A wine market as soft as Mr Whippy: We are drinking less and worse, says Anthony Rose

AS IF the salesrooms were not lifeless enough at the moment, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson has returned to haunt them. Tests for the radioactive isotopes carbon 14 and tritium on a 1787 Chateau Lafite, which its owner claimed belonged to Thomas Jefferson, showed that at least half the wine in the bottle was from the 1962 vintage or younger.

The analysis was carried out by Germany's Institute for Environmental and Health Research following a dispute between the owner, Hardy Rodenstock, and another German collector, Hans-Peter Frericks, to whom the bottle had been sold. Mr Rodenstock claims the bottle must have been tampered with to discredit him and says he has photographs to prove it. Mr Frericks says it happened before he bought it and that the pictures prove nothing.

This is the latest in a series of 'Jefferson bottles' that Mr Rodenstock claims to have found in a bricked-up cellar in Paris in 1985, several of which were sold at Christie's. One, a Chateau Lafite 1787, almost identical to the disputed one, was sold to Malcolm Forbes, the publishing tycoon, for a record pounds 105,000. Soon after, its cork crumbled into the bottle. Another precious 18th- century 'Jefferson bottle' was destroyed when a waiter accidentally stumbled into it in a New York restaurant. Michael Broadbent of Christie's, who has sold a number of the 'Jefferson bottles' at auction, believes they are genuine.

'Another bottle is to be analysed,' says Mr Broadbent. 'But until the courts in Germany have sorted out who topped up the disputed bottle, there's not much to say. I just wish Hardy Rodenstock would say how he came by these bottles. It's doing a tremendous amount of damage to the old fine and rare market.'

That is not the only shadow hanging over the auction houses at the moment. Although they have put a brave face on it, the market for younger wines is softer than Mr Whippy ice-cream. Vintage port is cheaper than it has ever been. And the salerooms are awash with young claret from the Eighties which (apart from the 1982 vintage, which has always held its value) can be picked up at reasonable prices. Average auction prices for 1985 bordeaux, an excellent vintage, are now at about the same level as when those wines were offered for sale in the spring of 1986. The same applies, with even more force, to the 1986 vintage, which has started to make a tentative appearance.

Wine retailers have no more felt the benefit of the Conservatives' election victory than estate agents: figures from the Wine & Spirit Association show only a 0.8 per cent growth in wine sales over the past year. Buried in that figure is a 13.4 per cent drop in sparkling wine sales. Most of this is champagne, so the fall represents something of a victory for consumers. Where champagne once demanded financial sacrifices from its consumers, the boot is now on the other foot and kicking where it hurts. Even champagne now has its own little wine lake.

The recession has been a particularly critical time for the independent wine merchants who rely on quality, specialism and service. The most flexible specialists say they have done better than last year, not by retrenching but by going out and looking for new business as well as reasonably priced wines. Others have been less fortunate. Following last year's debacle surrounding the demise of the city company Greens, two more well-established traditional wine merchants have become victims of the recession: Ellis, Son and Vidler of Lewes, East Sussex, and Stapylton Fletcher of Maidstone in Kent.

Both companies had been acquired by Nigel Baring & Co, whose London Wine Company (no relation to London Wine of SW10) collapsed during the 1973-74 bordeaux crisis when claret prices plummeted. Nigel Baring offered creditors 40p in the pounds 1, but the offer was refused and the two wine merchants went into receivership. Even now the fate of large quantities of 1989 and 1990 clarets bought by the customers of both firms hangs in the balance. For the once-fashionable bordeaux en primeur market (ie buying futures), this could be the last straw. If not, perhaps it will be the 1992 vintage.

Friends travelling back from Bordeaux have had to dodge violent hail storms on their journeys, but the weather appears to have been localised, with the inland part of the Medoc peninsula suffering the worst damage. And the news is that, after last year's frost-induced shortage, Bordeaux is set for another bumper crop, an embarrassment for those experts who predicted that it would be poor.

Also red-faced are the authorities who administer the appellation controlee scheme. They have threatened to crack down. Normally each appellation is allowed to produce up to 20 per cent more than the legal maximum. This year, individual properties have been told they must apply for the extra, fuelling fears that some who are over the limit may be stripped of the right to their appellation.

Falling prices and overproduction have sparked off disturbances in a number of wine regions. In Languedoc, growers blew up the Montpellier-Sete railway line and occupied offices in protest against falling prices. Their grievances have been further fuelled by reports of imported wines being cut with water.

Meanwhile, in the normally peaceful reaches of the Upper Douro Valley in Portugal, violent demonstrations have broken out over falling prices and the failure of the Casa do Douro, the growers' representative organisation, to buy up their surplus stocks. A serious crisis was only averted by a last- minute agreement by the shippers to buy surplus stocks to prevent prices falling too dramatically.

It hardly seems like less than six months since the 1989 vintage of La Romanee-Conti burgundy, the most expensive recent red wine in the world, was being offered for sale at a tasting in London. Assuming you can get 30 tasting glasses out of La Romanee-Conti, selling at pounds 4,320 a case, that makes it pounds 11.75 a taste. It must be the ultimate in 'drinking better but less' - which, not so long ago, was the slogan on all optimistic wine trade lips. Instead of up, consumers are now moving down-market, drinking less and, if anything, worse. High street prices - the pounds 7.99 champagne, the pounds 1.99 table wine - testify to the price war which is likely to intensify in the run-up to Christmas.

So what will be the best buys over the coming months? From France, vin de pays, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon and Alsace, and 1991 beaujolais should offer good value. Australia is set to continue its remarkable success story, with chardonnay, shiraz and sparkling wines the most affordable. Look to New Zealand for quality sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Spain's valencia, valdepenas and la mancha have overtaken rioja in value for money; Italy appears at last to be pricing realistically; and South America (Chile and Argentina) is better value at the lower price levels than anything from North America. Austria is back in the fold, with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and South Africa up and coming.

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