It's not just the name that makes London wine merchant Lea & Sandeman sound like a firm of solicitors.

It's not just the name that makes London wine merchant Lea & Sandeman sound like a firm of solicitors. With greater wine- trade experience than their youthful appearance suggests, the lanky Charles Lea and the debonair Patrick Sandeman exude the reassuringly solicitous presence of a couple of affable ex-public schoolboys. Since Lea & Sandeman opened for business in the Fulham Road in 1988, they've expanded to two more well-appointed outlets in Kensington Church Street and Barnes. But if you live outside London their website makes available the range that earned them this year's Which? Award for high-quality wines across the board.

"Our aim," says the lanky one, "is to source wines which represent exceptional value for money and exceptional pleasure in drinking. The most important thing for us is that a bottle of wine holds our interest from the very first glass to the very last." For that reason, they eschew "show" wines, icons and vacuous brands, preferring to build solid relationships with regular suppliers - and customers.

As befits a modern wine merchant, their passions together with the demands and aspirations of their customers make for unstuffy service and variety. Gradually changing from a traditionally French-wine-based merchant, they have become one of the best retailers of Italian wines. From Arnaldo-Caprai in Umbria, for instance, the full-flavoured 2003 Grecante Grechetto, Colli Martani, £8.95, is a fine example of a distinctive Italian dry white, while the 2003 Sportoletti Assisi Rosso, £9.50, is a vibrantly sour-cherry blend of merlot and sangiovese. At the higher end, the 1998 Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino, £28.95, is a triumph of a world-class Tuscan beauty combining gorgeously plush cherry fruit with the evolved complexity of barrel-ageing.

With almost perverse delight, Charles says, "We do not want to de-mystify, un-snob or dumb-down wine in some condescending way". I remember Charles Lea once deriding the flavours of Australia as essentially simple, but proving that they are not dyed-in-the-claret oenophiles, they've made recent successful forays into Australia, Chile, Austria and Spain.

Lea & Sandeman do high-end wines very well, yet there are a number of wines at around a fiver too that would put the Jacob's Creeks of this world to shame. Brilliant for the price is the 2003 Tempranillo Cepas Viejas from Vega de Castillo, £5.50, brimming with berry fruit, and from Chile, the 2003 Syrah Mistral from Viña Candelaria, £5.95, which offers temptingly juicy, berry fruitiness. For a couple of pounds more, the 2003 Château La Hase, £7.95, is a sheer delight of a creamy rich, all-merlot claret with the juiciest imaginable blackcurrant fruitiness.

The champagne selection is excellent too with the superb Grand Cru Tradition from Egly-Ouriet, a classic, mouthfilling grower's champagne of considerable panache, £23.50, or £20.95 if you buy a case. Lea & Sandeman is the kind of wine merchant that, in the old days, you wished you had on your doorstep but shrugged your shoulders because in its absence you had to make do with a Londis instead. If there's one small reproach, it's the website, but that's about to receive a much-needed revamp. Meanwhile, take a look at the list of wines with its mouthwatering tasting notes. Or don't, if you find it hard to resist temptation.

Lea & Sandeman, 170 Fulham Road, London SW10 9PR (020-7244 0522) or visit www.londonfinewine.co.uk

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