Richard Ehrlich's beverage report: A gloom with a view

Even if you're drinking to get through the week, it shouldn't mean drinking just anything
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The Independent Culture
EVERY MONTH I resolve seriously to explore the offerings at Nicolas. Every month I fail. But the samples that pop up every so often keep reminding me what a dolt I am not to taste everything they've got. This London-based link of the ubiquitous French chain regularly serves up things that no one else in the country lays their hands on.

Their latest offering kept up this noble tradition. Chateau Fougey 1996 (pounds 6.50) is a Bordeaux Superieur (a doubtful appellation which just means more alcohol than basic Bordeaux) with weight, solid blackcurrant fruit and exceptional smoothness in the mouth and on the finish. Better still: Chateau Boucard 1996, Cotes de Bourg (pounds 7.50), easily worth the extra pound. Traces of mint and oak- vanilla, and lots of the expected fruit flavours with a sweet edge on all of them. This really delicious drink made me think that this might be the month I'll get round for a proper tasting.

Then fate intervened, as it so often does. This time it took the form of a hastily planned trip to New York, which may sound glamorous but was not: I divided my time between two hospitals, separated by 40 minutes of ugly motorway, visiting ailing parents suffering from unrelated illnesses. When I wasn't admiring the views from hospital windows or automobile windscreens, I spent a great deal of time being rather absent-minded at my brother's house in Brooklyn.

The experience was noteworthy for all sorts of reasons, one of which was that I barely noticed what I drank. Apart from a good bottle of Pedroncelli Cabernet Sauvignon at a modern-Italian bistro (Cucina) in Park Slope, Brooklyn, most of my drinking consisted of therapeutic Martinis made with my duty-free Beefeater. I know I shouldn't say this, but my older brother and I would not have managed the week so well without its aid.

When you're sitting around a lot, waiting for things to happen, you inevitably spend time on the Internet, if it's available to you. My meanderings took me to the two wine mags that compete for the affections of wine- lovers in America: the Wine Spectator (www.winespectator.com) and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate (www.wineadvocate. com). While the Advocate may hog more headlines than the Spectator, its site is stupefyingly boring. It offers little more than adverts for Parker's books and a few recommendations. No one looking at it would guess that the man behind it wields more influence than anyone on earth in terms of which wines people buy.

The Spectator site is the one, especially for its weekly readers' poll. When I was there they were reporting a previous poll on how much their readers drank, and the answer is: not as much as you'd think, given the mag's subject. Two per cent drink a glass a week, 9.9 per cent just two to three glasses. At the other end of the scale, 6.3 per cent drink between five and seven bottles, while "Write-in votes ranged from 25 bottles per week (sommelier, sir?) to zero." An amusing read all in all, even if you don't vote.

Something else you do a lot of when you're sitting around in hospitals is drink a lot of coffee. And this reminded me how hard it is to get a good cup in the US - whatever the proponents of "Specialty Coffee" may say. Leave the culture of the small cafe in Manhattan or San Francisco and you're at the mercy of under- roasted industrial-grade Colombian. How I looked forward, as I sipped yet another acrid cup, to a taste of the Monsooned Malabar sold by Torz & Macatonia (0171 515 7770). Monsooned coffee is aged in damp, windy conditions which softens its natural acidity and makes it smooth and luscious, while the full complex of flavours is preserved. It is my favourite coffee of the moment, and was sorely missed while slurping from those paper cups.

The third thing you do, under these circumstances, is look forward to eating one really nice thing at the end of the day. No more nurses to pester, no unhappy faces in the corridor, no gauze pads. Not till the next day, anyway. And if you're in Brooklyn, you celebrate this respite by eating the smoked spare ribs sold by the famous Eagle Foods (001 718 499 0026), a Polish food market which is widely acknowledged as selling the best smoked meats in New York City.

These ribs: I can't tell you how good they are, and how well they would go with a cold bottle of EB Special Pils, Poland's biggest-selling beer. This is a food beer, not something for connoisseurs to savour. But for what it does best, it does very well. And you wouldn't even need those ribs to enjoy it. Which is just as well, since you can't buy them over here. But you can buy the suds, for pounds 1.09/33cl, at Tesco, Wine Cellars and independents. Combined with the right grub, it will almost wash away thoughts of hospitals, illness, and gloom in general.

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