices down to earth with a transparent and totally fair pricing structure: wine in the bar is marked up 1.8 times over shop prices, and is available for tasting by bottle or glass.

Sadly, they were on holiday when I was there. But I did note a few prices on the board outside, which suggested good value.

My other destination was in full swing, by way of compensation. This is Juveniles (47 rue de Richelieu), owned by English ex-pat (and ex-director of Majestic Wines) Tim Johnston. Guidance is offered in English for the Gallically challenged, and what's on offer is well worth a look. Around 25 wines were "en degustation en ce moment", with reasonable 100 per cent mark-ups over shop prices and tasting available through a 12cl glass, a 50cl carafe, or a full bottle.

Not only is the selection good, it's unusual for France in including vins etrangers such as the wonderful Quinta do Crasto 1996 (around pounds 4.70 in the shop) and a good Cava Torre del Gal 1990 Reserva (around pounds 5 in the shop) alongside a trio of the lovely Jacquesson champagnes and Bollinger Grande Annee 1989.

But weekend visitors to Paris have a wealth of riches at their fingertips, as long as the fingers are in contact with a credit card. Consider Les Caves Taillevent (199 rue du Faubourg-St-Honore), the off-sales outpost of the three-Michelin-star restaurant Taillevent. Here you'll have access to half a million bottles, which you can sample at the restaurant. The bad news: tables have to be booked months in advance. The good news: you'll save pounds 100 a head by not eating there. The best news: the shop has Saturday-morning tastings hosted by the restaurant's sommelier. Is there a another three-star restaurant that performs the same service?

Even if you can't manage Taillevent prices, Paris throws out all sorts of vinous surprises. It has long been one of the pleasures of travelling in France to stumble across precious bottles in unlikely venues: a corner shop gets a case or two of something that sits there for a few years, and you happen on a mature minor claret or major Cotes du Rhone selling for half the price you'd pay in the UK - if you could get that vintage at all, which you can't.

My dreamiest buy of all appeared on the list at L'Ecluse wine bar (15 quai des Grands-Augustins). This was Chateau Petrus 1979 selling for around pounds 427. Bibendum Fine Wines (0171 916 7703) is currently offering a magnum of the same wine for pounds 1,725. That's over twice the price of the Left Bank. Even at Paris prices, this is not a cheap bottle except for the very rich, but it's reason enough to book your ticket if you're celebrating something suitable. Just take along an extra suitcase.

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