Drinking: Summer's shortlist

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The Independent Culture
A FEW weeks ago I sang the praises of the winner (and runner- up) in this year's Glenfiddich Award for Best Drink Book. The Glenfiddichs are not the only big prizes of the drinking-hack's year, and it behooves me to mention two other winners of no less significant a gong. First: Italian Wines 1998 (Slow Food Editore/Grub Street, pounds 15.99), which received Le Prix du Champagne Lanson 1999 Rose Label Award for Annual Guides. If you are as perplexed by the joyful chaos of Italian wines as I am, this is the place to go to. And not a picture in sight - just assessments, ratings, detailed tasting notes and contact details for travelling drinkers.

Not that the presence of pictures is necessarily a bad thing. The second book, Red and White by Max Allen (New Holland, pounds 12.99), is full of photographs by Adrian Lander, and they're beautiful. It won the 1998 Andre Simon Memorial Award for outstanding wine book, and it is a wonderfully stimulating read for both neophytes and wine-wrinklies. Readers of the first type will learn a great deal, and will learn especially not to take at face-value any statement made by experts. Readers of the second type will be challenged constantly by contentious statements that make them fulminate and splutter. Three cheers for both books.

While you're reading, you may want to sip a glass of some sort of Chardonnay. Sainsbury's has a plan for you. They are discounting a pleasant handful of their New World Chardonnays by pounds 1 a bottle until 3 July, and the list includes a pair that this column has previously praised: Bridgewater Mill Chardonnay 1996 (pounds 5.99) and Lindemans Cawarra Unoaked Chardonnay 1998 (pounds 3.49). The Bridgewater is an oaky, mildly plump version, the Lindemans lean and green; take your pick. Or opt instead for a New Zealander, Delegats Oyster Bay Chardonnay 1997 (pounds 5.99), mostly barrel- fermented but with loads of racy, fresh acidity. I'd take this one over the two Australians.

If you want to do your reading to a beery accompaniment, join me in the ranks of converts to Liefmans Kriek. Kriek bier is a truly remarkable Belgian made by macerating cherries in brown ale (Goudenband) for at least six months. The cherries, as Michael Jackson points out in his recent Beer (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 19.99), are a combination of Danish and local krieks, which are small and relatively dry. And the beer too is dry, with a vivacious initial attack of cherries followed by yeasty freshness as you swill and swallow, and with the finish dominated once again by fruit. Incidentally, the finish lasts for a good 10 minutes and you'll love every second. Kriek bier is available from Safeway and independents for pounds 2.19/37.5cl. If you have any interest at all in beer, you deserve a bottle.

If you want to cruise to the farthest reaches of alcoholic weirdness, then you must have a go at the world's newest Vermouths. I know, I know: Vermouth is something you use in Martinis and Manhattans. And in cooking. It is not (with a couple of notable exceptions) a serious drink. Well, it's very serious when it's made by Andrew Quady, California's very own fortified-wine specialist. When I first heard that he was bringing out a Vermouth, I itched to have a try; I finally got the chance at the recent London Wine Trade Fair.

The Quady duo, extra-dry and sweet, are called Vya, and they will make you forget any preconceptions about Vermouth as a dull or neutral drink. In the dry, made with Colombard and Muscat, I thought the overall picture was dominated by herbs and flowers; the sweet, which has no Muscat, was more of a spicy-style swallow, unctuous but not cloying and with a notably lingering finish. Normally, the idea of drinking sweet Vermouth makes me gag. I'd sip this stuff at breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Well, maybe not breakfast.)

At pounds 12.99 a pop, Vya is bound to be a minority interest. But do make sure you're part of the minority. At the moment it's sold only by Avery's of Bristol (01275 811100), though two prominent national chains are currently deciding whether to take it on. Or you can go to London's molto trendoso Pharmacy, where the bartenders add it to Champagne and call the result (you guessed, didn't you) a Vyagra Falls. And apparently it makes a killer Martini and Manhattan - or it does when Andrew Quady's tending bar. Wish I'd been invited to that party.

To drink now

How about this for a marketing line: Le Nouveau Goiya Kgeisje est arrive! Doesn't have quite the right ring, I'll admit, but Goiya Kgeisje 1999 (pounds 3.99, Tesco) from Vredendal in the Western Cape is a pleasant mouthful: a 50/50 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay; fresh, fruity and easy- drinking. On a more serious note, Ironstone Vineyards Cabernet Franc 1996 (pounds 5.99, Safeway and Majestic) is a superb example of what this grape can do in the tricky terrain of California's Sierra foothills. Lightly leafy, smooth tannins, lushly juicy blackcurrant fruit. Imagine the greatest Ribena-style drink on earth - but designed for adults.

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