Drink: The vigour of youth

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT; Put a spring in your step with a tasty selection of sprightly whites
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The Independent Culture
I'M WRITING this on the first day of spring, and my mind's on seasonal drinks. Which is a frustrating spot to be resting, because, with a few notable exceptions, there is no such thing - unless you're silly enough to wait breathlessly for the arrival of Nouveau Beaujolais. There are a few specifically wintry drinks: mulled wine, or maybe the heaviest of old-fashioned Barolos. There are a few specifically summery drinks: do you ever drink Pimm's except in July and August? Or freshly made lemonade, even though this is one of the world's great drinks?

If there is such a thing as a spring drink, it should be one that bespeaks freshness and youthful vigour. For me that means a lively, sprightly white that you can at least imagine drinking outdoors. But it should also be a drink with character, and the 1997 vintage has produced a good few of them.

Of those that have passed through my door recently, I would highlight four. First: Springfield Special Estate Sauvignon Blanc 1997 (pounds 6.99, Sainsbury's), a South African of real class. Intensely pungent gooseberry and cat's- pee nose and fruit, a rival to New Zealand ambassadors of the same full style but a good pounds 2 to pounds 3 cheaper. Second: another South African, Signal Hill Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 1997 (Thre-shers, pounds 4.69). The oak gives this one a lovely nuttiness on the nose and pleasant buttery mouth-feel (as they say elsewhere in the food 'n' drink biz), with subtly melony flavours. Delicious stuff. Third: 35 Sur Chardonnay 1997, Vina San Pedro (pounds 4.49, Safeway). This Chilean has ripe, soft, palate-friendly fruit with touches of butteriness. A good wine when you want something sound but inoffensive. Fourth, and taking pride of place, is the Argentinean Rafael Estate Chardonnay-Chenin 1997, Mendoza (pounds 4.49, Safeway). This wonderfully fresh Hugh Ryman blend overlays a nice touch of citrus on the flavours of soft or exotic fruits. The addition of the Chenin adds more complexity than most South American Chardonnays at this price level. A really, really, really good wine.

Of course, spring means more than alfresco sipping. It also means the arrival of the new season's lamb, and of the traditional Easter lunch. This is a meal at which to drink claret, or something like it, and I have two tips in this department. One is Springfield Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 (pounds 6.99, from selected Sainsbury's), from the same estate as the Chardonnay mentioned earlier. This is a chewy, challenging wine with dense minty fruit. Rasping on the palate but enjoyably rasping, and at least as good as the Chardonnay. Better still is a wine from Nicolas, the London-based offshoot of the French mega-chain. If you live or work near a branch of Nicolas you should get to know them: they have access to some bottles both from major producing areas and the so-called regions which are never seen elsewhere, and they can be very good.

The one I'd plunk down next to roast lamb is Chateau de Malleprat 1995, Pessac-Leognan (pounds 9.90), a genuine claret as we knew and loved it before it started costing an arm and a leg. Brambly, cassis-y fruit and good tannins. Drinking well now but capable of improving over five years or even more. I served this wine to someone in the wine trade and he said: "why can't we get hold of claret like this?" I dunno - but you can - and you should.

And finally ... Journos in my line of work often get presents designed - one assumes - to persuade us to recommend what we would otherwise ignore. One recent present was a bottle of Cockburns LBV 1993 with an Easter egg enclosing a selection of peerless Valrhona chocolates. This was a revelation: a sip of port with a nibble of chocolate sparked off fireworks on the palate. Which should not be surprising, as the nutty, dried-fruit flavours of port make an obvious partner for chocolate. But I had never tried them together, and my eyes have now been fully and gratefully opened. If you're running an Easter egg hunt this year, save the industrial stuff for the kids and buy Valrhona or something comparable for yourself. Lead it towards your oral cavity with a sip of good LBV, and your day will be filled with seasonal goodwill.