RICHARD EHRLICH'S; BEVERAGE REPORT: To bed with a leguminous shrub

What does a coffee addict who wants to sleep at night drink after dinner? Enter Red Bush, a South African charmer
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The Independent Culture
A GOOD FEW years ago, at 2 or 3am, I finally accepted that I could no longer drink coffee in the evening. This was a wrench for someone who regards the seeds of the Coffea arabica shrub with mystic adoration, but the evidence was irrefutable. I don't love anything so much that I am willing to lie awake in the dead of night, reviewing my failings, when I should be resting in the arms of REM.

Once coffee was off the postprandial menu, I experimented in desperation with herb teas. Peppermint quickly lost its charms. Fruit potions with names like Orange Cinnamon Epiphany faded even faster. For a time I persuaded myself that I liked verbena, but eventually realised that the taste of new-mown hay is not (is there another expression?) my cup of tea. I gave up.

Until recently, that is, when a sample of a new tea came my way from a quirkily enterprising company called Cavive Trading. They specialise in products from South Africa, including a fine set of jams, but a more recent addition is a range of products from the Eastern Shore Tea Company in Church Hill, Maryland, USA. Many use real tea as a base for flavourings and have names like Pink LemonadeTea, Spiced Apricot Tea with Cloves and Watermelon Kiwi Tea.

The pair that came my way, however, are herbal types, both made from the leaves of a South African thorny leguminous shrub (thank you, Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) called Aspalanthus linearis, or Rooibos - red bush in Afrikaans. I climbed on to the Web and found a site (www.rooibos.com) run by a firm in America that attaches a mark to every occurrence of the name.

The site says that Rooibos was first harvested in the mountains near Cape Town and first reported as a drink in 1772. In the late Sixties, one Annique Theron discovered, she said, that Rooibos cured her baby's colic, and subsequent therapeutic claims include "antioxidant properties as well as dermatological benefits". A sister company sells the stuff for skin care.

Red Bush Tea does not carry the mark, and while I leave its therapeutic properties for scientists to debate, I am happy to announce that it's a delicious drink. It has a warm, musky flavour which reminded me of strong salad greens or braised Belgian endive, one of my favourite vegetable dishes. There's a plain version (which I prefer) and one with lemongrass which tastes more like other herb teas. Both sell for around pounds 3.90 and are available "throughout the country", or ask Cavive (0171 381 9471) for stockist details.

Needless to say, I have not given up drinking wine at dinner even if coffee's off the agenda. And recent tastings have yielded an especially good bunch of new-style wines from Spain, a country that I suspect is going to claim an increasing share of the grape-groupie's attention. The best of them, one of the most ravishingly complete wines I've tasted, is ... ha! Fooled you. I can't mention it because it isn't in the stores yet (but it will be in a month or so).

In the meantime, two whites and two reds from outlets that are buying well and wisely in Iberia. The first is a white Rioja that's completely unrelated to the dreary, over-oaked, dead-fruit white Riojas of yesteryear. Artadi Rioja Blanca 1996, Vinas de Gain it's called, and it's clean and modern in style, with the freshness of Malvasia and Viura enhanced by careful use of wood. Full of life, intriguing plangent fruit, delicious and out of the ordinary: pounds 5.99 at Majestic. The second is another up-to-date number, La Vega Verdejo Sauvignon Blanc 1997 (Fuller's, pounds 3.99). The Verdejo gives weight and fullness, the Sauvignon lift and sparkle. Fresh and lively, but with real character and complexity: gooseberries on the nose, passion fruit on the palate. A stunner at the price.

Back to Majestic for the reds, both from the brilliant Celler de Capcanes. This comes under the simple Tarragona DO but the grapes are of top quality and the handling brilliant. First stop: Mas Collet 1996 (pounds 4.99), a 30/30/20/20 blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carinena, nice full tart-cherry fruit, good oak touches and very satisfying. Second stop, even better: Costers del Gravet Crianza 1996 (pounds 7.99) is 50/30/20 Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, and Carinena and gives spicy fruitcake and fresh berries on the palate with generous but not excessive accents of sweet oak. Both delectable, but the Gravet is really distinguished. If they make reserva wines, I'd love to see one.

While you're at Majestic, incidentally, you might want to take advantage of two worthy price reductions: the always reliable Senorio de los Llanos Gran Reserva 1990, Valdepenas, is down from pounds 4.99 to pounds 3.99 if you buy two, and the classically meaty Muga Gran Reserva 1989, Rioja, is down from pounds 11.99 to pounds 8.99. Both offers run until 1 November, and you won't lose sleep by taking them up. As long as you avoid your late-night double espresso.

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