FOOD & DRINK / Travelling well: a wine buff's guide: What do you drink in an Algarve cafe or a one-donkey Spanish town? In a two-part series, Kathryn McWhirter gives advice

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GLINTING under a canopy of vines, washing down souvlakia beside the Aegean, retsina tastes of bliss. Retsina with the Sunday roast, on the other hand, tastes like pine disinfectant crossed with heavy white plonk. Sales in British supermarkets soar each summer as each bliss-filled home-comer tries one bottle in the cold light of home - and never buys it again until he or she next sets foot in Greece.

A skinful of holiday spirit helps all sorts of plonk to go down. And experimenting with the local wines is part of the fun of a holiday. But how to find a bottle that would stand the test of home in an Algarve cafe or an Athens supermarket? Below are my tips for a tour of Spain, Portugal and Italy. A guide to France, Greece and Cyprus follows next week. One general hint: take a guidebook that includes the best wine producers' names. Soave, vinho verde or champagne can be boring or delicious - it's the individual winemaker or wine company that makes the difference. The Sainsbury's Oz Clarke Pocket Wine Guide (pounds 2.95) is a good catch-all reference that would fit into anyone's luggage; Sainsbury's small, encyclopaedia-like guides to Italy, French Red & Rose Wines, Spain & Portugal (pounds 1.95) serve the purpose even better. (I have to admit to being co-author of the one on Spain and Portugal.)

SPAIN

Reds are where the greatest pleasure is to be had in Spain. Many white wines are much improved nowadays - fresher, paler and fruitier - but the Spaniards simply don't have very exciting white grapes. Most white wines and roses are best before one year old (although no label or waiter would tell you that), so look out for the most recent vintage. 'Chardonnay' on the label is a rare but reassuring sign, on both still and fizzy wines. Basic vino tinto and vino blanco are best avoided. Some good ones are exported, but wine in the local bar or restaurant is likely to be the direst of plonk.

Sherry is a southern drink; if you find it in Madrid or the north it will probably be old and tired, because no one asks for it. Order manzanilla in Cadiz, down by the sherry country of the south-west coast, and you'll get an ice-chilled, sharp-dry glass of fino-style sherry. Order manzanilla in Madrid or Barcelona and you'll get camomile tea. Only the flashiest of northern wine waiters would know that manzanilla is also a style of sherry.

Wherever you are, give the local wines a try. But you may be disappointed and return in desperation to reliables such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero (reds - affordable, extra-good ones come from Callejo, Vina Pedrose and Arroyo) and Navarra (reds and good, dry roses - especially from Ochoa, Chivite and Cenalsa). Red Valdepenas Reservas and Gran Reservas can be very good value (Felix Solis and Vina Albali). But red Rioja is the best bet if you don't know the winery names, and you'll find it on wine lists and in shops all over Spain. (Best producers include CVNE, Campillo, Remelluri, Martinez Bujanda and La Rioja Alta.) Torres is another name to fall back on - not a region, but a large-scale winemaker in the Barcelona region whose wines are excellent (red and white) and widely available throughout Spain.

Of the tourist coasts, best served for local (unfortified) wines are the Costa Dorada and Costa Brava, around Tarragona and Barcelona - the Catalan coast. Penedes is the best of the Catalan regions for whites and reds, with a higher average standard of winemaking than most of the rest of Spain. For the best whites, work through the Torres range, and otherwise look out for Chardonnays. There are also excellent wines, red and white, from the Raimat estate, way inland near Lerida. Wines around Tarragona are much rougher, as are those of Ampurdan-Costa-Brava up towards the French coast. Catalonia is also fizzy wine (cava) country. The Spanish prize the older cavas and pay more for them. But for British tastes, the fresher, fruitier (and cheaper) young cavas are more fun to drink.

