When Victoria Wine tied the knot with Augustus Barnett last year, it looked for a while as though they would be hitched for life. However, it was not to be. The marketing boffins of Allied-Domecq, Victoria Wine's parent, decided that while Augustus was dispensable, Victoria was an inviolable asset.

So farewell, then, Augustus Barnett, which sold its last bottle of wine at the end of July. During the past year, Victoria Wine's new trading director, Adrian Lane, once the street-wise mastermind behind Tesco's wine department, has been instrumental in overhauling the company's 1,527 high street stores. From the ashes of Augustus Barnett, a new chain called Victoria Wine Cellars has emerged. The streamlined model is far better equipped to take on Thresher, whose upmarket arms, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up, have had only Oddbins to contend with in the expanding over-pounds 3.99 area of the market.

Ten bright new Victoria Wine Cellars opened in the early summer, the Kermit-green plastic of yesteryear making way for the friendlier, air-conditioned embrace of wooden shelves, bins and baskets, plus piped Mozart, fresh green paint, and stripped-pine floor tiles for added ambience. Mr Lane plans to open another 30 by Christmas, going nationwide with a total of 150 by the end of 1995.

According to Thomas Woolrych, Victoria Wine's senior wine buyer, 'keeping the Victoria Wine name means approachability'. He cites atmosphere, 'browsability' and personal service as other key factors in encouraging customers to buy higher-priced wines, and wants to offer a greater variety.

Each new shop has cool cabinets and a Chilla, which cools white wine or fizz in just four minutes. The shops offer tastings and more aggressive discounts, including seven for the price of six on fizz over pounds 5.99.

Mr Woolrych hopes that this halfway house between the organised anarchy of an Oddbins and the stiffer, fine wine atmosphere of a Wine Rack will lure the kind of customers he describes as professional experimenters. 'They are younger than the traditional over-45 customer,' he says. 'People who know a bit about wine already and want some excitement in the choice available to them.'

To this end, Victoria Wine has been expanding its range, especially the critical pounds 3.99- pounds 5.99 band. Compared with the 350-strong list of the larger Victoria Wine Shops, the Cellars offer some 550, including a selection of premium beers, spirits and malt whiskies. The five wine buyers, who feature in the new list, have vigorously explored France, Eastern Europe and the new world, and created a much broader choice with a zestier appeal (all the listed wines can be ordered from all its shops, even if they are not on the shelves. A selection is also available from Haddows, part of Victoria Wine's Scottish chain).

The Eastern European range has undergone a marked facelift, thanks in large part to a couple of Australian flying winemakers, Nick Butler in the Czech Republic and Kim Mylne in Hungary. At pounds 2.99, the peachy, slightly peppery 1993 Moravia Hills Dry White, the fragrantly floral and ginger-spicy, off-dry 1993 Chapel Hill Hungarian Irsai Oliver and a light, vibrantly juicy, peppery 1993 Moravia Hills Dry Red are well worth a try. Better still, from Balatonboglar in Hungary, Kim Mylne's 1993 Oak Forest Chardonnay, pounds 3.39, is a delightfully spicy dry white with a well-crafted oak character.

From the New World, the crisp 1993 Corbett Canyon Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, is the most elegant, chablis-like chardonnay from California I know at under pounds 5. South Africa's Neetlingshof has come up with a delightfully perfumed, lychee-like 1994 Gewurztraminer, pounds 4.49, complemented by an idiosyncratic, rustic 1984 Pinotage, pounds 6.99, with lots of fruit in a leathery, near-burgundian mould.

By way of a contrast, the cherry and raspberry-like 1994 Fairview Gamay Noir, pounds 3.99, is a thoroughly modern animal from the Cape. Back in Australia, the 1992 Riddoch Shiraz, pounds 6.79, exhibits sumptuous, peppery, Rhone-like fruitiness, while the 1990 Penfolds Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 7.99, is oaky, sweet and fruity. Brian Croser's 1991 Croser Sparkling Brut, pounds 10.79, a sweet-savoury blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, is one of Australia's finest sparkling wines.

For a basic French white, the clean, aromatic 1993 La Serre Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 3.99, is a good buy. Further up the scale, finer French whites include Gabriel Meffre's rich, herby 1993 Chateau de Vaudieu Blanc, Chateauneuf du Pape, pounds 8.89. Among the reds, the 1993 Minervois, Cave des Hauts Coteaux, a juicy red full of pepper and cinnamon-spice aromas, is particularly good value at pounds 3.49, while the spicy 1991 Cuvee Mythique is available at pounds 5.59.

More expensively, Thierry Allemand's superb 1991 Cornas, pounds 15.99, is the epitome of majestically rich, smoky-tarry, concentrated northern Rhone syrah. Among contributions from the Iberian Peninsula, both Fonseca's elegant, affordable 1989 Quinta de Camarate, pounds 4.89, and the more concentrated, savoury, beautifully evolved 1988 Garrafeira TE, pounds 6.99, are not to be missed, while from Spain, the 1982 Campo Viejo Rioja Gran Reserva, pounds 6.99, offers supple gamey characters and venerable maturity.

Encouraging stuff. Even Oddbins, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up will relish the competition if it means luring customers out of the supermarkets and back into the high street.

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