DRINK / Glad tidings for discerning tipplers: The choice is wider and the battle for supremacy on the supermarket wine shelves tougher than ever. Anthony Rose uncorks the best bottles

WAITROSE

My own supermarket award this year goes to publicity-shy Waitrose, whose old-fashioned rules preclude them from jumping on the wine competition bandwagon. The Waitrose range, selected by four Masters of Wine headed by the experienced Julian Brind, is right on form. At the cheaper end, dry whites suitable for parties include Don Hugo Blanco, pounds 2.79, a rioja-like Spanish white with good fresh fruit and an appealing smoky character, and the fruity Australian Lachlan Springs 1992 Semillon, pounds 2.99. For a little more, Rangatira Dry White, pounds 3.75, from New Zealand is full of aromatic fragrance and luscious fruitiness, while by way of a contrast, Currawong Creek 1991 Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, is a typical ripe, tropically fruity Australian chardonnay.

A favourite red is the excellent Syrah 1991 Vin de Pays Comtes Rhodaniens, pounds 2.99, recommended previously for its exceptional value. Other good value labels are the spicy, robustly warming minervois Domaine St Germain 1990, pounds 3.35, and, from California, Cartlidge and Browne 1990 Zinfandel, pounds 3.99, with its appealing, raspberry fruit. Still under pounds 5, the Waitrose White Burgundy, pounds 4.99, balances a light touch of oak and richness of chardonnay fruit exceptionally well. Pierre Boniface's 1991 Jacquere, pounds 4.45, from the mountains of Savoie, smells and tastes intriguingly of angelica and is a wine of unusual personality.

Reds in this price range include Ribero del Duero 1989 Callejo, pounds 4.75, from Spain, dense with rich rioja-ish fruit, a hint of smoky vanilla and toffee oak; Cosme Palacio's oaky, modern 1989 Rioja, pounds 4.55; Leasingham Domaine's soft, full-flavoured 1989 Clare Valley Shiraz, pounds 4.99; and a lively, bright, recent addition to the range, Domaine du Moulin de l'Horizon 1990, Saumur Rouge, pounds 4.35, a herbaceous, juicy cabernet franc from the Loire. At just over a fiver, the spicy, strawberry fruit of the Bourgogne Pinot Noir 1989 from the Buxy co-operative, pounds 5.25, makes it one of the best red burgundies at the price, although Vaucher's 1988 Volnay, pounds 12.75, is charming and worth stretching your budget for. Peter Lehmann's Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1989, pounds 6.45, is superbly succulent and intensely blackcurranty with a touch of coconut from the oak.

Two classy whites stand out: St Andrew's Vineyard 1990 Chardonnay, pounds 7.95, a stylish, beautifully balanced Napa Valley chardonnay and, from the Graves district of Bordeaux, Chateau de Rochemorin 1990, Pessac-Leognan, pounds 7.85, a wine whose oak smokiness blends seamlessly with the intense flavour of the sauvignon grape. To help digest this lot, you'll need a bottle of Waitrose's scrumpy-scented Grande Fine Calvados VSOP, pounds 13.

SAFEWAY

Safeway has had a good year, winning the supermarket of the year award for the transformation of its range. There are occasional rumblings from customers unable to buy a recommended wine in their local branch, but this problem is not exclusive to Safeway. Hopefully, we will see better wines in more stores next year. Eastern Europe presents a number of exceptionally well-priced bottles. From Bulgaria, take your pick from the blackberryish Russe 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 2.85, or, for a little extra, the smoky, mature 1986 Suhindol Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 3.49. Kekfrankos and zweigelt may not exactly roll off the tongue, but a blend of these two grape varieties may just loosen it, in the form of a crisp, peppery Hungarian Country Wine, pounds 2.59.

