It is no coincidence that some wine merchants have recently taken on a distinctly lean and hungry look. Times are tough for the wine trade in general, but for the independent purveyor of quality wines in particular, life has become quite uncomfortable. The fall of the pound last week, which will make French wines more expensive, could not have come at a worse time.
Hardly a week seems to go by without news of a casualty here, a discount sale there. Bin-end sales and bankrupt stock bear witness to a malaise sending shivers through the fine wine sector.
Independent specialists are having to offer more than the time-honoured values of quality, service and choice. The smart ones have realised that cost-consciousness has become the overriding factor, even for well-heeled customers.
Burgundy, for example, is always expensive and exclusive. Its scarcity value - whether genuine or puffed up - has until recently been successful in propping up its chronic high prices. But an abundance of good wine and a decline in traditional markets is bringing burgundy to its senses. The specialist merchants, who know this labyrinthine region inside out, are well placed to plunder cellars and offer products that are too scarce ever to be seen on the shelves of supermarkets or high street off-licences at reasonable prices - for burgundy, that is.
Opposite Oddbins in the Fulham Road, west London, Lea and Sandeman (071-376 4767) deals in a variety of fine wines, with burgundy a speciality. 'Things have been going very well,' says Charles Lea, who aims to open a branch in Kensington shortly. 'I think it's because we're not dealing in the really fancy stuff or idiot stock, but mostly good solid wines in the pounds 5- pounds 15 range that are the best I can find in the appellation.'
Two 1990 chablis from Domaine Adhemar Boudin are outstanding, particularly the straight Chablis, whose smoky, rich, honeyed fruit and firm backbone is based on big flavours and mouthwatering acidity, pounds 8.76 (case price per bottle). Two 1990 pouilly fuisses from Domaine Daniel Barraud are equally fine. The straight Pouilly Fuisse, pounds 9.34, is smooth, nutty and intensely flavoured. The Vin de Bugey 1991 Chardonnay, pounds 5.82, is a successful attempt to reproduce a rich Macon-Villages-style house burgundy at an affordable price.
Since opening for business in 1978, Haynes, Hanson and Clark (071-736 7878) has survived and prospered, selling fine burgundy with the accent on reliability and quality. 'This is a more severe recession than we experienced in 1980-81,' says Anthony Hanson. 'We felt a change in buying patterns two years ago, since when we have expanded our house wine and vin de pays sections.'
Its latest burgundy offer includes a gloriously buttery-rich, delicately flavoured 1991 St- Veran, Domaine des Deux Roches, pounds 76.50 a case, which is also available by the bottle at pounds 6.99 (rising to pounds 7.29 from next Thursday) at Thresher Wine Shops and Wine Rack.
'White burgundy prices are back to 1986 levels,' says Mr Hanson. 'As far as reds are concerned, most growers sold 1990s more cheaply than their 1989s, but they are not going to give them away, knowing how good they are.' As we reported earlier, after a visit to the region, 1990 is proving to be one of the all-time great vintages for red burgundy.
If it does not seem too extravagant to pay pounds 7 upwards on a house red burgundy, both Olivier Leflaive's elegant Cote de Beaune- Villages 1990, pounds 59.80 a case, and Michel Lafarge's vibrantly fruity Bourgogne Pinot Noir 1990, pounds 64.75 a case, will repay up to five years' cellaring.
Lafarge's 1990s were the stars of the recent Haynes, Hanson tasting. Each a step up in quality from the next, his excellent Volnay, pounds 155.20, perfumed Beaune Graves 1er cru, pounds 208.50, and a powerfully rich, intensely raspberryish Volnay Clos du Chateau des Ducs, pounds 247.30, were among the purest, most seductive examples of fine pinot noir I have tasted.
Other star buys include Domaine Rossignol Trapet's 1990 Morey-Saint-Denis Rue de Vergy, pounds 107.10, Frederic Mugnier's 1990 Chambolle-Musigny Les Fuees, pounds 185.95, and Charlopin-Parizot's 1991 Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes, pounds 147.80 (prices are per case ex cellars; duty and shipping at roughly pounds 16 plus VAT is added when the wines are delivered).
Rhone and Loire specialist Robin Yapp (0747 860423) reports that his business of 22 years is staying afloat 'on ingenuity and a bicycle'. Once a figure of Falstaffian girth, Mr Yapp looks as though he has been on a diet of cuisine minceur and mineral water. He has certainly had to get out and about more, since half his business is supplying hotels and restaurants. 'Some have been badly hit, others, especially those offering good value, such as Cafe du Marche, are as busy as ever,' he reports.
Among rhones at the Yapp summer tasting, I fell for Auguste Clape's classic, succulent 1990 Cotes du Rhone Cepage Syrah, pounds 6.50 and a superb, blackberryish Saint Joseph 1990, pounds 9.25, from Jean-Louis and Sylvie Grippat. The Domaine de Trevallon 1990 from Eloi Durrbach (nicknamed 'the Pope of Les Baux'), pounds 12.25, is as seductive a wine, with liquorice and blackberry flavours, as he has ever made.
According to Nicolas Belfrage of Winecellars, 'the supermarkets have decided that Italian wine has to be under pounds 3 or nobody wants it - the very thing we've been trying to fight against'. Winecellars (081-871 3979) remains the standard-bearer for fine Italian wines in this country. Alongside the classics, the store has pioneered a range of fine wines made from native grape varieties such as cortese from Piedmont and vespaiolo from Veneto.
At its summer tasting, I found the Lugana, Ca' dei Frati 1990, pounds 5.99, rich, refreshing and crisply fruity. The 1991 Vespaiolo superiore, Bartolomeo di Breganze, was bracingly fruity and good value at pounds 4.59, while the 1991 Greco from di Majo Norante, pounds 7.29, is a star of the new wave of characterful Italian whites.
Among the reds, Fontodi's 1990 Chianti Classico, pounds 7.79, needs time for its savoury, cherried fruit to soften. Candido's 1988 Cappello di Prete, pounds 4.95, however, with its warm, caramel-rich bouquet and sweet, baked plum fruitiness, is ripe for enjoying now.