RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: DRIVEN TO FRUIT

There's always a time and a wine for mindless summertime drinking
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THE WEATHER where I am, on the top floor of a London terraced house on a Friday afternoon, could do with a lesson in kindness. It's hot, wind-less, humid. The hay fever and high-ozone seasons have arrived simultaneously. I am not pleased. I am wondering what to drink when the working day comes to an end.

It's easy, on a day like today, to buy something cheap, uncomplicated and refreshing - the kind of wine that won't suffer if you stick it in the freezer till ice crystals start to form. If that's your approach, the spanking-new modern wines from the south of France may fit the bill. These are of the style that's known in the trade as fruit-driven, and every supermarket and chain has been buying them like mad in recent months.

Take, for instance, Asda's line of "Tramontane" wines. These bottles are named after the wind that travels from north to south through Languedoc and Roussillon, where the wines comes from, and there's a good range of them. The one that comes to mind for mindless drinking is Tramontane White Vin de Pays de l'Aude 1997 (pounds 2.99), a mix dominated by Ugni Blanc which has been fermented on oak chips. The oak is barely perceptible; the fruit, though light, is crisp; the bottle is worth the money. But it's worth paying a pound more for Tramontane Sauvignon Blanc Vin de Pays d'Oc 1997, oak-free and with a lovely, appley nose followed by full fruit and decent acidity. The perfect al fresco wine.

Mindless drinking is a fine thing, briefly. By the second glass, however, I start hankering after a bit more intellectual stimulation. If you feel the same way, here are two alternatives with (respectively) a great deal more character and enough character to send you into a trance.

The first wine is a truly remarkable substance called Richemont Viognier 1996. Viognier, best known as the white grape of the northern Rhone, is something for which I've taken a long time developing a taste; and my personal voyage of discovery is not complete yet. But this example from the Languedoc, made by the redoubtable Hugh Ryman, is accessible and complex at the same time. Partly fermented in wood, it has the weird, feral pungency of this grape but lovely freshness as well. A star buy currently available from Fuller's at the bargain price of pounds 4.99 but going up to pounds 5.99, and soon to be sold at Oddbins and Wine Cellars. Buy it now. Try it.

The second wine is in a different league altogether. It's so easy to go weak at the knees over the immediately amiable Chardonnays from Chile, the Languedoc and Australia that you can forget about the wines that made people like this grape in the first place. Bourgogne Les Setilles 1996, Olivier Leflaive (pounds 7.99 from Lay & Wheeler, 01206 764446) asks for your full attention. And it deserves it. Full on the nose, cool, crisp, elegant, understated, slightly austere on the palate. Fantastic wine from a great producer. Buy it while you can.

And finally ... I promise that this will be the last gurgle of my new-found passion for Madeira, but after an earlier gurgle I had a letter from Peter Wylie Fine Wines in Plymtree (01884 277555) saying that they carry a range of mature Madeira. Stocks at the moment include the d'Oliveira Malmsey 1900 (pounds 220) which I have tasted with pleasure, as well as some younger wines (especially Sercials) at lower prices. Not the perfect drink for hot weather, I grant you, but since when did summer last all year?

WINE BOX

THE WEEK'S BEST BUYS

*Wild Trout, Vin de Pays d'Oc (Booth's and independents, pounds 4.99)

*March Hare, Vin de Pays d'Oc (Booth's and independents, pounds 4.99)

Here are two curiosities of great merit. Curiosities, first of all, because they're French wines with English names made by an Australian wine-maker, and second because they're slightly unorthodox blends. Neither of those qualities makes them unique, and neither on its own would make them worth recommending. But the wine-maker in question is Michael Goundrey, who knows his business. The Trout is a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Marsanne with a peachy nose and lively citrus zing on the palate. The Hare is a Syrah/Merlot/ Cabernet Sauvignon, with the heady Syrah spice softened by Merlot and given a good scuff of tannin and ripe berries by the Cabernet. Del-iciously gluggable, but with enough personality to make you think while you drink.

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