GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN McWHIRTER ON WINES WITH HERBS
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Forget magic mushrooms. Down at your supermarket is a magic herb that will have you swooning over bland, cheap white wines. Lemon grass used in food injects accompanying white wines with a wonderful, fresh, lemony flavour that doesn't overpower, but usually enhances. (Exceptions are Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Frascati, and reds - lemon grass tends to make red wines taste disagreeably more tannic than they really are).

The magic works with more flavourful and finer whites, too. Sauvignon Blanc combines especially wonderfully with the flavour of lemon grass, as does Riesling, and the aromatic character of southern French Viognier or Italian Favorita.

Of course, no one sits chewing stalks of lemon grass, thyme or marjoram - except me, and I admit to having kicked the habit as soon as my wine- and-herb experiments were over. But herbs can sometimes be quite a dominant flavour in a dish, and even a fairly subtle herby flavour can influence which wines will go well. It's usually more appropriate to choose a wine that goes with the sage or tarragon used to flavour a roast chicken, for example, than to choose one with just the gently flavoured meat in mind.

You can't go wrong with Sauvignon for dill, sage, tarragon, chives - or, in fact, any of the rest of the onion family. Dill otherwise is a sticky herb flavour to match with wine: Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, Italian Cortese, Gravina or Favorita are successful, and one of the most stunning wine and food matches of all is a demi-sec Vouvray (from the Loire Valley) with gravad lax. 1994 Vouvray, La Courronne Plantagenets, Demi-sec (pounds 4.45 Sainsbury's), very honeyed, quincy and sweetish, just hits the spot.

Sage also has a wonderful affinity for Sauvignon Blanc, and chimes in well with the savoury flavours of some Italian red wines, though the tannin in some reds clashes horribly with sage. There are even some reds that taste positively better with sage, whilst themselves enhancing the sage flavour: try Chiantis and other Italian wines made from the Sangiovese grape or Italian Barbara, Dolcetto or Cir.

Tarragon doesn't like reds, clashes with some whites, but goes well with gentle Sauvignons (Chilean especially), as well as Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, Gravina, dry Muscat and Viognier. Try the stylish, apricotty 1995 Cuckoo Hill Viognier, Vin de Pays d'Oc (pounds 4.99 Asda).

Chardonnay is not normally especially good with herbs, but there's one exception: basil. Any Chardonnay will be pleasant with basil dishes, but buttery California ones are especially appropriate, as is fizzy Cremant de Bourgogne. Try the delicious combination of Australian Chardonnay with pesto. There's also an extraordinary white wine from southern Italy that actually smells like basil, and goes really well: but Gravina is hard to find (see below). Coriander leaf is difficult: go for a dry German (not Riesling) or a South African Colombard.

Some herbs are best used sparingly if you want your wine to taste its best: parsley does nothing for wine, nor does chervil, and oregano and marjoram have a bitterness that often clashes, especially with more aromatic wine styles. Spanish Rueda is the best bet with oregano/marjoram. My favourite is the tangy 1995 Rueda, Heraderos del Marques de Riscal (pounds 5.30 Arthur Rackham, pounds 6.29 Unwins, and, by the case only, pounds 5.45 Alexander Wines of Glasgow and pounds 5.49 Majestic).

Many herbs make red wines taste extra-tannic. Not so rosemary and thyme. Reds tend to be the best choice for thyme dishes, and the Tempranillo grape (alias Cencibel) of Spain is amongst the best: Rioja, Navarra, Valdepenas and La Mancha reds go well. Soave is the star white option. Rosemary's strong flavour can easily overpower wines. It rarely clashes, but finds affinity with very few wines. Best bet is a good red Burgundy, with claret coming in second. For whites, try the aromatic Italian Arneis, or a Viognier.

To find good examples of unusual Italian wines (Gravina, Arneis, Favorita, Cortese, Barbera, Dolcetta and Cir) try Enotria Winecellars of London SW18 (0181 871 2668) or Valvona & Crolla of Edinburgh (0131 556 6066) - both also do mail order.

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