5 APRIL 2003, Page 21

A FEW years ago I stayed with my family

at an ancient hotel particulidy in the lovely southern French town of Gaillac, on the river Tarn. Strolling in the market square we found a stall offering samples of the local wine, and I was astonished by how delicious it was.

In fact, wines have been made around Gaillac since early in the 1st century BC. The vignerons' problem in later years was that the wine had to be shipped out via the port of Bordeaux, where local merchants imposed taxes to protect their own product — which is why claret became popular here, rather than the wonderfully rich, fruity wines from the higher vineyards inland.

Happily, Devigne Wines, a small independent shipper run by Mike and Pat Robertson, do import lots of Gaillac, and together we've put together this terrific mini-bar. If you feel cautious, try the sample case — I'm sure you'll be back for more, Everything is discounted by 10 per cent on the list price and delivery, as ever, is free. There's another big discount for multiple cases, All the wines are made by Claude and

Christine Rouquie, who are among the best growers in the region and, unlike lots of greedy Bordelais, are happy to let their wines age before selling. So their Gaillac Rouge 1993(1) is a chance to enjoy a lovely, velvety, mature wine at very a reasonable price. This does need to be drunk within a year, but it's a rare treat now.

The Gaillac filt de chene 1997(2) is even nicer, very like a St. Emilion cru classe, aged in oak, and absolutely delicious. You must open it a couple of hours before drinking, or preferably decant it. Deep and powerful and scrumptious.

Gaillac Perle(3) is the best known white wine from the region. It's a light, fresh, fruity wine but with real depth. It has a slight sparkle, making it the perfect pickme-up in these difficult times. Ideal for parties but perfect for drinking with salads, chicken or fish, Finally the Methode Traditionelle sec (4) is made in the same way as champagne, and has a wonderfully zingy flavour of apples and citrus fruits, with plenty of long-lasting bubbles. At less than £8 a bottle it's fabulous value and, again, a perfect party wine.