While America may be the land of opportunity for entrepreneurs, oenophiles don't have it so good. New Yorkers do just fine, as do residents of large metropolitan areas. But I spent a week in Heathsville, Virginia, and the experience made me realise how lucky I am to drink in the UK. Even though this area boasts its own wineries, it takes little interest in wine. The selection at our local supermarket stuck to big brands from California, with a token smattering of France and Italy. Dull, dire drinking.

While America may be the land of opportunity for entrepreneurs, oenophiles don't have it so good. New Yorkers do just fine, as do residents of large metropolitan areas. But I spent a week in Heathsville, Virginia, and the experience made me realise how lucky I am to drink in the UK. Even though this area boasts its own wineries, it takes little interest in wine. The selection at our local supermarket stuck to big brands from California, with a token smattering of France and Italy. Dull, dire drinking.

The exception was a bottle of Fleur de Carneros Pinot Noir 1997, which we bought at a restaurant-cum-food-wine-and-miscellaneous-trinkets-and- souvenirs shop. I no longer have the receipt, but seem to remember that $16 bought us a truly delightful wine, full of succulent red-berry fruit. It was a marvel at the price. The real marvel, though, is that it's sold in the UK for less than we paid: £6.89 plus VAT at Hall Batson (01603 415115). I urge fellow Pinophiles to phone them for mail-order details.

The wines that one misses most in the USA are Europeans of moderate price. You rarely encounter anything under $10 (about £6) which meets any need more urgent than serviceable everyday glugging. And this is true even in New York. It was all the more pleasurable, therefore, to come back and start drinking in that category once again.

As far as value is concerned, the greatest pleasure was my discovery that Somerfield is selling Chateau St Benoit Minervois 1997 at just £3.25, reduced from £4.25. This is not great wine. It is, however, sun-baked, herb-scented, lightly peppery and possesses a decent concentration of plummy fruit. The offer runs until 4 October, and if you're planning a party there are few cheap, cheap reds I'd recommend more highly.

At a higher price, though still well within party range, I nearly fell off my seat when I sniffed a glass of Bela Fonte Baga 1998 (£4.79-£4.99, Safeway, Unwins, Tesco, Oddbins). This is sandalwood-and-cedar perfume, with a delicately spiced palate, gentle tannins and hints of musk. Absolutely delicious stuff for autumnal game dishes. If there's something fishy on the menu, then Oenoforos Asprolithi 1998, Patras (£4.99) may be your saviour. Bearing salty, sharp, savoury fruit from the Roditis grape, this is one of the exciting Greek wines that Oddbins has been discovering.

Moving up a couple of pounds, here's a threesome of Cotes du Rhone the likes of which I have never found in the USA. First off is Terroir du Trias 1998, Beaumes-de-Venise (£6.49, Tesco); a serious Cotes du Rhone from the very fine recent vintage, with hefty, concentrated Grenache and spicy Syrah. Still a baby, though: if you drink it now, decant and leave it for an hour or so. Number two: Vinsobres Domaine Chaume-Arnaud 1997, Cotes du Rhone Villages (£8.40, Morris & Verdin, 0171 357 8866).1997 was not so uniformly successful a year as its successor, but this wine, medium-weight in style, is perfumed and elegant and more subtle than a lot of wines from this appellation. Ready for drinking now. Which I would also say of my third Cotes du Rhone, from the same producer and supplier: Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 1998 (£8.20). With so many juicily appealing Viogniers from the Languedoc and the New World, it's possible to forget what the grape can achieve closer to its original home. This one has abundant acidity, light mineral notes, and tremendous complexity. Not cheap, but not expensive for this quality.

Not long before I left for the summer hols, I spent a good hour with one of the high points of the wine-writer's year: the summer list from Reid Wines (01761 452645). This pamphlet is witty, peppered with literary quotations, and packed with interesting wines. It's also the only list I've seen that actively discourages you from buying some of what's on it. Considering Chateau d'Yquem 1963 (£115 plus Vat), Reid calls it "a disgrace". The next Sauternes on the list, Chateau de Fargues 1965 (£30 plus Vat) is described as "almost certainly worse than the previous bottle".

Among the wines they do want you to buy, the list contains both bargains and rarities. In the first category: the excellent Sancerre "Les Roches" 1998, Domaine Vacheron selling for £7.95 plus Vat (£10-£11 with Vat is the more usual price). In the second category, the bottle I crave: Pol Roger 1988 for £27.50 a bottle or £56.50 a magnum. Even with Vat this is less than the 1990 (about £35 Majestic, The Wine Society). And the 1988s will be more ready for drinking on 31 December 1999. Stocks are good, but I'd get on the phone anyway for a real Millennium bargain.

To drink now

Off the subject of wine, I can't resist sharing this recipe for Balkan Iced Coffee, which I found in The Melting Pot (Prospect Books, £14.99), about the food of the Balkans. Assemble 150ml strong black coffee, 15ml icing sugar, 15ml crushed ice, two scoops vanilla ice-cream and 50ml double cream. Dissolve the sugar in the coffee and leave to cool. Whip the cream. Put the ice in a 300ml glass, pour on the coffee, then the ice-cream, and finally float the cream on top. Caffeine heaven.

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