Safeway offers claret-lovers a fine, keenly priced selection. Chateau Canteloup 1989, pounds 5.39, is a good price for a rich cru bourgeois chateau from a fine vintage, while Domaine La Tuque Bel-Air 1988 provides a contrast, a right bank, merlot-predominant claret with a year's extra age in bottle. And the contents of Safeway's own oak-aged 1990 claret, pounds 4.49, are far better than the label might suggest (a good reason for decanting it). From the Coteaux du Langeudoc, Domaine Grange du Pin 1990, pounds 3.49, is a rich mouthful of rhone-like syrah fruit. By way of a contrast, the Salice Salentino Riserva 1986, pounds 4.99, is a ripe and raisined winter warming rustic rosso from Italy's heel, Puglia.

For a Christmas Day treat, Penfolds' 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 7.49, or the classy mint and rich blackcurrant fruit of The Magill Estate 1987, will fit the bill of fare nicely. The Safeway's sherry list includes three excellent premium sherries in half-bottles at pounds 3.29, from the house of Lustau, a biting fresh Manzanilla, a caramel- nutty, tangy Old Amontillado, and an excellent rich Dry Oloroso.

Safeway's 10-Year-Old Tawny, pounds 8.99, is a lovely tawny with mellow, raisiny fruitfulness. Try it chilled, like the sherries, as an aperitif or with a mince pie.

SAINSBURY'S

Once judged to be the yardstick, Sainsbury's has lost its predominance during the past couple of years. I had a sense of deja vu about the range and slavish subservience to price points. Some of the criticism is justified, while some reflects the improvement of the competition. Sainsbury's claims that turnover is better than ever, and is showing signs of pulling up its socks.

Good-value whites this Christmas include Sainsbury's Australian Chenin Chardonnay, pounds 3.49, medium-bodied with nicely balanced sunshine fruitiness and slightly toffee'd oak, and a southern French chardonnay with the intense tropical-fruit flavour of the new world, Hugh Ryman's 1991 Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 4.99. The full-blown pineapple and grapefruit cocktail, Chais Baumiere 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, may not be everyone's cup of tea but, for pounds 3.99, you get a lot of flavour in a bottle.

Cheap reds provide a rich seam. That Portuguese staple, Arruda, pounds 2.45, with its spicy, robust plummy fruit, is still on good form. Sainsbury's Australian Shiraz- Cabernet, pounds 2.99, is also jam- packed with ripe blackcurrant flavours. It is hard to argue with pounds 2.99 for a mature Bulgarian Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 1985 that tastes not unlike an oak- aged rioja. At just over pounds 3, Sainsbury's light, cherryish Valpolicella Classico Negarine 1990 from Pasqua has more fruit than your common-or-garden valpol.

The now statutory New Zealand sauvignon is ably represented by Matua Valley's perfumed, crisp Sancerre-like 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 5.25. Both Sainsbury's honest, sun-ripened Australian Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, and the richer, butter-scotchy 1991 Hunter Valley Denman Estate Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, are good buys in their respective price bands. Copertino 1989 Riserva, pounds 3.99, new in this month, packs in plenty of character - spices and sun-dried fruits - for pounds 3.99. From Corbieres, Chateau la Voulte Gasparets 1989, pounds 4.55, is a fine traditional red, redolent of southern fruits and spices. If you prefer a wine softened with bottle age, Vina Hermina 1985 Rioja Reserva, Bodegas Lagunilla, pounds 5.39, is nicely rounded with typical rioja red fruits and vanilla flavours.

Sherry lovers will appreciate the availability (in 140 stores) of three premium sherry styles in handy pounds 3.49 half-bottles - a salty-savoury, bracing Manzanilla Pasada; a golden, rich Aged Amontillado with a clean dry finish; and a Palo Cortado, pounds 3.29, with a bittersweet creme brulee richness.

Wines for the seriously sweet- toothed include an old Sainsbury's favourite, Clos St Georges, which was honeyed and rich in 1990, pounds 6.95, or the exotic marzipan and macaroon-like confection, Chateau Maynes des Carmes 1989, pounds 13.45, the second wine of Chateau Rieussec.

TESCO

Tesco, neck and neck with Sainsbury's in the supermarket volume stakes, has maintained its innovative profile started under Adrian Lane. Among all the chains, its rapidly expanding new world section is the most fertile territory to explore, offering some excellent value wines.

