RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: Rebranding for Britain

What's a nice aperitif with a warm citrus-y flavour doing with a name like Lillet?
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The Independent Culture
Having just returned from a rather mindless holiday in France, about which I will report in due course, I find that my brain is in a state of desuetude. But I am sentient enough to note an interesting item in a recent issue of Harpers which arrived while I was away. Harpers, which calls itself "The Wine and Spirit Weekly", is the trade magazine for those who make, sell or write about alcohol.

The item concerned the precipitous decline in the market for alcopops, the Great Satan of the campaign against under-age drinking. After some supermarkets stopped selling "alco-carbs" (their name in the industry), following the terrible press they received, total sales to May fell by 30 per cent, and by an even steeper 42 per cent in off-licenses and supermarkets.

Cause for celebration? Absolutely not. The anti-alcopop campaign arose from one indisputable fact and one slightly contentious proposition. Fact: alcopops are targeted at a younger market. Proposition: alcopops encourage under-age drinking. But an NOP survey found last spring that the (legal) market was split evenly between 18-24s, 24-35s, and over-35s. It may well be that some teenagers were lured into drinking by alcopops. But would they really not have started down the path of ruin if their choice were restricted to beer, cider, and the parental drinks cupboard? Pull the other one. Children who want to experiment with alcohol will find something to drink. And there is no shortage of pre-mixed sweet drinks to fill the gap left by alcopops. So, please: let's not regard this as a triumph in the War Against Drink (Junior Division).

If you're a grown-up seeking unfamiliar flavours, I urge you to seek out (and it may take some seeking) a bottle of Lillet. Lillet is an aperitif made by mixing wine and liqueurs in an 85/15 blend and ageing the result in oak for a year. I renewed my acquaintance on holiday and was once again captivated by the warm, citrus-y, faintly resinous glow it leaves on the palate. Produced since 1887 in Bordeaux, Lillet deserves a wider audience. At the moment it is sold mostly to the French-restaurant trade, with sales to the off-trade fumbling along at levels as low as a couple of dozen cases a year.

Why so low? Well, the name may yield one clue. If you buy the stuff here, it will be called Lille rather than Lillet. Apparently the connection with another product bearing that name put some people off, especially when they contemplated a bottle of the red variety. The one I drink is Lille Blanc. Buy a bottle for around pounds 9.50 if you can find it at Threshers, or at superior independents such as La Vigneronne (0171 589 6113) and pukka outlets such as Selfridges and Harrods. Keep it in the fridge, as they do in France, or serve on lots of ice; lemon or orange wedge is optional. At 17 ABV it is a drink of some power, and of considerable sweetness, so small doses (around 75cl) are indicated.

Since we're on the subject of unusual flavours, here's a pair of table wines that fall well outside anyone's definition of ordinary. I have long thought that the better English wines were simply too expensive for the quality on offer, but one major exception is the Bacchus 1996 from Lamberhurst Vineyard in Kent. Bacchus is a funny old grape, created by crossing a Sylvaner/Riesling cross with the thoroughly uninteresting Muller-Thurgau. Some of its products are dull, flabby stuff, but this one has a decent stab of acidity coming through a whole hedgerow-worth of wild flowery flavours. Fat, full, and fragrant; an excellent wine for smoked fish, and not exorbitant at pounds 4.99 from Majestic, Unwins (in the near future), selected independents, or direct from the vineyard (01892 890 286). Worth a try.

Take a deep breath before saying the name of my second oddball: Brundlmayer 1996 Gruner Veltliner Alte Reben. Now hold on to your hat when you taste it: this wine is like nothing else you've ever seen. Mineral and peppery on the nose. Then an initial sensation of citrus on the palate, followed by floral, honeyed richness, followed by more minerals with hints of spice. A revelation. An amazing wine. Drink it with a rich fish dish, or with a creamy, moderately pungent cheese. At pounds 12.95 it makes stern demands on your credit card, but you won't regret it. Available from Bibendum (0171 916 7070), Fortnum & Mason (0171 734 8040), Raeburns of Edinburgh (0131 332 5166), Ballentine of Cowbridge (01446 774 840), and Seckford, Ipswich (01473 626 072). And, like the Bacchus, worth a try - but not if you're under-age.

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