THOUSANDS OF WOMEN had never considered wearing leg warmers - those nasty, elasticated baggy socks that slip on over spandex aerobic pants - until they saw Fame in 1980. That was mere foreplay, however, compared to Flashdance's veritable celluloid leg-warmer orgy three years later. The same goes for Saturday Night Fever and its impact on disco, or Shirley Valentine and holidays in Greece. Today's equivalent, however, is whipping up a storm of controversy. Sideways - on general release in Hong Kong from today - is a film all about wine: the story of two friends who take off on a week's trip to the Californian wine country of Santa Barbara. The hero of the movie, Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) is a wine snob who hits the road with his friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), who plans to spend his last week of bachelorhood drinking and womanising. There is concern surrounding the fact that what Flashdance did for superfluous sportswear, Sideways is doing for alcohol. 'Replace wine with heroin, and this movie would never have been made,' one outraged alcoholic support group in the US has been quoted as saying. Miles is a fan of pinot noir - a delicate, complex grape whose unpredictability and genetic changeability has made many a winemaker grey with worry. In equal measure, Miles shows nothing but hostility to that commonplace crowd pleaser, merlot: at one point he threatens to refuse to attend a dinner if the offending tipple is to be served there. Funny then, that vintners and wine stores in the US are now observing what is becoming known as the 'Sideways effect'. Pinot noir sales are up by a sizeable 16 per cent from the same period last year, according to an AC Nielsen report this week, with a whopping sales spike of 33 per cent in California. And despite Miles' anti-merlot tirades, what was previously the biggest-selling red in the US has enjoyed a three per cent sales boost. Yet the movie has another star of its own - a silent one at that. It's a wine whose mystique and exclusivity places it well above the range of most punters. Chateau Cheval Blanc is portrayed as the Holy Grail of wines and, according to Miles, it's the only wine worthy of seducing a woman. Unfortunately, even for mediocre vintages, it costs at least $4,000 per bottle, making it fodder for only the most ardent wine enthusiast - especially in Hong Kong, where duty paid on wines makes even the paint-stripper stuff heavily overpriced. What exactly is the seductive secret behind the red wine named after a white horse? And who is prepared to pay through the nose for it? 'Cheval Blanc is a wonderful, wine - it's very subtle and is probably one of the most exclusive of all the wines of Bordeaux,' says Simon Tam, director of the International Wine Centre in Wellington Street, Central. 'In terms of seduction you really can't go wrong. Unless you're trying to seduce a woman who doesn't drink.' Meanwhile, solicitor Vincent Cheung Ting-kau's passion for the wine is such that he's an avid collector and president of the Hong Kong Commanderie de Bordeaux, a voluntary association of enthusiasts for the region's wines, which includes Cheval Blanc. 'We're a chapter granted by the Grand Council of Bordeaux for worldwide associations,' he says. 'There are about 50-odd chapters. In the Far East we have one in Hong Kong, one in Singapore and two in Japan.' Cheung speaks highly of the famed claret. 'It's a good wine; a wine that delights again and again. Even only a moderately good year would still set you back about $4,000 - so just make sure you save it for special occasions. If you're speaking of seduction, save it for your wife's birthday. Or even your birthday.' Hong Kong-based wine writer Debra Meiburg is one such lucky wife - her husband threw her a birthday party last year at which he served Cheval Blanc 1982 to the guests. 'If you're looking to impress, bringing a bottle of that is as close to an engagement ring as you can get without actually giving one,' she says. 'The wine is considered incredibly sensual and sexy.' Until now, the wine has enjoyed a discreet reputation as being strictly one for connoisseurs. Previous to Cheval Blanc's newfound celebrity status, other Bordeaux wines such as Petrus or Chateau Latour have enjoyed far more publicity. Thanks to the Sideways effect, Chateau Blanc is at least being talked about, despite most people being unable to afford it. 'Chateau Cheval has a reputation for greatness but it is not a blase form of greatness, or household name greatness,' says Tam. 'Chateau Cheval doesn't enjoy instant recognition. Normally the grapes that it's made from - cabernet franc - makes rubbish, wishy-washy wine, but that simply isn't the case with Cheval Blanc. The vineyard is not a very large property - it's only 40-odd hectares. But it sits next to the more famous Chateau Petrus which is merlot dominant. So it's in good company.' The wine's final mix is usually an even split between merlot and cabernet franc grapes, giving rise to what may be an intentional gaffe in the movie: in that Miles both rails against merlot while idolising a wine made out of much the same stuff. 'It's restrained but it is very lush fruit,' says Meiburg, who is in the final stages of getting her Master of Wine qualification. 'Sexy in terms of the texture, the sensation you get on your tongue. Some wines just chew you up and almost pare the surface of your tongue off with the tannin structure, but Cheval Blanc is like sliding a piece of velvet across your tongue. 'The other value of that wine is in its aromatics - you get quite a bit of truffle and mushroom along with the plummy fruit. It's more attractive to a broader range of people.' Founded in 1832, Cheval Blanc has enjoyed a reputation of being in the top seven Bordeaux chateaux for more than 50 years. These days it is part of the L.V.M.H empire, and its combination of gravel, sand and clay makes for conditions that are characteristic of both the acclaimed Saint-Emilion (the appellation where Cheval Blanc has been given the top ranking of premier grand cru classe) and the neighbouring appellation of Pomerol. Experts consider the vintages of 1921, 1934 and 1937 as the most significant pre-war vintages, while 1947 has apparently not been bettered since. At auction, you'd be looking at paying something like $50,000 for a bottle. So for anyone looking to impress on a smaller budget - say $150 - is there an oenological remedy? 'Any Bordeaux is a good starting point,' says Cheung. And some of them are very good, if you spend $150 to $200.' 'Although gentlemen should never tell,' says Tam, 'Yalumba is a South Australian wine. The grape is white, called a viognier. It's completely seductive and it's a nice conversation piece too because it smells and tastes like nothing we will ever know - nothing like chardonnay or a riesling. It's beautiful; it smells of blossoms - jasmine in particular, with a little bit of ginger. It is a very well-balanced wine. Voluptuous, good flavour and it's not sharp, dry or bitter. 'I hate to say it but it could be made to 'seduce' a wine expert as well as a non-wine expert. And for $125 it's better than a kick in the head. 'Alternatively, you could try a nice bottle of port, which is a bit more expensive but you might be able to recycle it and try to seduce a couple more in the weeks to come.' The staying power of the wine means that you can still enjoy the 1947 vintage if you're ever lucky enough to try it. The stamina of the French wine industry, on the other hand, has been tested of late as the rise and rise of new world wines continues. So for Sideways, Bordeaux will be eternally grateful. 'The cynic in me is thinking that French wine really needs a real boost at the moment,' says Tam, 'because for the first time last year British sales of wine from France had been surpassed by those from Australia. 'Throughout France, the newer generation of winemakers are lobbying for better control of the vineyards and there's a bit of a revolution taking place. 'What they've done in the movie is to reinforce and remind people of the greatness of some of the wines that you can find in France,' says Tam. 'I think it's a very thoughtful thing they've done - they could have chosen anything, but they opted for a dark horse that happens to be white: Cheval Blanc.'