Star quality from your armchair

Anthony Rose finds independent wine merchants often have more to offer than supermarkets - and no hint of stuffiness

Supermarkets have done such a thorough job in taking the stuffiness out of wine drinking, that wine merchants are finding themselves often bypassed. But although some wine merchants still deserve their old-school- tie image, those doing best in today's competitive market have jettisoned classism and ageism.

Without the resources of the giants, it is hard for today's new breed of independent specialist to spread the word that mail-order shopping is much more convenient than going out to buy your wines. Quality wines of character and personality are far less likely to see the light of day on a supermarket shelf than on one of their wine lists. Add to that the benefits of advice, regular offers, mouthwatering lists, and delivery, sometimes free, and it is surprising that everyone with a list of professionals to call on, from accountant to aromatherapist, does not include an independent wine merchant in their address book.

Thanks to Simon Farr and Willie Lebus' adventurous approach to buying (and selling) wine, Bibendum, based at Primrose Hill, north London, has become one of the country's leading independent wine merchants. Gradually building up a specialist portfolio of mainly grower's wines of character, but limited availability, Bibendum supplies private customers, and, increasingly, hotels and restaurants. At a recent tasting, Bibendum set out its Italian stall, which, for wine drinkers looking for an introduction to fine Italian wines, provides an ideal base from which to start.

At the bottom of the range, the Uvello Bianco, £3.49, is a pleasant enough spagbol white. The Brunori 1993 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesu, £4.99, is a wine of real character, spritz fresh but with plenty of honeyed rich- ness and an unusual spiciness.

In a land in which star whites are rare, star soaves rarer, the 1993 Suavia Soave Classico, £5.25, is a model of aromatic fruit, nutty flavours and crispness, while the 1993 Villa Simone Frascati Superiore, £5.99, also has a surprising depth in a more buttery, almost chardonnay-like mould. The 1993 Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano, £6.95 is a rich, dry white with the characteristic vernaccia bite to it.

The 1993 Malvira Roero Arneis, £5.75 is a spicy dry white of excellent character. Quintarelli's quirky 1993 Bianco Secco, £6.75, is strictly for lovers of handwritten labels. From Friuli, Italy's top white wine region, come two interesting whites from Liende power-dressed in black. The 1991 Liende la Viarte, £ 10.99, mixes tocai, picolit, sauvignon blanc and riesling in a slightly smoky, sweet, but lively blend. Even more deliciously drinkable, the 1993 la Viarte Tocai Friulano, £ 8.99, is spicy and fresh, an excellent example of the native tocai friulano grape variety.

From its name, you could be forgiven for taking the 1991 Vallarom Chardonnay, vendemmia tardiva, £ 13.75, to be sweet. But it's dry, the late (October) harvest signalling super-ripe, richly buttery chardonnay. For sweet tooths, the 1991 Suavia la Boccara, Recioto di Soave (37 cl), £8.99, is almondy and sweetly fruity with an elegantly dry after-taste. Maria Borio's golden handprint adorns the the 1991 Avie' Moscato (50 cl), £12.49, bottle,with its Aqua Libra-like, melon and cucumber aromas and intriguing, stem-ginger- like fruit.

Three fine youthful reds: the 1992 Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Vino da Tavola, Malvira, £5.75, a wine full of ripe nebbiolo fruit and typically, for the variety, chewy tannin; the excellent, grassy 1993 Cabernet Franc, Friuli, Vigneti Le Monde, from Pistoni, £5.95, with its sweetly juicy, well-balanced fruitiness, and the velvet-textured 1993 Eraldo Viberti Dolcetto d'Alba, £6.99, a ripe, succulently fruity dolcetto. Talenti's Montalcino reds, too, are dangerously drinkable. The 1992 Rosso di Montalcino, £7.99, is an aromatic, sweetly silky Tuscan red with no hard edges at all, and the 1989 Brunello di Montalcino, £14.49, is a wine of intense aromatic power, gorgeously succulent fruit, and with the added backbonelacking in the Rosso.

Among a clutch of chiantis, my favourite is the 1992 Podere 11 Palazzino Chianti Classico, £7.65, with its herby sangiovese character and understated, elegantly soft fruit. The 1988 Roi la Viarte, £ 10.99, is rather sexy stuff, with a strong roasted coffee-bean oak smokiness, but good underlying fruit. But Viberti's 1989 Barolo, £ 14.99, although good on fruit concentration, is a mite over-oaked for my tastebuds.

Bibendum is at 113 Regents Park Road, London NW1 8UE. (071-722 5577). Minimum purchase is for one case of 12 bottles, which can be mixed. Prices include VAT. From this month, delivery is free nationwide in mainland England.

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