GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN MCWHIRTER ON A HEROIC DRINK
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The Independent Culture
THE WELCOMING drink ritual has changed little since I first visited my French pen friend's farm in the Loire Valley 26 years ago. When visitors arrive, when the postman, itinerant bread-man or milk-tanker driver admits to a birthday or wedding anniversary, the glasses are lined up with military precision down the centre of the table. Filled with the chilled local wine, they are left untouched during a long interval of chat until Jean, the father and farmer, calls out "Allez!" and reaches for the first glass. I've been back all but one of the 26 years, to weddings, christenings, funerals - there were nine children, and 15 cousins next door - and what we always drank was the delicious, sweet-sharp local white, Coteaux du Layon. The same wine serves as aperitif in everyday life, too.

But when I went back last month for the wedding of the last of the nine children, the drink had changed. "We'll have a kir," Jean announced as we brought in our luggage. He poured a drop of blackcurrant liqueur into each glass in the line and topped it up with the driest and most acid of the sharp Loire whites, Gros Plant. And when we later did the rounds of aunts, uncles and old friends nearby, it was kir that was offered as the waiting glasses clinked down the centre of the table,

There's nothing new about kir, but it seems the French have just rediscovered it. The drink first became popular in Burgundy in the east of France after the Second World War as a mix of the local appellation controlee blackcurrant liqueur, creme de cassis, with the leanest of the Burgundian white wines, Aligote. Most creme de cassis is made in Dijon, just north of Burgundy, from the blackcurrants that grow in profusion just outside the famous Burgundian vineyards of the Cote d'Or. Kir, which was invented in Dijon, was named in honour of Canon Felix Kir, then mayor of Dijon and a recent hero of the Resistance.

Holiday over, I've been back to work tasting a big selection of the cremes de cassis available in Britain. The first snag, as ever, is the duty. To avoid it, or at least a portion of it, most supermarkets and wine chains import lower-strength versions. But if you want the authentic perfume of freshly cooked blackcurrants in your glass, it's worth buying a more expensive creme de cassis at 20 per cent alcohol. At the higher alcohol level, more of the all-important volatile compounds are locked into the liqueur, to be released when you dilute it with white wine in your glass. For the same reason, non-alcoholic blackcurrant drinks can never muster the same perfume as a creme de cassis, so they make insipid and uninspiring kirs.

Even at the higher strength, some cremes de cassis taste rather tired, toffee-like and spirity. I love the GE Massenez, Creme de Cassis de Dijon (pounds 8.28 for 70cl James Hogg of Edinburgh), Creme de Cassis de Bourgogne Double Creme, Joseph Cartron, Nuits St Georges (pounds 6.03 for 50cl Almar of Hampton Heath, Cheshire; pounds 7.79 for 50 cl Winesmith of Peterborough; pounds 8.59 for 50 cl Arthur Rackham of Surrey, The Vintner of London EC4). and Creme de Cassis de Dijon, 20 per cent, Gabriel Boudier (pounds l0.50 for 70cl, pounds 7.95 per 50cl Yapp Brothers of Mere, Wiltshire), all of which have ripe and intense, freshly cooked blackcurrant flavour, and are especially lively when mixed with wine.

Blackberry liqueur makes a good alternative to blackcurrant. There's often a perfumed, confectionery-like taste to the Burgundian wild blackberry liqueurs, but I found two lovely ones: Creme de Mures Sauvages, Gabriel Boudier (pounds 9.75 for 70cl Yapp Brothers of Mere), which has wonderful, fresh blackberry taste, and GE Massenez Creme de Mure (pounds 9.10 James Hogg of Edinburgh), which has a flavour of intense blackberry jelly. Or try Creme de Peche de Vigne de Bourgogne, Cartron (pounds 7.10 for 50cl Almar of Hampton Heath, pounds 7.85 for 50cl Winesmith of Peterborough, and pounds 8.55 for 50cl Gastromania of Cirencester) for a really life-like flavour of succulent peach flesh and a hint of nutty flavour from the kernels. Half bottles are good news, since these fruit liqueurs deteriorate quite quickly once the bottle is open. Keep them in the fridge, and make kir your regular aperitif until the bottle is finished.

Kir (or the variations using other liqueurs) always tastes fresher made with quite high-acid white wines. The acidity counteracts the sweetness, and the stronger you make the kir (the more liqueur, that is), the greater the need for acidity in the wine. I prefer just a dash of liqueur, to give a pale rose colour and only a touch of sweetness, but some people make them quite sweet and red. It's not worth wasting money on an expensive white (such as Aligote), since the liqueur will cover any subtleties of flavour. Simple, not-too-flavourful, high-acid dry whites such as basic Muscadet, Soave or Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne work well. Adding fruit liqueur is also a way of disguising an undistinguished wine, but you can still recognise a badly made wine through the fruit flavour, especially if you use only a little liqueur. Most sparkling wines are quite high acidity and work well - a fizzy kir is officially a kir royal.

All the above wine merchants will supply by mail order (apart from James Hogg, who delivers only in Edinburgh and East Lothian): Almar, 01948 820574; Winesmith, 01780 783102; Arthur Rackham, 01483 458700; Yapp, 01747 860423; Gastromania, 01285 644611.

DRINKING is a far less sophisticated business in Romania, land of horse- drawn carts and Transylvan-ian castles. Winemaking equipment is often rudimentary, and so are many of the wines. But the grapes can be excellent, and when, by good fortune, a wine turns out excellent too, prices can be astonishingly low. One such bargain of bargains is currently on sale in the northern supermarket chain of Morrisons. The delicious mature red, 1986 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Dealul Mare, Rovit (pounds 3.05), would still be worth buying if it cost pounds 2 more. It makes soft, easy drinking, and along with the mature flavours (of cedar and tobacco) has heaps of ripe, blackcurrant fruit despite its age. The 1990 Special Reserve Pinot Noir, Valea Misilor Vineyards, Dealul Mare (pounds 3.35) is also brilliant value, although it is outshone by the Cabernet. I would not have guessed it as Pinot Noir if I had been served it "blind", but it's nevertheless a gentle, fruity and tobaccoey red.

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