FOOD & DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter selects some best buys for Spring

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'WHAT a job - you can't really call it a job]' exclaim the other mothers at the school gate on hearing that I've spent the afternoon tasting 60 wines. It's not always as much fun as they think, spitting your way through a table full of wines costing less than pounds 3.50 a bottle. Of the handful of star wines that made it all worthwhile, only one inexpensive wine this week was white: *1992 Rueda, Hermanos Lurton ( pounds 3.49 selected Sainsbury's), made by French gurus in central Spain, is very attractive and easy-drinking, crisp, grassy and slightly tropical-fruity.

Among the reds, I liked the light, young, cherry-fruity *1992 Vega del Rio Rioja ( pounds 2.99 Oddbins) - nice glugging wine, though it doesn't taste particularly of Rioja. Only for the next week or two, Sainsbury's has a lovely, simple but attractive and aromatic *1992 Chateau de Fountgraves, Pic Saint-Loup, Coteaux du Languedoc ( pounds 3.35) with heaps of raspberry and plum fruit and a touch of tannin. *1992 Angoves Nanya Estate Australian Grenache-Pinot Noir ( pounds 2.99 Oddbins) is light, soft and blackberry and raisin-fruity with a hint of mint. And Safeway has two lovely young reds from Bulgaria, both of which will benefit from 3-6 months in your cellar: *1993 Bulgarian Young Vatted Meriot ( pounds 2.45 until 9 April, then pounds 2.85) has quite a lot of tannin - overpowered, though, by concentrated, raisiny fruit; and *1993 Bulgarian Young Vatted Cabernet Sauvignon ( pounds 2.35) is like very young, plummy claret.

Upping the price, there are more new whites to recommend. ***1992 Pike's Clare Valley Chardonnay ( pounds 7.49 Oddbins) is quite subtle and Burgundian, with savoury oak, heaps of fruit and biscuity, yeasty flavours. For a different flavour, I love the subtly flagrant Viognier grape, and the newly arrived ***1992 Viognier, Fortant de France ( pounds 6.99 Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up) is a delightful, crisp, fresh example, dry but with a complex flowers-and-apricots fragrance. Best of the new red arrivals are the lovely Australian ***1990 Yalumba Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon ( pounds 6.99 Oddbins), dark and rich but not too heavy, with soft tannin, and new oak; **1992 Glenbawn Estate Shiraz-Cabernet ( pounds 4.99 Marks & Spencer), a ripely plummy red, with hints of farmyard, blackcurrant and tobacco and a touch of tannin. And for an excellent value fine claret, try the ****1990 Clos du Marquis, St- Julien ( pounds 10.99 Oddbins), the 'second wine' of Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases. I'd ideally keep this 3-5 years to drink it at its best, but though quite tannic, it's drinkable now, rich and cedary, with hints of tobacco and lovely, lingering fig and blackcurrant fruit.

SEE OUT the last frosty nights of the spring with the delicious, spicy ports of the firm of Ramos Pinto - then save some for the summer melons. Ramos Pinto's wonderful old tawny ports are unusual in coming from individual farms (quintas), rather than being blended from grapes picked around the region. My favourite is ****Quinta do Bom Retiro, 20-year- old Tawny ( pounds 18.85 World of Wine of Lllandudno and Terry Plat of Llandudno Junction, pounds 19.37 Rutland Vintners of Leicester, Uppingham and Langham), really concentrated, nutty, figgy and mature. Nearly as good is the ****Quinta da Ervamoira, 10- year-old Tawny ( pounds 11.44 Rutland Vintners, pounds 11.45 World of Wine and Terry Plat, pounds 12.18 George Hill of Loughborough, pounds 12.98 Quellyn Roberts of Chester) very mature, soft and easy with lovely, sweet nutty flavour. Their ***Vintage Character, Quinta da Urtiga ( pounds 8.37 Rutland Vintners, pounds 8.50 World of Wine and Terry Plat, pounds 8.55 Haynes, Hanson & Clark of London W8 and - by the case only - SW6, pounds 8.96 George Hill of Loughborough, pounds 9.49 Selfridges of London W1, pounds 9.55 Quellyn Roberts, pounds 9.95 Lay & Wheeler of Colchester) is also from a single vineyard and far superior to most 'vintage character' ports with its lovely, rich, plum and fig fruit and an attractive 'cough medicine' character to add complexity. ***Ramos Pinto Late Bottled Vintage 1987 ( pounds 8.95 Haynes, Hanson & Clark of London W8 and - by the case only - SW6, pounds 8.98 Rutland Vintners) is slightly better still, though this dense wine could do with 2-3 years' extra ageing to soften and develop its flavours. The following companies also sell by mail order: Haynes, Hanson & Clark; Terry Plat; Lay & Wheeler; George Hill; Quellyn Roberts.

STAR RATINGS: ****superb; ***excellent; **very good; *good