THRESHER / WINE

RACK / BOTTOMS UP

THRESHER has become more famous for its till receipts than its wine list, thanks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but this has been a good year for the chain. With Wine Rack (115 outlets) as its up-market merchant and Bottoms Up (61 branches) targeting the wine- warehouse customer, the 878 Thresher Wine Shops are now spearheading the assault on the high street, while the 486 Thresher Drink Stores remain as traditional 'offies'.

Thresher's buying team has worked wonders. In the less-than- pounds 5 range there is little to beat the juicy, soft blackcurrant fruit of the Russe Winery's Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon/Cinsault, pounds 2.79, but the Tollana Shiraz Cabernet 1990, pounds 3.79, and the ripe, blackcurranty Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz/Mataro 1991, pounds 3.99, give good accounts of themselves, as does Montana's evergreen 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.99, with its grassy aromas and gooseberryish fruit.

At more than pounds 5, the Morton Estate Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 1991, pounds 6.99, is a superlative New Zealand chardonnay, hinting at vanilla and spices. White burgundy climbs to pounds 26.99 on the Thresher list, but nothing holds a candle to Gerard Thomas's St Aubin 1er cru, Murgers des Dents de Chien, 1990, pounds 10.99, Meursault-like, lightly toasted and rich in sleek burgundian fruit.

Some middle-price reds stand out as distinctly good value. Alain Paret's Valvigneyre, Cotes du Rhone 1990, pounds 5.29, is succulently soft and spicy syrah. Penfolds 1989 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 7.99, is pungently oaky and minty in the inimitable, unsubtle Penfolds style, but the fruit is powerfully concentrated, crushed blackcurrants. Adam Wynn's soft, strawberryish Mountadam Pinot Noir 1991, Bottoms Up and Wine Rack only, is his most successful pinot noir to date, and comes in a handy half-bottle at pounds 5.99.

The list also includes two outstanding rioja reservas, Contino Reserva 1986 from Cune, pounds 9.49, Bottoms Up and Wine Rack only, beautifully matured, with rich vanilla oakiness in the modern fruity style; and Vina Ardanza Reserva 1985 from La Rioja Alta, pounds 10.29, very classy with superb richness of fruit.

ODDBINS

HAVING won the Wine Merchant of the Year award year in, year out, Oddbins was barred from entry this year for being too successful. The staff at its 172 branches in England, Scotland and Wales, however, remain as unstuffy as they are knowledgeable and helpful.

Its list has lots of good, cheap and Christmas-cheery stuff, starting with two Spanish reds: the juicy, modern- style strawberry and coconut-ice 1991 Vega de Moriz, pounds 2.69, and the more traditional cherry/plum 1990 Cueva del Solana, pounds 2.79. Peter Lehmann's splendid Vine Vale Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, liquid mint toffee in a glass, is a snip at pounds 3.99. At the same price, his 1992 Vine Vale Chardonnay, with its smoky, charred oak and ripe, fresh Barossa Valley chardonnay fruit, offers the perfect, versatile, any-time-of-day quaffing white. Glenloth's aromatic, tangy 1991 Dry White, pounds 2.99, will do nicely for parties, while Fetzer's 1991 Fume Blanc, pounds 3.99, has a nice, soft, smoky, grapefruit character.

A recent addition to the list is Fisher Vineyards Coach Insignia Chardonnay 1989 from Sonoma in California, pounds 4.99, a wine with a spicy cinnamon and nutmeg aroma and fine buttery richness. As an aperitif, try the piercing fruit clarity of Toni Jost's delicately tangy off-dry 1991 Bacharacher Schloss Stahleck, pounds 4.99. Of 49 Aussie chardonnays, the two most expensive happen to be the most impressive: Tim Knappstein's classy, finely balanced 1991 Lenswood Chardonnay and Brian Croser's superbly poised, burgundian 1990 Petaluma Chardonnay, both pounds 9.99.

The list of fine cabernet sauvignons is extensive. From Australia, Tim Knappstein's 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 6.99, is softly mint-leafy and beautifully balanced; Wirra Wirra's The Angelus 1990, pounds 7.49, oozes succulent, melt-in-the-mouth cherry and blackcurrant fruit flavours. Oddbins's California selection is growing in quality and length, too. Fisher Vineyards Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon 1988, pounds 4.99, is a spiced-oak, sweetly ripe 'California claret'; Havens's luscious, ripe 1989 Merlot, pounds 8.49, is a successful example of the merlot grape. Finally, appeasement for the classically minded: a red graves, the 1990 Clos Floridene, pounds 7.49, and a red burgundy, Jaffelin's fine 1990 Rully, pounds 7.99.

AUGUSTUS BARNETT

NOW that the range has been spruced up under the capable supervision of Dr Caroline Gilby, the new Master of Wine, the future for the chain's 570- odd shops (with 150 that stock the full range of 400-plus wines) looks bright.

