Food & Drink: A little advice over a bottle of wine: This week, Anthony Rose turns agony uncle to address common problems raised by readers

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I AM ALWAYS a shade sceptical about wine writers who claim they receive daily postbags full of appreciative readers' letters. My own postbag bulges with circulars churned out by the Ministry of Agriculture, and press releases from public relations companies. But some of you do write to me, often with queries. Since the same questions tend to crop up regularly I have decided, as a service to readers and overburdened postmen, to answer them here.

J N from Lichfield, Staffordshire, for instance, writes: 'My wife is vegetarian, and we were surprised to hear that red wines are normally produced using animal blood. Is this true?'

After fermentation, wine normally contains bits of micro-organic flotsam and has to be 'fined' or clarified. The most common clarifying agents are clay products such as bentonite. Isinglass from fish bladders, casein from milk, gelatine from bones and ox blood can also be used, but are now rare. Nature et Progres, the organic organisation, prohibits the use of blood.

J R of Taunton, Somerset, writes that, owing to illness, he can no longer drink full-strength wine, 'but can you recommend any wines that are very low in alcohol?'

Decent low-alcohol (up to 1.2 per cent) wines are extremely rare. The best one I know is Loxton Low Alcohol Chardonnay, pounds 2.19 at Safeway, an Australian product from Penfolds made by advanced spinning-cone technology. Grapey, muscat-based Italian sparklers such as Victoria Wine's Moscato del Piemonte, pounds 1.99, Safeway's Le 1992 Monferrine Moscato d'Asti, pounds 2.49, and Tesco's Vino Frizzante, pounds 2.79, tend to be cheap and light in alcohol, if on the sweet side.

N S from Sunderland asks if I can recommend any organic wines. An increasing number of producers who abide by the organic rulebook are making good quality wines. The best I have come across this year is the richly honeyed, burgundy-style 1992 Millton Vineyard Chardonnay from Gisborne in New Zealand, pounds 6.99 Safeway, which won a gold medal and trophy at the 1993 Safeway Organic Wine Challenge. Try also Guy Bossard's 1992 Organic Muscadet Sur Lie ( pounds 4.99, Asda) and his Domaine de l'Ecu, 1992 Muscadet Sur Lie ( pounds 4.99, Safeway). Vinceremos Wines, Leeds (0532 431691) and Vintage Roots, Berkshire (0734 401222) specialise in organic wines.

'We like a glass or two of vin ordinaire and never pay more than pounds 2.19 a bottle,' writes K R of London W11. 'Why do writers like you push all the posh top-price wines?'

The less you pay for wine, the higher the percentage accounted for by duty, VAT, transport and packaging costs and merchant's margin. Thus the actual price/value of the wine in a bottle costing pounds 2.49 is about 16 pence; at pounds 2.99 it is 39 pence; at pounds 3.99 it is pounds 1.03 and at pounds 4.99, pounds 1.67. Price promotions and multibuys have, however, become popular, and it is occasionally possible to find something not too plonky at around pounds 2.50 or less.

The best cheap wine range is now to be found at the revitalised Kwik Save, with wines such as Comtesse de Lorancy White at pounds 2.29 and Cabernet Sauvignon, Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 2.49. The year's most popular cheapie is Portugal's Leziria. The red is pounds 1.97 at Kwik Save, pounds 2.39 at Gateway and Budgen, pounds 2.59 at Victoria Wine. Leziria white is pounds 1.97 at Kwik Save, pounds 2.39 at Budgen, pounds 2.59 at Safeway and Victoria Wine.

'When we bought a run-down shop,' writes B S of St Austell, Cornwall, 'we found a hoard of bottles of vintage wines, all 20 or more years old. Should we drink them, lay them down or sell them?'

Not many peeple will strike as lucky as the German collector Hardy Rodenstock, whose discovery of a cache of wines that apparently once belonged to Thomas Jefferson fetched record prices at auction: pounds 105,000 for a 1787 Chateau Lafite, pounds 36,000 for a 1784 Chateau d'Yquem.

Only a handful of 'blue chip' wines have much chance of making money, especially after commission is paid. If in doubt, contact Christie's Wine Department (071-839 9060), Sotheby's Wine Department (071-493 8080), or a specialist fine wine broker such as Farr Vintners (071-828 1960) or Peter Wylie, Cullompton, Devon (0884 277 555). Most mature wines are drunk too old, so I would drink now and enjoy.

M B of Hereford would like to lay down 'a case of wine for my god- daughter born in June 1989, to be kept until her 18th birthday'. For red bordeaux - and 1989 was a generally fine bordeaux vintage - try Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446) or Justerini & Brooks, London SWl (071- 493 8721); for burgundies, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, London SW6 (071- 736 7878) or Morris & Verdin, London SWl (071-630 8888); for rhones, Yapp Bros, Mere, Wiltshire (0747 860423) or Justerinis.

'We have a cottage in Bordeaux and would like to surprise our French winegrower friends with some English wines,' says T R of Richmond, Surrey. 'Where can I get hold of some and which are the best?'

Three English wines won gold medals this year in international tastings: Breaky Bottom's 1990 Seyval Blanc and Throwley's 1991 Ortega in England, and Three Choirs' 1990 Seyval Reichensteiner in Bordeaux. Harcourt Fine Wines, London Wl (071- 723 7202) has the best selection of English wines and sells the Breaky Bottom for pounds 6.95. The 1992 Stanlake from Safeway and the 1991 Denbies Dry from Sainsbury's, both pounds 3.99, are the best-value widely available English wines.