Wine: Chain reaction

If the name Nicolas recalls nothing beyond a litre of plonk with a plastic stopper, you can't have taken on board the firm's smart London off-licences. If you have, you will have been pleasantly surprised - provided you want wines from France. The New World is not Nicolas's strong suit; France is. And, with an excellent vintage in 1996, particularly in the Loire, Nicolas is the place to find unusual wines - and the best gift- wrapping in town.

Nicolas invaded the UK in the late 1980s. At the time, it had 370 shops in France and an additional 40 franchises, and had recently, as an ailing business, been taken over by Castel Freres from Remy Martin.

In theory, there were many good reasons to avoid Britain - from the impending recession, and looser border controls, to a growing taste for New World wines and supermarkets' encroachment into off-licence territory. But, after a slow start, Nicolas successfully swam against the tide with its vive la difference approach.

Of the 1,300 products in the range, only 200 are non-French. Its great strength is exclusive wines. It gets to the nooks of la France profonde - places like Jura, Cahors and Madiran - that even Oddbins and Bottoms Up can't reach. Its shops look stylish, even if its wines are not the most competitively priced.

Last year was a record year for the firm, as people discovered what is has to offer. Its good-value Petite Recolte range and its Champagne discounts went down particularly well. This year, the firm has opened new premises in Primrose Hill and Muswell Hill. Plans for shops in Marylebone High Street, Fleet Street and Maida Vale will bring its total number of shops to 14. Staff are mostly French. They undergo a stiff, four-year maitre caviste course before they are allowed to manage a shop, so know more than many chain-store managers. Until recently, all staff were French. But in a new spirit of Anglo-French co-operation, Nicolas has taken on the odd Brit or two. Wines of the Week

1996 Chateau Haut Rian, Entre Deux Mers, pounds 5.99. Fine modern, full-flavoured Graves-style blend of two-thirds Semillion, one-third Sauvignon, from Michel Dietrich. 1996 Jurancon Sec Grain Sauvage, pounds 6.75. Assertive white, made at the Jurancon Co-op in the Pyrenean foothills from the intriguing Gros Manseng grape. 1996 Quincy Pierre Duret, pounds 7.50. Pungent, refreshing Loire-Sauvignon alternative to Sancerre with the backbone to age. 1994 Chateau de la Guiche, Montagny, A Goichot, pounds 11.50. Buttery richness and oak characterise this stylish Cote Chalonnaise white Burgundy. 1995 Domaine de la Berthete Cotes du Rhone Villages, P Maillet, pounds 6.90. Fine Rhone red with blackberry fruit and angostura-like spiciness. 1993 Chateau de Chambert, Cahors, pounds 8.99. Modern Cahors with sweet oak, backbone, tarry notes. 1994 Chateau Bel Air, Lussac St Emillion, pounds 9.95. Textbook, youthful, Merlot- based petit chateau claret. 1993 Prieure de St Jean de Bebian, Coteaux de Languedoc, le Brun-Lecouty, pounds 12.50. A Languedoc star, this Chateauneuf- style blend is rich and intense.

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