The red wines of Bordeaux may be the hallowed tipple of the English gentleman, and their world reputation suggests they are the nectar of the gods, but when they are inexpensive, Which? magazine suggests today, they are not worth drinking.
In a blind tasting the magazine's panel of eight experts took 39 clarets costing less than pounds 10 per bottle from wine stores and supermarkets and in a sweeping dismissal rejected 36 as "very poor".
Reds from Australia and South America costing the same amount would be "much better", they concluded.
None of the wine names that have established the claret legend, from the holy trinity of Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Margaux down, figured in the tests - their prices are stratospheric now, often more than pounds 100 per bottle, depending on the vintage.
But all the wines chosen benefited by association with the great names, trading on claret's formidable reputation for classic wine quality.
In the event, Which? says, "The tasting produced a lower than average set of marks, with the panel regularly criticising the wines for their lack of richness and ripe fruit."
One panellist commented: "The standard was very poor. There was very little value for money and in the second tier of wines (those over pounds 6) this was even more worrying."
The panel gave a wholehearted recommendation to only one bottle out of the 39, and qualified recommendations to two more.
The red wines of Bordeaux have been appreciated in England since before the Hundred Years War and have been known here as claret since at least the 17th century.
Made principally with cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, they are tough when young because of their high content of tannin, a mouth-puckering substance from the grapeskins. But as they age over five or ten years or even more, the tannin breaks down to give great strength to the wine, which should be balanced by intense fruit flavours.
Fine claret has always been a rich man's pleasure, and has been peculiarly associated with the English upper classes as a badge of membership.
The nature of the Which? dismissal caused anger in France yesterday. The Bordeaux trade was stung by the criticism, which it rejected as "wholly unrepresentative" of the quality of most lower-priced clarets.
"It is difficult to take such a survey seriously. We are happy to accept criticism, but this is so negative it lacks credibility and smacks of bad faith," said Eric Dulong, vice-president of the Bordeaux wine trade council and a wine shipper.
"If the panel had rejected eight or even ten wines, you could have said that was a question of taste or bad luck or possibly something we needed to look at. But to say that 36 out 39 Bordeaux wines were undrinkable is absurd."
Another Bordeaux wine shipper, who declined to be named, said part of the blame should be borne by the buyers of the large British supermarket and off-licence groups.
"There are 10,000 wine- producing chateaux in the Bordeaux region and, naturally, not all make wonderful wine," he said. "If the vast majority of the kinds of Bordeaux on sale in British supermarkets is poor, then there must be something wrong with the selection procedures, or the way that the wine is being kept."
As the top claret prices have dragged up the prices of lesser-known names, and British duty is high (pounds 1.06 a bottle), some British buyers were seeking out the cheapest Bordeaux, to cash in, he suggested, on the cachet of the label but to remain competitively priced. British wine merchants agreed that supermarkets searching for enormous quantities of wine would be unlikely to find good quality. However, several also agreed with the basic proposition - that much cheap claret is no good.
"It is up to Bordeaux to try to improve its quality so that it can stand up beside what the southern hemisphere is producing," David Roberts, of Berry Bros and Rudd, Britain's oldest wine merchants, said. "There is such fantastic quality coming in from around the world there is a danger any traditional wine-producing area could rest on its laurels a little too long."
Julian Twaites, senior wine buyer with First Quench, the company that owns the well- known high-street names Victoria Wine and Thresher, and which imported the sole highly recommended bottle in the tasting (Chateau Mercier 1996), agreed. "In our experience, finding decent Bordeaux is extremely difficult," he said. "We tried 500 wines and ended up with a shortlist of six that we felt offered good value. To try that many and buy so few says a lot about the poor quality coming out of Bordeaux. It is a lot to do with the fact they tend to be complacent. People believe French wines are the best, and Bordeaux is the best-known region, and therefore produces the best wine. It is not the case."
