Vintage finds / Beverage report

Claret prices are certifiable under the Mental Health Act

Everyone loves the fantasy: you're strolling round a car-boot sale when you spot a T'ang-dynasty figurine of a camel selling for pounds 3.50. Christie's had one last week which went for pounds 55,500 plus commission. You hand over your money with trembling hand, praying that the vendor won't twig at the last minute and say, "oh, silly me - the price tag should have read pounds 82,750!" But he doesn't, and it's yours.

For the purposes of fantasy you can change the T'ang figurine to a Turner watercolour, a Shakespeare First Folio, a Lucie Rie sgraffito bowl. But you can rarely change it to a bottle of wine, in spite of a few freak occurrences. I once paid pounds 11 for a bottle of Bollinger RD 1982 which should have sold at pounds 50, and pounds 9 for a Meursault Michelot-Buisson 1986 which would normally cost at least pounds 25. A friend found Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1985 in a dank off-licence in the East End of London selling (if my memory serves me well) for pounds 4.99. It was probably something to do with a malfunction in the hind quarters of a lorry.

These shock bargains popped up at corner shops or the equivalent. It's rare for true wine merchants to sell something precious for a tiny fraction of its true market value. But something similar can happen. My eyes continue to bug out, and my brain to reel, from too much time spent perusing en primeur offers for 1996 Bordeaux. The market is being led by buyers who are apparently willing to pay any price for the best wines, and their enthusiasm is cutting out the rest of us.

But there is, as La Thatcher used not to say, an alternative. In the long term, the alternative may come from Chile, whose best red wines now easily beat Bordeaux on VFM and may eventually come to rival them in absolute quality. If there is a pounds 6.99 claret better than Vina Carmen Grande Vidure Cabernet Sauvignon 1995, for example, I have not seen it of late. This lovely, nobly structured wine is sold by Booth's at that very price, and it is worth every penny.

At the moment, however, the alternative that's got me frothing at the mouth comes from Majestic Wine Warehouse. When Sweden joined the EU it had to dissolve its wholesale drinks monopoly and break up all stock held into packages. Majestic went over and picked up quite a few. Claret-lovers will go wild over the possibilities.

These are not cheap wines - prices go from pounds 9.99 to pounds 49.99 - but they are either ready for drinking or closer to maturity than the overpriced 1996s. They include wines from top-rank vintages such as 1986, 1988 and 1990. And if you are willing to accept that the prices for claret are now officially certifiable under the Oenophiles Mental Health Act of 1995, then they can legitimately be described as cheap.

Before I go a step further, I must state that I have not tasted anything from this newest shipment. It was set to arrive just after I was due to depart for the summer hols, in which struggle I am still engaged as you read these words. But I have spoken with the gang at Majestic, including Fine Wine and Bordeaux specialist Chris Hardy. He has tasted the wines and reckons they have particularly "ripe, concentrated, vibrant fruit because they went straight from bottling to deep underground cellars at the lower end of the recommended temperature scale." As a result, they may be less mature than the same wines stored in other locales. Hardy has particularly kind words to say about two vintages of Chateau Mazeris, 1990 (pounds 9.99) and 1988 (pounds 10.99). The 1990 is for drinking now, the '88 for tucking away, he says. He also likes the Chateau Haut-Bages-Monpelou 1988 (pounds 14.99) and Chateau Lacoste-Borie 1986 (pounds 19.99), which he says is drinking beautifully now.

NB: these wines could be in the stores as you read this, so it may be worth leaving your perusal of the rest of the paper till later on and rushing round immediately. With supplies strictly limited (between 100 and 600 cases), you want to get there soon. Alacrity is even more desirable with smaller parcels (some as small as 20 cases) which will just be lying there waiting for the first lucky people to spot them.

And while you're poking around at Majestic, you might want to consider another special offer running from 5 to 15 September. Lanson non-vintage champagne is sometimes a mite dull, but the house does great things with its vintage wines. Majestic has the current vintage, Lanson 1990, on sale to bulk buyers at a saving of pounds 100 per case. That is to say, for pounds 15.65 a bottle rather than pounds 23.99. Few people want to spend pounds 187.80 (12 x pounds 15.65) at the drop of a hat. But this is a bargain not to be missed if humanly possible. Rope in a few bubble-happy friends and split a case if you can't come up with the requisite dosh on your own.

On a completely different level of bargainhood, drinkers in need of no-holds-barred, every-expense-spared picnic wine, should hold their breaths and find a Co-Op Pioneer supermarket. In the collection of reds there they will find something called Casa Morena Vino de

Mesa. This Spanish table wine (vino de mesa), contains 11.5 per cent of alcohol, and costs - get this - pounds 3.09 a bottle. It is not wonderful, but it is perfectly pleasant, especially chilled. And at that price it is more than adequate. Even if you're not feeling penurious, incidentally, Casa Morena may solve the old dilemma of choosing a cheap but reasonable wine for cooking.

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