Prices that are easy to swallow

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MY dear departed mother always said that only classy sales were worth bothering about. She could have been thinking of the fine wine market today, which offers bargains not seen for a generation or more.

So sensible buyers will forget the quick trip to a French supermarket - where most of the wines are cheap but extremely nasty, if only because French supermarkets, unlike their British equivalents, buy purely on price and are totally indifferent to the state of their customers' livers. And devaluation has not only reduced the differential between French and British prices, it also ensures that any ordinary wines recently arrived in this country will cost 20 per cent more than they did before 12 September. Better to concentrate on older wines from the top end, where life is bliss for buyers.

'We've not had this combination of an economic slump and a run of glorious vintages for ages', said Serena Sutcliffe, who has revived Sotheby's wine department over the past couple of years.

She and her great rival, Paul Bowker at Christie's, are reticent as to where the wines are coming from. One source, of course, is unlucky members of Lloyd's, but they, Mr Bowker said, 'tend to want the cash quicker than we can give it to them'. The bulk comes from hundreds of well-heeled punters who bought port and, above all, claret 'en primeur' the year after it had been made, two years before it was delivered and a decade or more before it was due to be drunk.

Throughout the post-war period, and above all in the 1980s, buyers were convinced - rightly as it seemed - that they could sell half their wine a few years later, at a profit that greatly reduced the net cost of the wine they drank.

Over the past couple of years the equation has come badly unstuck and this has left the market awash with wine. Hardest-hit have been the more recent vintages, if only because they are not ready to drink, and most of today's buyers are looking for a little something for the weekend, not, as was traditional, for their sons' 21st birthday. But wines mature more quickly these days so, Mr Bowker said, 'buyers can now get hold of 1985 clarets which are actually ready to drink at below the price people paid en primeur'.

The better wine merchants, especially outside London, are showering their clients with special offers which, for once, really are special, and really involve good wines. Indeed buying from such reputable merchants as Adnam's in Southwold, Lay & Wheeler of Colchester, or Tanner's of Shrewsbury, gives you a far wider range of bargains than are available at auction, especially from Burgundy, trickiest of regions, where the locals made so much overpriced rubbish during the 1980s that it takes a good merchant to sort the wheat from the only-too-abundant chaff.

The best chain for upmarket bargains is Oddbins, which was quick off the mark buying up parcels of vintage port, mostly from overstocked merchants, and flogging the stuff with its usual panache. The result justifies the claim of Oddbins' port buyer, Nick Blundall, that 'we've taken the snobbishness out of vintage port'. They've also made it accessible, selling it by the bottle and not by the case. And when you can get a bottle of a classic port like the Graham's 1975 at under pounds 20 a bottle - and slightly lesser wines like the 1983 Smith Woodhouse ('one hell of a port,' says Mr Blundall) at pounds 12.99. This is one instance where the present slump could mean a big change in social habits by democratising the last liquid symbol of the class system.

Mr Blundall said prices were creeping upwards, a trend confirmed by the auction houses. 'At our January sale a third of the lots went for above our estimates - but then these were deliberately conservative', Mr Bowker said, and the same applied to Sotheby's sale last Wednesday. But there is plenty more to come from those three great claret vintages, 1988, 1989 and 1990, all bought in large quantities by buyers who, if not already distressed, are likely to want to sell within the next few years.

Meanwhile, there are still bargains to be found at auction, especially when a trade seller is trying to offload a mass of wine.

On 17 March Sotheby's is offering hundreds of cases of Gruaud- Larose, a particularly luscious claret, being sold by the estate's former owner. And canny buyers should be able to buy a few cases of unfashionable but thoroughly gluggable vintages like 1984 or 1987 for well under pounds 10 a bottle.

At auction 'vintage champagne is always underpriced' Ms Sutcliffe said. And possibly the best bargain to have emerged from the ruck is the 1985 Dom Perignon, a dream champagne if ever there was one. Buy five bottles at Oddbins at pounds 56 apiece and you get another bottle free, giving a net cost per bottle of a mere pounds 46.67. Now that's what the dear departed meant by a bargain.

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