FRUIT SPARKLERS

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
As a person of excellent taste you already know that champagne, unless it's the cheapest enamel-stripper ever to demean the name of the world's greatest sparkling wine, should not be served with anything except a glass. Even a good ordinary NV, such as Veuve Clicquot or Billecart-Salmon, is too fine a drink to need extra flavouring. Anyone using Bollinger RD 1979 (pounds 79.95 at Threshers) for a kir royale should have their drinking licence taken away. Anyone using any champagne to make Black Velvet should be force-fed with Hooper's Hooch till they repent.

Ordinary sparkling wine is a different story. Not that some of these boys have anything to be ashamed of where quality's concerned. Good fizz comes from all over, even Israel: witness Yarden Blanc de Blancs, Bottle Fermented NV, which hails from the Golan Heights by way of Marks & Spencer. This yeasty, fragrant fizz has crisp, clean fruit and a lovely finish, and at pounds 9.99 a bottle it gives the best Australians and Californians a run for their money. But if California remains your preferred destination on the fizz trail, Asda has a new cuvee of Scharf-fenberger Mendocino Brut NV, a prize-winner in the 1996/97 Inter-national Wine Challenge. This one costs pounds 9.49, and it's richer and fuller in style - as you would expect when Pinot Noir participates in the assemblage. These, too, are of a quality that makes mixing sacrilegious.

It's down in the low-price neighbourhood that fizz becomes eligible for mixing. We're talking about pounds 5 to pounds 7, a range in which sparkling wine never rises above the level of competence. This is really A for Effort stuff: commendable, refreshing, but never good enough to make you sit up and take notice. The level is exemplified by the ubiquitous Angas Brut (around pounds 6.49 from just about everywhere); by own- label Spanish cavas or brands such as Castellblanch Extra Brut (around a fiver); by most Cremants de Bourgogne or de Limoux. I admire these wines, but I would not happily drink more than a glass of them in their naked form.

That's when the bottle of creme de cassis (souvenir of your 1995 fortnight in Brittany) comes into its own. Cheap sparklers have a rough edge and a shallowness of fruit; the sweetness of a fruit liqueur softens the former and fleshes out the latter. The pale wine takes on a roseate tinge of exquisite beauty. And no one notices that they're drinking Not-Champagne because the pinkness makes them feel something special's being poured.

But creme de cassis is not the only way of adding fruity value to low-priced fizz. With due respect to Harry's Bar and its famous Bellini (peach pulp and Prosecco, wildly overrated), I think the best choice is fresh strawberries. Their sweetness complements the acidity of the wine, and where colour is concerned they can't be beaten. They also have the advantage of being a local crop, which means (if you pick your own) that they're cheaper than peaches.

Strawberry pulp can simply be mixed with your chosen cheapo fizz, in proportions of around 1:3, and garnished, if you wish, with a whole berry. It can be used to make a more lethal fruit cup or punch, if vodka or brandy is added to the formula. And it can also, if there are teetotallers or children present, be used non-alcoholically. Here are recipes for the basic pulp and the kiddies' drink. For the rest of your gathering, pop the cork on some fizz - but no Bollinger, I beg you.

STRAWBERRY PULP

This will make around half a litre of pulp, sufficient to flavour a good couple of bottles of cheap fizz.

3 punnets strawberries

1 tablespoon castor sugar

Wash the berries but do not bother drying them. Using a small, sharp knife, cut out the hulls (this is important), then pop the strawberries into your blender. When they're all in, add the sugar and process just long enough to puree the fruit. Now decant the juice into a sieve and shake it gently over a measuring jug to get the juice flowing. Do not scrape the sieve, as this may force seed fragments through. Discard the seeds and refrigerate the juice until needed.

VIRTUOUS STRAWBERRY SMOOTHIE

All ingredients should be Arctically cold for this drink. You can make sure by putting everything (including the glass) in the freezer for 30 minutes before making it.

150ml/14 pint strawberry juice

150ml/14 pint milk, whole or semi-skimmed

2 tablespoons Greek-style or "Bio" yoghurt

strawberry to garnish (optional)

Put all but around 15ml (1 tablespoon) of the juice in your blender, then add the milk and yoghurt and process quickly to blend. Divide between two glasses, swirl in the remaining juice, garnish (if you wish), and slurp away. To make the drink less virtuous, single cream could be substituted for the yoghurt.

And finally ... spare a thought for the misguided grown-ups who drink alcopops (or alco-carbs, as the manufacturers like to call them). Though popularly demonised as an enticement to under-age drinking, these nauseating fluids are drunk by a (legal) market that divides evenly between the 18s to 24s, the 24s to 35s, and the over-35s. This information comes from an NOP survey conducted in April-May and reported last month in Marketing Week. And it just goes to show that the bad judgement of youth can last a lifetime. If that thought is enough to make you cry into your beer, seek solace in one of Marks & Spencer's newly pumped-up range, which includes a fine IPA and Premium Ale (both pounds 1.29/50cl) made by Caledonian. The IPA is particularly good, with enough smoothness to accommodate any quantity of lachrymal production.

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