10 MARCH 2001, Page 57

Spoilt for choice

Simon Hoggart

FOR the first Wine Club offer of the new dispensation, I turned to Comey & Barrow, the London merchants who have sold thousands of cases to Spectator readers. This is largely due to the high quality of their wines, but it must also owe much to the famous Brett-Smith Indulgence. This might sound like the cause of a minor war (In 1773, Lord Justice Brett-Smith's attempt to pardon Viscount Strathfever led directly to the Massacre of the Cheviots'), but in fact it refers to a very generous offer. If you order two cases, delivered to a London postcode, Adam Brett-Smith of C&B will reduce the price by £6 per case. Outside London, you'll need to buy three cases to qualify. This is in addition to the month's reductions. Readers can save as much as 18 per cent on some bottles. No wonder that Mr Brett-Smith winced slightly when I asked to be reassured that the Indulgence still exists.

Our first choice is one that C&B have offered very successfully before. It's their house white(1), made to their own specifications at the Plaimont Co-op in Gascony. This is a modem wine; instead of being created by gnarled old peasants in dank, cow-infested sheds, it's put together in a building which, I gather, looks like something out of Blade Runner. The main grape varieties are /bile blanche and ugni Urine, which was once thought so undrinkable that they had to invent cognac to get rid of the stuff.

The result is absolutely delicious. It is crisp and powerful and pungent, with a lovely perfumed scent and a heady mixture of flavours when you glug it. The only problem is the label, which declares in big letters that it is 'House White'. Here's an example of the interests of consumer and producer diverging: C&B want to say, in effect, 'Our standards are so high we can offer this fine wine as our bog-standard plonk.' But we don't want to insult our guests by offering them something that looks — and is — so inexpensive. C&B are hoping to redesign their labels. I would suggest something terrifically pretentious. In the meantime, there is no reason why you can't decant white wine. Apparently, the C&B staff knock back huge quantities of the stuff. The only way to stem their greed is to buy lots of it yourself. With the Indulgence it costs £3.45 a bottle.

Next is the Caimbrae Sauvignon Blanc, -Stones'(2). 2000 vintage, from Marlborough, New Zealand. This is as good as any Sancerre or Pouilly Fume at a much higher price: indeed, Adam Brett-Smith recently took over a bottle to a friend, a Sancerre producer, to warn him of this frightening competition. It is a fresh, grassy, gooseberry-flavoured wine. In France `goat de terroir' can mean 'taste of muddy pebbles'. Here it suggests a firm, flinty backbone. The price of £7.25, before the Indulgence, represents a saving of 63p a bottle. Excellent value. As is the Ch. De Sours Rose(3), also heavily discounted. It is a clairet (all 'claret' was originally translucent) made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, just like a red Bordeaux except that the juice is whisked off the grapes after only seven to ten days. The result is a wine with all the rich flavour of a fine red, but which can be drunk ice-cold; perfect for hot, summertime, alfresco meals. Scrumptious.

Our priciest choice is Ch. De Lamarque, 1997(a), a cru bourgeois from the HautMedoe. I'm told Spectator readers love their claret, but these days the good stuff costs too much, and the cheaper bottles are usually nasty. This has that heady, leathery, cigaty, scented nose you get with the great clarets made soft and ready to drink now by the 40 per cent Merlot it contains.

The Araucano 2000 Merlot(s) is made by the French company Lurton Freres in the Lontue Valley of Chile. It is an extraordinary wine: rich, fleshy, smoky and juicy, with a lovely long aftertaste. If you found a Pomerol for half as much again, you'd be delighted. At £5.60 with the Indulgence, it's astounding. This is a wine to drink slowly and selfishly, alone in your library, if you have one.

Finally, our cheaper red is the admirable Domaine de Saissac 1998(6) from the Pays d'Oc. It's all Cabernet Sauvignon and, at only 14.50. is, I think, tremendous value — far better than any Bordeaux-made Cabernet at the same price.

You can buy any of these wines by the case, or you can get a mixed case containing two bottles of each(7). But — an innovation. this — for those of you who want lots of everyday drinking wine but the chance to try some of the pricier bottles too, we have a taster case(8) which includes four bottles of the house white, four of the Saissac, and one each of the rest. I think you'll enjoy them all.