On the cheap

WINE
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you spent pounds 2,000 on booze this year, congratulations. Like the family with 2.4 children, you are, in one respect at least, normal. But if pounds 2,000 sounds as though the country is being delivered into the arms of Bacchus, wine's share of the total bottle is a relatively small nip. With more than half the family budget absorbed by beer and another quarter by spirits, the average proportion spent on wine is just under a fifth of the total.

That'll buy you three bottles of 1995 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (at the pounds 1,540 a case fetched at Christie's last month) or a daily 25cl can of Tesco's Lambrusco. Top Bordeaux, though, is of course a minority interest sport (five of the 10 highest successful bidders at Christies were American and one from Hong Kong). Britain remains, by and large, one of the most price-conscious wine-buying nations.

Fine wine, wine, that is, which for the sake of argument costs more than a fiver, is still way down the shopping list. In the high-street battleground, the latest figures show that more than eight in 10 wines sold were under pounds 4 a bottle. Only one in 20 bottles sold cost over a fiver. Yet, high street chains such as Oddbins, Thresher Wine Shops and Victoria Wine sell more than four times as many pounds 5-plus bottles as the supermarkets.

With exceptions such as Waitrose, M & S and the northern chain, Booths, supermarkets are abandoning their connoisseur corners. Fine wine racks are coming down in favour of friendlier shelf displays. Asda's new-format wine-by-style wine department has its ex-fine wine racks reserved for "wines for special occasions". Somerfield's have been replaced by smaller units. Morrison's is desperately racking its northern brains for a less intimidating term for "fine wine".

Despite Somerfield's pounds 1.99 vin de pays d'oc advertised on TV, the day of the pounds 1.99 bottle is numbered. The effect of this demise is that the price battlefield has vaulted from pounds 1.99 to pounds 2.99. Thanks to unfavourable exchange rates and a small 1995 vintage in key European regions and Australia, rising prices at the vineyard make it increasingly difficult for supermarket buyers to obtain decent-quality wines to adorn the shelf at pounds 2.99.

Now that staple wines from traditional suppliers such as beaujolais, muscadet, soave, valpolicella, even liebfraumilch in some cases, have all crept over the pounds 3 mark, the new world door has opened wide and customers are gratefully opting for Chilean cabernet sauvignon in place of claret, Australian shiraz instead of cotes du rhone.

We're happy, it seems, to pay more for new world wines because they're more reliable and less pretentious. New Zealand leads the field at an average price of pounds 4.91 a bottle, followed by Australia (pounds 4.32), United States (pounds 4.01), Chile pounds 3.48), then South Africa (pounds 3.39). Even though France holds its own at an average pounds 3.57 a bottle, its share of the market is falling. While traditional Europe has lost out to the new world and eastern Europe, Italy, the only major European country to have gained in the past year, has a relatively low average bottle price at pounds 3.09.

With the pounds 1.99 bottle an endangered species, even pounds 2.99 is starting to look dodgy. Once you've accounted for built-in costs of duty, VAT, packaging and profit margins - you're left with no more than 50p's worth of wine in a pounds 2.99 bottle, and sometimes quite a bit less. Now that the traditional regions are moving over pounds 3, you have to look to Hungary, Argentina and, to a certain extent, southern French vins de pays, Italy and Chile for really drinkable wines at pounds 2.99. So, cheap, perhaps, but don't always expect cheerful

pounds 2.99 Wines of the Week

1995 Safeway Sicilian Dry White, pounds 2.99, Safeway. A crisp Sicilian blend of the local Cataratto and Inzolia grapes with a refreshingly dry, citrus- fruity tang. 1995 Mission Peak White, pounds 2.99, Co-op. This is a fragrantly perfumed, full-textured Argentine dry white blend of chenin blanc and ugni blanc with the local torrontes grape. Butler's Blend, Hungarian Muscat/Riesling, pounds 2.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, /Bottoms Up. An aromatic dry blend of muscat and riesling which is spicy, summery and pleasantly dry. 1995 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Cantina Tollo, pounds 2.99, Asda. An aromatic, mouthwatering juicy Adriatic red with crisp summer pudding fruitiness and lively acidity. Sainsbury's Mendoza Country Red Wine, Trapiche, pounds 2.99, Sainsbury's. A fruity, spicy Argentine blend which is nicely rounded by a touch of oak character. 1992 Reserve Gamza, Lovico Suhindol, pounds 2.99, Kwik Save. Surprisingly vibrant for its relative maturity, this is a scented, juicy, mulberry- like red made from Bulgaria's native gamza grape.

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