A taste of things to come

Richard Johnson comes face to face with the Big Brother of the wine world, Internet sommelier Jean-Michel Deluc
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Indy Lifestyle Online

To err is human, but to really foul up requires a computer. In fact, a computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention known to man, with the possible exceptions of the gun and the tequila slammer. So I have always shied away from ordering anything "online". I was sure it would take forever ("smash forehead on keyboard to continue") and end in tears. But ChateauOnline is just one of the new Internet wine retailers intent on changing my mind.

ChateauOnline employs a cyber-sommelier to make its service more personal. Jean-Michel Deluc is a plump wine waiter who appears on screen, and warns you (by e-mail) if the wine you've chosen is naive and presumptive. "ChateauOnline isn't just a catalogue," he says. "There is discussion - currently, which wine to serve with Roquefort. And I give advice about everything from decanting to temperature. It's like having a sommelier in your front room." Which doesn't bear thinking about.

ChateauOnline (based in Paris) can't offer tastings, but Deluc's advice is more comprehensive than that of most off-licences. With talk of "white pepper" and "a retronasal of ripe apples", he captures the top notes of Jilly Goolden. He tasted more than 10,000 wines last year, and now offers 1,400 of them at ChateauOnline. The most expensive is a 1676 Madeira, retrieved from a Dutch galleon. It costs £18,000. "I would not put that bottle in the post," says Deluc. "I would deliver it by taxi from Paris. It's art. I'd put it in a frame.

"And yet we also sell a Cabernet Sauvignon for 18 French francs," Deluc continues. "It's a lovely wine from Bulgaria. If you serve it in a carafe, with no label - which is what I do at home - no one could tell. But it wouldn't be exceptional. For Fr100 I can let you taste really exceptional wines. My advice is to look out for the wines from Bulgaria, Slovakia and Croatia. They used to make awful wine because of the cooperatives. Now we're about to see great things, and all at a very low price."

Deluc, whose face appears on every page of the ChateauOnline website, has become a wine celebrity. He is one of the judges in the "Best Sommelier in the World" competition. It's part theory (maybe Greek wine legislation or the grape type produced in Morocco) and part practical. Those top sommelier boys never miss the spittoon. And now Deluc has started to get fan mail. "They expect a lot from me," he says. "I got one from America. It read: `We had a great white wine in the restaurant last night. Can you tell me what it was?'"

www.ChateauOnline.co.uk

Ordering wine at ChateauOnline is simple. Just visit www.ChateauOnline.co.uk and follow the instructions. You can either search for a specific tipple, or browse until you find something that takes your fancy. And always remember to take Jean-Michel's advice! The minimum order is six bottles, with a pounds 5.99 delivery charge, anywhere in the European Union. Then tap in your credit card details, and your address, and you're done (delivery, by a specialist company, takes from five days to three weeks). It was worth the wait.

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