Let the name take the strain

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People in the wine trade regularly debate the merits of brands. On one side are anti-branders, who think (in simplified form) that really serious wines are hand-crafted and possess goût de terroir - the taste, theoretically, of a certain patch of earth. They are 'grown' rather than 'made'.

People in the wine trade regularly debate the merits of brands. On one side are anti-branders, who think (in simplified form) that really serious wines are hand-crafted and possess goût de terroir - the taste, theoretically, of a certain patch of earth. They are 'grown' rather than 'made'.

The people on the other side accept brands as a fact of life. Research tends to find that most drinkers pay no attention to the nuances of production that we wine-scribes love. 'Wow! This wine had 14 days of skin contact? Give me a case, please.'

As if. For most people it's Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, it's Chilean or South African, it costs £5.99 or £6.99. People who approach wine this way, surprise surprise, find brands useful and reassuring. If they find something enjoyable and affordable, whether from Torres or Mondavi or Penfolds or Concha y Toro or whatever, they'll go back to that name.

Occasionally I argue with people who think this way, but I never get far, because my heart's not in it. I do get overheated, however, by a particular form of the branding idea. For some, appellations are brands: Sancerre or Cÿtes-du-Rhÿne, say. For some, a varietal and place work the same way - Californian Merlot or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. But the world doesn't work that way. There's good and bad in any appellation.

For real brands, you have to look at the company. It will usually be a New World name, and often in English (so much easier to pronounce). California has its share of reliable brands, but the most impressive are Australian. Some of the big names have a huge amount to offer people seeking sound, enjoyable wines - especially if you're willing to go over £7.

Australia isn't the place to go for awesome £4.99 quaffing wines, having ceded that spot to Chile and others. Even at £5 to £6 you have to pick and choose: in a recent tasting laid on by the First Quench group (Thresher, Bottoms Up, etc), only Tatachilla Grenache Shiraz 1998 (£5.99, also from Direct Wine, Majestic and the Wine Society) really floated my boat with its spicy, peppery plums and berries.

But climb over £6 and you're heading into serious fun. Wines from big-is-beautiful producers like Rosemount and Penfolds are almost consistently good. It was Rosemount that most impressed in this tasting. Shiraz Cabernet 1999 (£6.79 at First Quench stores; up to £7.49 elsewhere) is big and edgy with spice and blackcurrants. And the company seems to save its best fruit for single-varietals: the Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 (£7.49, also at Asda and Budgen) is a gorgeous cocktail of eucalyptus and classic Cab flavours with a nice smoky undertone.

Naturally, there's more to Australia than big names. Producers like St Hallett, Tim Adams and Chapel Hill all make awesome wines. The Australian Wine Club is a great place to start (08008 562 004); primo mail-order choice. Seek out the unfamiliar. But don't be afraid of brands.

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