In sleepy French wine-producing towns, revolutions, if they come at all, creep up as stealthily as afternoon shadows. So it has been with Crozes-Hermitage, the wine from the vineyards surrounding the village of Tain, on the left bank of the slow-moving Rhone.

Crozes-Hermitage used to be a typically old-fashioned French appellation, dominated by rival merchants and a big local co-operative with scarcely an individual grower in sight.

The extension of the appellation in 1952 to cover 11 surrounding villages had undone the good work of the growers' organisation, the Cave de Tain, set up in 1933. Then, from the mid-Sixties to the Seventies, Crozes was planted with what the co-operative's director, Michel Courtial, calls 'pisse-vin vines', and production was doubled to meet the demand for cheap rhones, much of it going into the wine merchant's blending vat.

By the mid- Eighties, Crozes-Hermitage had an image problem, which association with the prestigious wine of Hermitage, its illustrious neighbour, could not repair.

So the best members of the Crozes-Hermitage co-operative decided to go it alone. At the same time, an improvement in fermentation techniques helped white Crozes-Hermitage, a blend of marsanne and roussanne grapes, to become a much livelier, more interesting wine than its flabby, tired predecessor.

Now, the gentle revolution is producing results. Crozes-Hermitage has been given an added boost by the demand for wines made with syrah, the traditional red grape of the Rhone, but drinkable earlier and at a fraction of the price of Hermitage itself.

The merchant firms of Jaboulet and Chapoutier, age-old custodians of, and rivals for, the crown of Hermitage, had long been the standard-bearers of quality in Crozes-Hermitage. Jaboulet's fine Domaine de Thalabert is consistently ageworthy, and the peppery, concentrated 1991 is no exception (around pounds 9.99, Oddbins; Tanners of Shrewsbury; Peter Green, Edinburgh). Chapoutier's 1991 La Petite Ruche (pounds 6.99, Majestic) is rich in spicy aromas and raspberry fruitiness.

But today's leading lights of Crozes-Hermitage are Graillot, Pochon and Belle - with hot competition from other fine producers such as Domaine Combier, Domaine du Pavillon, Jacques and Jean-Louis Pradelle, Tardy and Ange, Bernard Chave and Desmeure.

The most charismatic newcomer, Alain Graillot, has brought star quality to Crozes-Hermitage. A small, energetic figure with expressive, bushy eyebrows, he was an agricultural products salesman until he began to rent an 18-hectare vineyard, which used to sell its wine in bulk.

'Crozes was starting to take off when I arrived in 1985,' he says. 'This is a warm-hearted region and there were no problems coming in. I wasn't taking anyone's place. And I love syrah.'

Low yields are everything for Mr Graillot. He harvests by hand and his technique in fermenting in traditional cement tanks is aimed at maximising the fruit quality. He shuns overt new oak to produce a distinctively stylish, beautifully balanced Crozes-Hermitage, Les Chenes Verts, and the more powerfully structured la Guiraude.

The succulently spicy Les Chenes Verts, 1991 (around pounds 8.75, Yapp Bros, Mere, Wiltshire; Lay & Wheeler, Colchester, Essex) is a classic; the firmer la Guiraude (pounds 10.85, Yapp Bros) is rich in blackberry fruit. The perfumed 1992 Les Chenes Verts (pounds 8.49, Oddbins), is still youthfully opaque and also rich in blackberry fruit.

Next to Jaboulet's compelling, oaky La Mule Blanche, Mr Graillot's peachy, honeyed 1992 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (pounds 8.25, Yapp Bros), is one of the appellation's finest whites.

Albert Belle is a traditional vigneron who invested heavily in new cellar equipment after leaving the co-operative in 1989. He uses new oak for complexity to produce Les Pierrelles, the 1991 vintage of which is irresistibly seductive (pounds 6.99, Oddbins), and a denser, oakier, structured wine from older vines, Cuvee Louis Belle (pounds 7.99, Oddbins).

'I wanted the satisfaction of seeing my product through from start to finish,' he says.

Like Albert Belle, Etienne Pochon used to be with the old Cave de Tain; but from 1988 he started bottling his own wines at his dungeon-like, stone-vaulted medieval farmhouse, Chateau Curson. There is nothing creaky about his excellent wines, however: the 1991 Domaine Pochon (pounds 6.50-pounds 6.90, Justerini & Brooks, London SW1; Adnams, Southwold, Suffolk), with its hint of oak and wonderfully pure, ripe raspberry fruit, is drinking nicely now, but has a good five years of life ahead of it.

If only because of its size, the Cave de Tain would have a key role at the price- sensitive, high-volume end of the market. But, energised by the new dynamism around it, the Cave has improved standards immeasurably since it started to bottle its best wines with temperature control, careful selection of grapes, and ageing in small oak barrels.

Today there are 320 members of the Cave, producing the equivalent of more than four million bottles (roughly two-of the total output of Crozes-

The Cave de Tain bottles Sainsbury's sweet, smoky Crozes-Hermitage which, at pounds 4.59, is hard to beat for value. For a supple young red, Crozes-Hermitage's other co-op, the Cave des Clairmonts, produces a well-rounded, juicy, peppery 1990 Crozes-Hermitage for Waitrose pounds 5.75), which doubles as the 1990 Cros du Mourier (also pounds 5.75) at John Lewis's new wine-merchant arm, Findlater, Mackie, Todd.

In 1983, John Livingstone Learmonth, author of The Wines of the Rhone (Faber), said that a 19th-century assessment of the wines of Crozes and Hermitage as 'not brothers, but first cousins', was a 'flattering overall evaluation of the comparatively unknown wines of Crozes-Hermitage'. In the 1992 edition, he acknowledges that things have changed for the better. The link to the Hermitage name really is beginning to justify itself at last.

IF YOU blinked you may have missed one of last year's wine bargains. Thoroughly unpopular with competitors but much appreciated by customers, Sainsbury's last year introduced a mature rioja priced at under pounds 3, which promptly defied the forces of gravity by barely touching the shelves.

Don't ask me how, but the 1985 Torrealba Rioja Crianza is back. At pounds 2.75, this gently mature rioja, with its vanilla-oak-aged fruitiness, is a steal.

(Photograph omitted)

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