Shoppers with a nose for a bin-end can sniff out the odd real bargain at the January sales. And, as the rule is strictly first come, first served, my advice is to get stuck in as soon as possible, even if the sales notionally continue until the end of the month or beyond. There are, however, a couple of caveats.

Most merchants sell by the case only, although cases may be mixed and delivery may sometimes be free. Relatively few wines are genuine bargains. The annual sales present wine merchants with an ideal opportunity to muck out their Augean stables, to unload stock that has passed its metaphorical sell-by date.

There is, for instance, rather a large number of 1984 clarets doing the rounds. This was the worst claret vintage of the Eighties, though there are good buys to be had where the price is right. Berry Bros & Rudd is offering a six-bottle pack of 1984 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou at pounds 19.84 per bottle (no joke, apparently, and it is an even unfunnier pounds 25 at Unwins).

You might be better off at Corney & Barrow, however, which has the same wine, on a long list of mature clarets and burgundies, at a still-expensive pounds 15.33. And even there you will find the occasional nonsense, such as the 1992 Loron Beaujolais Nouveau, decribed as 'maturing nicely, super value', at pounds 3.25 a bottle.

Still in largely traditional territory are the sales at Laytons, John Armit and Peatlings. Thos Peatling, the East Anglia merchant, is offering 20 per cent off all table wines over pounds 10 for the whole of January and February. (Why stop there?) Meanwhile, Laytons, disposing of the tail-end of a pounds 3m cellar, says it has 'not seen a list of so many top wines at these prices since the difficult days of the mid-Seventies'.

Some of the reductions do look tempting, even allowing for prices that started too high in the first place. At pounds 57.58 a case, or pounds 4.80 a bottle (down from pounds 86.40 a case), it is worth investing in a case or two of the 1990 Chateau le Bernadot, a classic, ripe and easy-drinking medoc. Among other interesting propositions are the 1989 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, down from pounds 270 to pounds 218, 1990 Domaine de Chevalier, from pounds 280 to pounds 220, Chateau Cos d'Estournel, from pounds 270 to pounds 218, and Chateau Canon, from pounds 253 to pounds 205.

John Armit's new year sale includes a number of goodies, notably the popular 1992 Domaines Virginie Chardonnay, from pounds 64 a case to pounds 56, or pounds 4.75 a bottle, and a fine claret, which will drink beautifully over the next three to five years, the 1990 Chateau Commanderie, Lalande de Pomerol, reduced from pounds 115 to pounds 108.

Both Bibendum and Lay & Wheeler offer more varied selections of reductions from around the world, slicing off an average of 20 per cent. Bibendum is offering the 1992 Puiatti Pinot Grigio for pounds 4.99 a bottle, while the graves-like 1991 Sonoma Valley Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc is down from pounds 8.98 to pounds 6.50 a bottle. At Lay & Wheeler, all the best buys have already gone, but there are plenty of useful bin-ends still going.

Full details of sale-price wines from:

Lay & Wheeler, John Lay House, 97 Gosbecks Road, Colchester, Essex (0206 764446). Sale ends 31 January.

Peatlings, Westgate House, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 1QS (0284 755948). Sale ends 28 February.

Bibendum, 113 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 8UR (071-722 5577). Sale ends 26 February.

John Armit Wines, 5 Royalty Studios, 105 Lancaster Road, London W11 1QF (071-727 6846). Sale ends 11 February.

Laytons, 20 Midland Road, London NW1 2AD (071-388 5081). Sale ends 31 January.

Corney & Barrow, 12 Helmet Row, London EC1V 3QJ (071-251 4051). Sale ends 28 January.

Berry Bros & Rudd, 3 St James's Street, London SW1A 1EG (071-396 9600). Sale ends 11 February.