New to the Tesco range is a fragrant floral English aperitif dry white with aromatic hints of elderflower and a delicately refreshing grapefruity flavour. Simply called English Table Wine, pounds 2.99, the back label tells you reassuringly that this is a wine made from 'authorised grape varieties'. Makes you wonder. If you're a fan of Don Hugo or Don Darias, or you love rioja with your oak, you will enjoy Marques de Chive Tempranillo, pounds 2.99, not just for the price, but also for its sweet raspberry-jam fruit and desiccated-coconut character.

Also good for parties is the floral, aromatic South-East Australian Dry White with its peardrop, off-dry fruit and its Australian Red counterpart, a shiraz cabernet, a typical minty, spicy Oz quaffer (both reduced from pounds 2.99 to pounds 2.69 until January 3). From Western Australia, Moondah Brook 1990 Verdelho is exceptional value at pounds 4.99. Don't miss out on this excellent, unusual alternative to chardonnay, with its aromatic character and, for an Australian white, rich, but restrained, tropical fruit and flavour. If you're prepared to spend a litle more, the gooseberry-fruit Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc 1991, pounds 6.99, is archetypal New Zealand sauvignon; Chalk Hill Chardonnay, pounds 9.99, packs in a big mouthful of toasted oak and butterscotch fruit in a rich and nutty Meursault style.

Tesco's Vintage 1990 Claret, pounds 4.49 is fine ripe, blackcurranty red Bordeaux at its best (at that price), while the cinnamon spice of Coldstream Hills 1991 Pinot Noir, pounds 7.99, will make an interesting, well-priced change from red burgundy. The Royal Oporto 20- Year-Old Tawny, pounds 13.65, is rich and chocolaty with the intense flavours of fruit preserved in mellowed spirit.

BEST OF THE REST

Asda: Asda Leon 1986, pounds 2.99, is something of a bargain Spanish red, its rioja-like rustic fruit tinged with charred Bourbon-like oak. Val di Suga's Rosso di Montalcino 1989, pounds 4.95, is elegant and cherryish, while Montes 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon, with its fine cabernet flavour, and McWilliams' minty 1988 Mount Pleasant Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, pounds 4.99, both offer good value alternatives to claret. Asda South Australia Chardonnay 1991, pounds 3.99, epitomises the sun-ripened Oz fruit style, while Mitchelton 1991 Marsanne, pounds 4.99, is a fresh and fragrantly fruity alternative to chardonnay. Asda's 10-Year-Old Tawny, pounds 9.59, has a nice smoky aroma with a sweet fruity palate of caramel toffee and raisins - delicious. For something exceptional, Schlumberger's 1981 Tokaji Aszu 3 Puttonyos, pounds 6.99 (50cl), is a nutty, sherry trifle of a Hungarian sweet wine.

GATEWAY/SOMERFIELD: Cairanne 1991 Domaine des Coteaux de Travers, pounds 4.09 - a good price for a rich, robust and spicily fruity, winter warming Cotes du Rhone-Villages. Leziria, the Portuguese party red that I singled out last week for its low price at Victoria Wine, also costs only pounds 1.99 at Gateway. Somerfield's Bergerac Rouge, pounds 2.99, is pleasantly soft with a claret-like grassiness, and its oak-aged syrah, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 2.85, is spicy, rustic and chewy. Penfolds' Bin 389 1987, pounds 6.99, is a blackcurranty Oz 'claret' of real distinction.

MARKS & SPENCER: Corbans Marlborough Sauvignon 1991, pounds 4.99, has a fragrant gooseberry, Sancerre-like intensity of flavour. Love it or hate it, the red Hochar Pere et Fils 1989, pounds 5.99, is packed with powerfully spicy fruit - ideal for turkey or game dishes. Cotes du Rhone-Villages Rasteau 1990 Chapoutier, pounds 4.99, is a fine, traditional robust rhone that calls for equally hearty food. The same goes for the Chateauneuf-du- Pape Les Couversets 1990, pounds 6.99, a heady aromatic mix of delicately smoky, raspberry fruit.

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