Good cheapies include a fragrant, spicy 1991 Dry Muscat, pounds 2.89, from Hungary and the lemon-and-lime 1991 Vina Alaizi Blanco, pounds 2.99. A surprisingly rich, almost chardonnay-like 1991 Castillo de Alhambra from the plain of La Mancha is worth the extra at pounds 3.49, as is the aromatic, refreshingly clean 1991 Bianco di Custoza from Pasqua, pounds 3.49. The 1991 Vin de Pays d'Oc Viognier from Pere Anselme, pounds 4.49, is spicy and fragrant with lovely, full-bodied fruitiness. Villa Maria's 1991 Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 5.29, is delicious now, a typical hint of asparagus drowned in grapefruit and gooseberry. Trimbach's 1988 Gewurztraminer, Cuvee des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre, pounds 13.95, is superbly rich and powerful.

Good-value reds include a grassy, claret-like bergerac, Chateau La Montade 1990, pounds 3.79, and two fruity, rustic, southern French wines, Chateau Troncin-Capdevila 1990, and Chateau Ormieres 1990, both pounds 3.49. Castillo de Montoro 1990, pounds 2.89, is in the Spanish Don Hugo/Don Darias mould, but better. And from Portugal, Cave do Duque, pounds 2.99, offers plenty of damsony, distinctively Portuguese flavour. Penfolds' Woodford Hill 1990, pounds 3.79, is a typical Australian red saturated in juicy sweet blackcurrant fruit. Leasingham's excellent Hutt Creek Shiraz/Cabernet 1990, pounds 4.99, has less of the mint and oak and more pure blackcurrant. The La Cetto Petite Syrah 1988, pounds 3.99, from Mexico has softened since I first tasted it, into an aromatic, peppery red.

VICTORIA WINE (and

HADDOWS, Scotland)

WITH 962 high-street branches to service, keeping the list fresh and exciting and the staff motivated is a constant struggle. Nevertheless, there have been notable improvements across the range this year, particularly in the wines of Eastern Europe and the New World.

Some good party wines are new to the Victoria Wine list. Try Willow Court, for instance, pounds 2.99 ( pounds 3.59 after 4 January), an English white from Three Choirs Vineyard. The 1991 Irsay Oliver from Czechoslovakia, is dry, fat and fruity. Party reds include an ultra-cheap strawberryish and juicy Leziria, pounds 1.99 (Portuguese for delirium, I believe), and another Portuguese red, the plummy, fruitcakey douro, Cismeira 1990, pounds 2.99. Also pounds 2.99, Ryan's Creek Shiraz Cabernet is a good bet for parties. From New Zealand, Nobilo's White Cloud 1992, pounds 3.59, is aromatic, smooth and just off-dry, a wine you can take anywhere.

Shingle Peak Sauvignon Blanc 1991, pounds 4.99, in contrast, has an a strong gooseberry pungency and plenty of citrus-grapefruit flavour, one for real wine drinkers; as is the consistently fine 1990 Chablis, pounds 6.99, from La Chablisienne Co-op, a model co-operative producing rich, buttery, unoaked real chablis. Stratford California Zinfandel, pounds 3.99, with its aromatic raspberry juiciness, is one of the year's greatest hits, and you also get change from a fiver with Chivite Reserva 1987, pounds 4.69, from Navarra, which packs a surprising punch. For the true connoisseur of rioja, the Contino Reserva 1986 mentioned above (see Thresher) is available at pounds 9.29. And there is a little left of Corban's voluptuous 1990 Private Bin Merlot, pounds 7.39, which would have been one of my wines of the year had I not gone on so much about New Zealand.

FULLER'S

FULLER'S has about 60 branches in London and the South-east and a range that borders on a mini-Oddbins. Regatta Blanc, pounds 4.99, aromatic and sauvignon-like, comes from the Thames Valley Vineyard. Aldridge Estate Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, is typical Australian tropical fruit with a touch of oak. It has to compete with an offer of a free bottle of the tropically fruity Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 1992, pounds 4.99, with any three bottles of Penfolds wines. I first thought the 1991 Tasmanian Chardonnay expensive at pounds 8.79, but the citrus- fruitiness is so intense that I now think it well worth the price.

Traditionalists may prefer Jacques Saumaize's more subtle 1991 St Veran Vieilles Vignes, pounds 7.49. Domaine du Belvezet 1991 Cotes du Vivarais, pounds 3.65, has the fruitiness of whole-bunch, carbonic maceration; Leeton Down Shiraz/ Grenache, pounds 3.49, is the Down-Under side of the same coin, a juicy Australian Ribena of a wine with a leavening

of spicy oak. Chateau Pech-Celeyran 1988, pounds 3.79, from La Clape, has the musky character of sandalwood and sweet pipe tobacco. Chateau du Cedre 1989, pounds 4.65, is a good, tarry example of modern Cahors.

Among pricier reds, I like the vivid Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva 1988 from Cantina Gattavecchi, pounds 6.99, and the fine Nuits St Georges 1er cru 1988 from Laboure-Roi, pounds 13.99.

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