Food & Drink: Wines of the Month

THIS IS the start of a critical month for Europe as growers are under starter's orders for the 1999 harvest. France is poised to deliver an abundant 58.9 million hectolitres, or 7.85 billion bottles of wine. Certainly a healthy season of mellow fruitfulness is badly needed if the vintage-conscious French in particular are going to recoup some of the body blows suffered at the hands of the New World over recent years.

With a six months' head start on Europe, the Southern hemisphere's harvest is bubbling under nicely already with Australia reporting a big chardonnay vintage. 1999 looks to be a great year, too, for New Zealand's Marlborough sauvignon blanc and a breakthrough year for Argentina after the depredations of El Nino in 1998.

The years 1899 and 1900 were both legendary vintages in Bordeaux. It remains to be seen whether the 1999 (and subsequently 2000) will be matched by the quality Bordeaux is anxiously looking heavenwards for.

WHITES

1998 Asda Hungarian Gewurztraminer, pounds 3.79, Asda / 1998 Deer Leap Gewurztraminer, pounds 3.99, Waitrose.

As this clean, fresh and fragrant dry white from the outstanding Neszmely co-operative demonstrates, Hungary's northerly climate suits aromatic grape varieties like Alsace's gewurztraminer. Lychee spicy and dry with the classic rose-petal fragrance of the grape variety, this is a fine aperitif white, well-suited to pate and smoked fish.

1998 Sierra Los Andes Chardonnay Reserve, pounds 6.99, Marks & Spencer, Oddbins, Fine Wine.

Alvaro Espinoza of Carmen Vineyards seems to have the Midas touch. Applying the Burgundian technique of fermenting in new French oak casks, he has used chardonnay grapes from the cool Casablanca Valley to produce an exotic style, ripe in mango and pineapple fruitiness, with a citrus zestiness that adds freshness and balance.

1998 Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, pounds 8.99, Waitrose.

There's nothing quite like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in full cry. It's simply a different beast from any other sauvignon. 1998 was a fuller, less aromatic vintage than usual at the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island, but a handful of sauvignons, like this one from Jackson Estate, delivered the requisite pungency, steel and flavour. This assertive dry white from John Stichbury mingles grapefruit and passion fruit flavours with herby undertones.

REDS

1998 Domaine Jeune, Vin de Pays du Gard, pounds 4.49, Marks & Spencer.

Paul Jeune is the supplier of the most interesting French red in Marks & Spencer's under-a-fiver range. Made from the rare counoise grape, one of the grapes authorised for Chateauneuf-du-Pape but rarely seen on its own, this is a perfumed Rhone Valley red, with distinctive undertones of milled white pepper and nutmeg spice suffusing a juicy, accessible red.

1996 Norton Malbec, pounds 4.99, Oddbins.

This is one of the best value reds at under a fiver in the high street. It shows the voluptuous softness of Argentina's most classic red grape variety, with succulent mulberry and blackberry-like fruit, and an Italianate nip of fresh acidity. This malbec from the consistently reliable Norton bodega in Mendoza is brimming with plummy fruit and spicy flavours.

Spice Route Shiraz, pounds 7.99, Sainsbury's selected stores, also at Fuller's.

The new Spice Route range from winemakers Gyles Webb and Charles Back in partnership with author John Platter and black wine "ambassador" Jabulani Ntshangase, has been a long time in the making but has finally made it from its Malmesbury vineyards on to Sainsbury's shelves.

Not for the faint-hearted or dyed-in-the-wool Europhile, the Shiraz is a big, brassy number full of oak spiciness and gutsy, peppery, sweetly powerful fruit. It comes with a stablemate, a blackcurrant, capsicum and vanilla Cabernet/Merlot, available at Fuller's and Waitrose (later this month).

FIZZ

Jacobs Creek Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir, pounds 6.99, widely available (on special offer at pounds 5.99 at Sainsbury's until 11 September).

Let them drink champagne? Fair enough, but as not every pre- and post- millennium bash can necessarily afford to be awash with champagne, a prescription for something a bit more affordable is in order this month.

Step forward Jacob's Creek Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir, a welcome new addition to Australia's best-known brand. Using the champagne grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir (mainly from the 1996 vintage), this is a well- made fizz with a tropical citrus fruit notes and a fair bit of style for the asking price.

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