Local drinking on the Costa Blanca - around Valencia and Alicante - is less inspiring. Whites are neutral and rather flavourless, reds undistinguished, mostly from Utiel Requena a bit further inland. Stranded here, I'd have the odd local glass, then turn to Rioja and other nationwide staples. The same goes for the unfortified wines down south on the Costa del Sol. Some local dry whites can nowadays be fresh and fruity, but they are still essentially boring. Malaga - the traditional tipple of the main resorts - is a declining drink that no one, even the locals, seems to want to drink. But a wonderful exception is the firm of Scholz Hermanos. Splash out on a glass of one of its intensely flavoured wines (sweet or dry) after dinner, especially the raisiny, nutty Solera 1885. Sherry country is a little further along the coast towards the Portuguese border. Light, dry fino and manzanilla, super-chilled, are the mainstay here (Tio Pepe and Hidalgo are among my favourites). But after dinner, try some of the rich, intensely flavoured dry olorosos and amontillados. (It's only in Britain that these terms mean 'sweet' and 'sweetish'.) And a little PX, a gooey, black, ultra-sweet sherry, poured over your ice cream, is a treat.

Spain's most expensive white wines come from Galicia in the north-west, in the untypically green country between Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. Many are extremely dull; the best are made from the Albarino grape, mostly in the Rias Baixas region, and will say so on the label. Smart Spaniards have a taste for these, so you'll have to be prepared to pay. (Producers of the best include Lagar de Cervera, Santiago Ruiz and Morgadio.) Otherwise, in the north, the nearest wine regions of importance are reliable Navarra and Rioja.

Most of the wines made on the islands - the Balearics and the Canaries - are snapped up by islanders before they get near a wine list, so the latter tend to be drawn almost exclusively from the mainland. The locals are welcome to their wines, however. The wines of the Canaries are particularly dreadful (often crushed by foot and sold by the jug), the Mallorcan ones better but still rough and alcoholic. Exceptions (nice, not great) are Jaume Mesquida and Franja Roja from Mallorca, and

Miguel Gonzales Monje's Mi Bodega in Tenerife.

PORTUGAL

Restaurant wine lists in Portugal are dominated by wines from a clutch of big companies which make, blend and mature wines from all over the country (often supplied to them in the first place by fairly primitive co-operatives). Some of these big wine companies are now making excellent wines in the modern, fruity style: look out especially for J P Vinhos, Sogrape and Fonseca Successores; Alianca are quite good. They often sell under a variety of brand names rather than names of the official Portuguese regions. Portugal has very few single estate wines. Lists are generally divided into vinhos verdes (a generic term for young wines as well as the name of a northern Portuguese appellation) and vinhos maduros (matured wines). British drinkers with a taste for fruit in their wines will probably get more pleasure from the 'young' section, reds and whites. And always go for the youngest vintage of whites and roses. Garrafeira wines are for those who like their wines very mature.

I've never tasted a decent Algarve wine. For political reasons, four regions of the Algarve were recently awarded appellation status as quality wines. Lagoa, Lagos, Portimao and Tavira all make feebler alcoholic, pale-coloured reds. But you can buy wines here from all over Portugal.

Dao is fairly dismal too, Bairrada on the tough side (though you should enjoy the ones made by Luis Pato, Sogrape and, a step or two down in quality, Alianca).

Vinho verde (the appellation wine we see in this country) is the perfect holiday drink - as long as you buy a recent and therefore fresh and fruity vintage. For the British market it is generally sweetened up to Liebfraumilch level, but in Portugal itself most brands are dry. (The big exception is the ubiquitous Gazela; it has a touch of sweetness, but is fresh and fruity enough to be pleasant even if you prefer dry wines.) Vinho verde has one of the lowest alcohol levels of any white wine anywhere (somewhere between 7 and 9 degrees, compared with a typical 11), and its tart acidity and prickle of fizz make it really refreshing. Vinho verde from private estates can be especially good. (My favourites include Solar das Boucas, Paco de Cardido, Paco de Teixero and Palacio de Brejoeira.)

Before dinner, try the favourite aperitif of the northern Portuguese: chilled, aged tawny port (avoid white port, which is coarse and best taken, if at all, cut half-and-half with tonic, lots of ice and a slice of lemon). After dinner, try a grapey-sweet Setubal, a fortified Moscatel wine from near Lisbon.

ITALY

Italy, like France, has countless small winemakers who bottle their own wine, rather than selling to a co-op or big company - though there are plenty of both, as well. Every region has its excellent, good and bad producers, and a guidebook is a must. Jug wines are usually unimpressive, though at vintage time you can often buy attractive jugfuls of fresh young wine.