Mr Dulong does not see it that way. He said that Britain was an important market for Bordeaux wines and the Which? criticism was hurtful. "But we have our own very rigorous controls on the quality of wines and it is rare for more than 4 per cent to be rejected. For 98 per cent of wine to be rejected at any tasting is monstrous. It is absurd. If our wine was that bad, how could it retain its reputation as one of the leading wines in the world?"
THE WINES TESTED
UNDER pounds 6
Chateau de Nardon 1997, Bordeaux Superieur (Majestic, pounds 4.99)
Chateau Haut d'Allard 1997, Cotes de Bourg (Waitrose, pounds 5.45); Co-op Oak Aged Claret NV, Bordeaux (CWS, pounds 4.49); Chateau Meaume 1996, Bordeaux Superieur (Majestic, pounds 5.99); Chateau de Parenchere 1997, Bordeaux Superieur (Asda, pounds 5.99); Chateau Graulet 1997, Premieres Cotes de Blaye Budgens,pounds 5.69); Chateau Villepreux 1997, Bordeaux Superieur (Waitrose, pounds 5.25); Chateau Tour du Tertre 1997, Bordeaux (WM Morrisons, pounds 3.99); Somerfield Medoc NV (pounds 4.99); Chateau Pierrousselle 1998, Bordeaux (CWS, pounds 4.79); Chateau St-Galier 1997, Graves (Wm Morrisons, pounds 4.99); Chateau de Passedieu 1996, Cotes de Bourg (Oddbins, pounds 5.69; Safeway Oak Aged Medoc 1996 (pounds 5.99); Chateau Suau 1997, Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux (First Quench stores, pounds 5.99); Calvet Reserve 1996, Bordeaux (Safeway, pounds 5.99); Chateau Barrail Chevrol1997, Fronsac (Unwins, pounds 5.99); Chateau Clos Bellevue 1997, Medoc Cru Bourgeois (Oddbins, pounds 5.99); Chateau Sauvage 1997, Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux (First Quench stores, pounds 5.99); Four Corners Merlot 1997, Cotes de Castillon (Tesco, pounds 5.49); Sainsbury's Cuvee Prestige Claret NV, Bordeaux (pounds 4.99); Domaine La Tuque Bel-Air 1997, Cotes de Castillon (Somerfield, pounds 5.49); Chateau Jacquemin 1998, Bordeaux (Asda, pounds 3.99); Chateau Grand Bourdieu 1995, Bordeaux Superieur (Sainsbury's, pounds 5.99); Mauregard 1997, Chateau du Mounicat Bordeaux, Yvon Mau (Unwins, pounds 4.99); Chateau Beros 1995, Bordeaux Superieur (Budgens, pounds 4.45); Tesco Vintage Claret 1996, Bordeaux Superieur, Yvon Mau (pounds 4.99)
pounds 6 TO pounds 10
Chateau Mercier 1996, Cuvee Prestige, Cotes de Bourg (First Quench stores, pounds 7.99)
Chateau Saint Robert 1996, Graves (Somerfield, pounds 6.75)
Chateau Cote Montpezat 1997, Cotes de Castillon (Tesco, pounds 7.49); St-Emilion NV, Grand Vin de Bordeaux, Yvon Mau (Waitrose, pounds 6.95); Chateau Carsin 1997, Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux (Sainsbury's, pounds 6.99); Chateau Haut Lagrange 1996, Pessac-Leognan (Oddbins, pounds 8.99); Chateau Cadillac Lesgourgues 1995, Bordeaux Superieur (Wm Morrisons, pounds 6.99); Safeway Margaux, 2me Cru Classe 1995 (pounds 9.99); Chateau Coufran 1993, Haut-Medoc (Majestic pounds 6.99); Vieux Chateau Negrit 1997, Montagne-Saint-Emilion (Unwins, pounds 9.89); Chateau Fourtanet 1995, Cotes de Castillon (CWS, pounds 6.99); Chateau Pontet St-Brice 1994, St- Emilion Grand Cru (Budgens, pounds 7.99); Chateau Haut-Plantey 1996, St-Emilion Grand Cru (Asda, pounds 9.99)