POCKETS of fine wines have existed in Volvo-rich areas on both sides of the Pennines for some while. Bolton, Burnley and Bradford were another story, but in the past year several northern-based supermarkets and off-licences have started to redress the balance. 'The North-west is behind London in its tastes,' says Gerard Barnes, wine buyer for Cellar 5, 'while the North-east and North Yorkshire are more wine-friendly. But I think the gap is closing.'

Cellar 5, with some 500 shops, is the third largest specialist chain in the country after the Thresher and Victoria Wine groups. It is owned by Greenall Whitley and has begun the process of dividing the chain into four categories by range and location in a scaled-down version of the Thresher group.

A few flagship stores, called Berkeley Wines, will carry the full range, followed by Cellar 5 Wine Shops, then plain Cellar 5, down to Cellar 5 Foodbox, a convenience store.

Mr Barnes, a former Oddbins manager, has been given the go-ahead to turn Cellar 5's range from basic and conservative into something more modern. New world wines loom large in Cellar 5's plans: names such as Jacob's Creek, Penfolds and Montana. With the accent on value, customers can expect a much better selection in the coming year with good- value wines from Hungary and South Africa featuring strongly.

Until recently no one would have considered the Co-op as a serious challenger to the wine-oriented specialist chains. Steeped in the co-operative tradition, it is a labyrinthine organisation with a down-market image. Though it has outlets nationwide, including its flagship Leo superstores, its traditional heartland is the North, where plans are afoot to drag the slumbering giant into the modern world.

When Dr Arabella Woodrow arrived as wine buyer seven years ago, she set to work with commendable dedication, putting the palatable own-label range on the shelves. More recently, she has been joined by Paul Bastard, whose job is to bring some excitement to the Co-op shelves. 'Down South, people are saying the chardonnay boom is over, but it hasn't even hit us yet,' he says. 'The accent in our new selection is now very much on fruit and away from the old-fashioned, almost oxidised styles of the past.'

Already the Australian Butterfly Ridge wines feature among the Co-op's best-sellers, and Mr Bastard has new surprises in hand this autumn with a strong cast of extras from California, Spain, South Africa, Eastern Europe, England and the South of France.

One of the North's best-kept secrets is the small but nearly perfectly formed William Morrison chain of supermarkets, which has some 70-odd outlets in a wide arc around its base in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. As in every other supermarket around Britain, liebfraumilch pays the wages here but the wine buyer, Stuart Purdie, who joined from Peter Dominic two years ago, has a nose for quality at the right price.

The past year has seen the Morrison range fleshed out with some of the most affordable good-quality wines in the country. So much so that Morrison's, with its village store layout, is often referred to as the Waitrose of the North.

Reflecting customers' insistence on value as top priority, Morrison's lower-than-average margin allows Mr Purdie to offer a cheaper range than most supermarkets. Another big advantage, which in an ideal world other supermarkets would emulate, is that all branches stock the full range. One of Morrison's strongest quality areas is the South of France, where Mr Purdie has introduced a handful of bargain- basement appellation controlee wines from the likes of Minervois and Corbieres.

The new world, too, still something of a novelty to Morrison's customers, has really taken off since Mr Purdie introduced Mitchelton's Coldridge Estate wines, which, at under pounds 3, are the cheapest anywhere in the country. Morrison's is also a good place to buy champagne. This may come as a surprise for a part of the world where, as Mr Purdie puts it, 'a celebration is still a pint of Tetley Bitter'. The world's wine producers are working on it.

Pick of the region

MORRISON'S: 1992 Frascati Superiore Orsola, Fratelli Martini, pounds 3.49. Classic dry Roman white with richness and added spice. Domino Blanco, pounds 2.49. Typical good value, modern, zingy Spanish dry white. 1992 Corbieres Les Fenouillets, pounds 2.49. Chunky southern French red with fresh, juicy fruit and Mediterranean spice. Nicole d'Aurigny Brut Reserve Champagne, pounds 9.25. Biscuity aromas and delicious sweet-savoury fruit - one of the best cut-price champagnes around.

CELLAR 5: Lightning Ridge Semillon, pounds 3.99. Typical, aromatic Australian semillon with ripe, fresh, unoaked fruitiness. 1991 Backsberg Chardonnay, pounds 5.99. A spicy, cinnamon-like, elegantly-styled chardonnay from the Cape. 1989 Las Campanas Navarra Crianza, pounds 3.69. Pungent smoky oak and attractively soft strawberry fruitiness. 1991 Mitchelton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 6.99. A bouquet of eucalyptus and blackcurrant flavour characterise this cool-climate Victorian red.

THE CO-OP: 1990 Co-op English Table Wine, pounds 3.99. Grapefruity English dry white with the steel and some of the crisp flavour of chablis. Butterfly Ridge Colombard Chardonnay, pounds 3.59. Deep- gold, richly flavoured Australian white. Co-op California Ruby Cabernet, pounds 2.99. Affordable - for once - California red with leafy aroma and good blackcurrant cabernet flavour.