As in Spain, the white grapes are mostly boring, especially the tasteless Trebbiano grape, which grows like a weed down the length of Italy's 'thigh', and even right down in the south. A trattoria or lesser restaurant may offer only local wines, but posher places should have a more national wine list. Most of the tastiest whites will come from the north - Alto Adige (Sudtirol), Friuli or Trentino. For a decent white at a reasonable price, look out for the Pinot Grigio grape, to be found all over Italy except in the deep south.

The finest reds come from Tuscany (Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Vino Nobile di Mortepulciano) and the Piemonte mountains of the north-west (juicy-fruity Dolcetto, Barbera and tough Barolo and Barbaresco). Red vino da tavole with an arty label at a high price is often delicious, up-market wine whose producer simply didn't follow outmoded appellation rules for 'quality' wines. (New, less restrictive rules are shortly to incorporate these into the official appellations.)

Visitors to Tuscany and Umbria are really spoilt for choice - for reds, that is. (The occasional Chardonnay or Frescobaldi's Pomino is the best bet for whites. These apart, Vernaccia di San Giminiano is the best of the indigenous whites. The rest are at best characterless, fresh and fruity.) The up-market red vini da tavola here are made sometimes from the local Sangiovese grapes, sometimes from Cabernet Sauvignon (which does brilliantly here) and sometimes from a blend of the two, often plus oak. (Tignanello, Sammarco and Fiaccianello are among the best.) Chianti, best known of Tuscany's 20 or so appellations, can be anything from a light glugging wine to something serious and expensive that rivals fine claret. The best usually come from the Chianti Classico and Rufina areas. There are heaps of good estates (get out the guidebook). Brunello di Montalcino (from south of Siena) is the other big star of the region. It is rarely worth the price. Try instead the easier-drinking, more modestly priced Rosso di Montalcino (Costanti, Poggione).

The Carmignano region (west of Florence) puts some Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, which gives it a whiff of France. Capezzana is the best estate. Next door in Umbria, the best reds come from the Torgiano region south of Perugia (dominated by the excellent producer Lungarotti) and Montefalco, not far from Assisi (best producer, Adanti). The whites (including Orvieto) are mostly dull.

Visiting Venice, Verona or Lake Garda, you're more or less stuck with the wines of the Veneto. The famous vineyards of Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino are a spit away from Verona. Most examples are as plonkish as the Veneto's more obscure appellations, but there's more hope for bottles labelled 'Classico', and for the most recent vintages. Valpolicella can be excellent, rich wine from producers such as Masi, Quintarelli and Allegrini. Recioto della Valpolicella is sweet, rich and alcoholic, Recioto Amarone dry, rich, and alcoholic - both can be wonderful, but they are an acquired taste. Some Soave is better than the general plonk - the local co-op's wine is good, but the stars are Pieropan and Anselmi. Basic Lugana somehow manages to be better than basic Soave (look out for the Ca' del Frati wines). Bardolino, a cousin of Beaujolais, needs drinking young. Masi, Boscaini and Portalupi are the best.

Most of the vineyards around Rome are white, and grow boring grapes. For a real treat, Roman tourists should look to Tuscany. Naples is not much better off for local wines. The best reds are made from the Aglianico grape, and will be labelled as such. But the one thing to search for here, on the labels of reds or whites, is the name of the producer Mastroberardino.

Further south, reds grow heavier and often rougher, and it becomes more difficult to find acceptable whites. This certainly goes for hot, hot Sicily, but you'll find the good Regaleali reds and whites on every wine list, and also the pleasant wines of Corvo and Terra di Ginestra. The Rapitala estate makes excellent wines. Sicily is famous for its sweet, fortified Marsala, but most of this is rubbish. For after dinner, look out for those made by De Bortoli, and also for the lovely, raisiny Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, from a little island well south of the Sicilian coast. Sardinia can offer some reasonable, fresh white Vermentino in the north, and lighter, modern reds now vie with heavy, traditional ones from the south. Santadi is a very good producer, and Dolianova and Sella e Mosca make sound, fruity wines.

NEXT WEEK: France, Greece and Cyprus

(Maps omitted)

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