Richard Ehrlich column

Liquid sunshine
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The Independent Culture
MARK TWAIN once lamented that everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it. Well, I'm going to try. And believe me, there's plenty to complain about as I write these words. It's raining. And cold. And grey. Miserable weather, which suggests that spring will never come.

So here's my plan for making it happen. I will sing the praises of a quintessentially springy, summery wine, and then the weather will break. If by the time you are reading these words it's warm and sunny, I will know that I've succeeded.

This particular species of wine is one that I thought was extinct. Its Linnaean name is Bargainissimus Alba and in English it's known as Cheap, Decent White. For many years, Cheap, Decent White was far rarer than Cheap, Decent Red. Things have got better for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that wine-makers are better at making wine. They have the technical know-how, principally in grape-handling and temperature control, to preserve the inherent quality of the fruit on its way from vine to bottle. In one sense, this is a policy of minimal interference. You could also call it maximal interference, in nature's tendency to ruin grapes the instant they're picked.

However you view it, the results of this new expertise are startling and more or less ubiquitous. I'll be droning on about various retailers' supplies of Cheap, Decent White over the coming weeks and months (weather permitting), but this week's examples come from the busy team at Marks & Spencer. They've come up with a raft of cheap whites that would sit proudly on the luncheon table. Cheapest of all is the easy-glugging Vin de Pays du Gers 1998 (pounds 2.99). This is a mix of two grapes, Ugni Blanc and Colombard. Ten years ago, this combination produced oceans of dull, flabby muck. This one has full, lively fruit, and good balancing acidity, and it's a pleasure to drink. For pounds 2.99!

Spending more at M&S also gets you more. But you need not spend much more, at the moment, for the Gold Label Sauvignon Blanc Vin de Pays d'Oc 1998. This effort from the excellent Domaines Virginie is an M&S wine of the month until early June, priced at pounds 3.49 (down from pounds 4.49), and its lovely fresh crispness sees off any comparable Sauvignon Blanc from the New World. The same producer has a decent, basic Chardonnay (pounds 4.49), also under the Gold Label, but it's worth paying a bit more for the Gold Label Reserve Chardonnay Barrique, 1998. This one began life with better fruit, citrussy and apricot-scented, and did its fermenting in new oak, which leaves a prominent but not bullying trace. It's not exactly fresh summer wine, but at an opening price of pounds 4.99 until 1 June (and pounds 5.99 thereafter), it is well worth buying.

One more quickie before leaving the M&S drinks hall. Wine doesn't get much more boring than bog-standard Frascati. But when the wine is well made in the modern style, from good fruit with a predominance of tangy Malvasia, it is not merely good, it is delicious. Enter, stage left, M&S's Frascati Superiore Single Estate 1998 (pounds 3.99). Almonds and citrus on the palate with a small tidal wave of fresh acidity. Few wines speak more eloquently of picnics in the sun-washed grass, or long lunches on the terrace.

Ambling briefly in a different neck of the spring woods, I note with interest a recent initiative from the Morland brewery. Whatever John Major's thoughts were on the virtues of warm beer, Morland says that the optimum serving temperature (OST) for its Ruddles ales is 14C. That is little more than the OST for some kinds of white wine. Yet beer drinkers often assume that only lager is served with anything approaching a chill.

Wrong, dudes! Think of the draught ale you drink in a pub. Is it warm? Nope, it's cellar-chilled. But do you have to stick to lager if you hope to be truly refreshed on a warm day? Nope again. Thirty minutes in the fridge will improve the performance of most ales and even stouts and porters. This including the candidates highlighted at the bottom of the page.

Just remember, please, that if the sun is shining you have me to thank.