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Food & Drink: Every one's a medal winner

New wines at the International Wine Challenge won 25 golds, but which was the best?
NOW IN its 16th year, Wine Magazine's International Wine Challenge gets bigger every year. With a record 8,506 wines tasted blind, and medal contenders tasted twice over, the Challenge is run with military precision by a good-humoured team of youthful wine freaks. The awards, announced this week, are a yardstick of quality and value, but given the subjective nature of wine there are occasional inconsistencies.

This year's highlight was the James Rogers Trophy, an annual award for the best new wine of the competition. For the first time the organisers felt there were enough gold-medal winning wines (25) to justify a separate taste-off.

There was a plethora of competing styles, but our panel of tasters agreed the winner should reflect the late James Rogers' passion for discovering exciting new wines. He was an astute wine buyer and a believer in value, a pioneer of New World wines. Hence the presence of Australia, California, Chile and Argentina. But there was impressive new wine in old bottles too, from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, and even Champagne.

Reds were by far the strongest group. By a narrow margins, the trophy went to Argentina's 1998 Santa Julia Bonarda Sangiovese Reserve from La Agricola (pounds 5.99, coming soon to Tesco, Somerfield, Waitrose, Costco, Unwins). This perfumed Mendoza blend of two Italian grape varieties with a core of juicy mulberry and plum-like fruitiness, the sole Argentinian wine to win a gold medal, is remarkable for such terrific value in a vintage hit by El Nino.

Chile offered value and class. If you're searching for value (and most of us are), the prune and plum-like 1998 La Palmeria Merlot Cabernet 1998 (pounds 7.99, Oddbins Fine Wines) and the voluptuously spiced 1998 Mont Gras Carmenere Reserva (pounds 5.99, Sainsbury's), show what Chile has up its sleeve. In contrast, the aim of Almaviva, a hugely opulent, mouthfilling Bordeaux- style blend of plum and blackcurrant fruit, is to create an aura of seriousness. The 1996 Almaviva (around pounds 35.99-pounds 39.99, Noel Young, 01223 844744; Bordeaux Direct, 0118 9030311), a joint venture between Chile's Concha y Toro and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild's company, is a hit among fashion- conscious US cognoscenti.

James Rogers was not hugely exercised over cabernet sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux-style reds, but he was a great believer in the virtues of the merlot grape. So he would have given the Rogers seal of approval to the 1996 Azbuka Stambolovo Merlot (pounds 5.99, Safeway), the one Bulgarian red in the Challenge to strike gold. Modestly described by its back label as "a wine of unexpected style", Azbuka, by Australian winemaker David Wollan, stands out from the Bulgarian crowd for its clean and well-balanced blackcurrant fruit with an overlay of strong vanilla spice.

Rogers adored unusual native varieties and he would surely have welcomed the breath of fresh air wafting from Spain, Italy and Portugal. The latter's sumptuous 1997 Boas Quintas from Dao (pounds 16-pounds 17, Martinez Fine Wines 01422 320022) made from the native touriga nacional grape, oozes with juicy damson and black fruit flavours. From Spain, Albet I Noya with the 1997 Lignum (pounds 6.95, Vintage Roots, 01189 761999) and Bodegas Castano with the 1998 Vina Montana Monastrell Merlot (pounds 4.99, Somerfield, Tesco), have successfully combined local grape varieties with a touch of cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Southern Italy was a l Rogers' favourite. He would have enjoyed the 1997 Tre Uve Ultima (pounds 5.99, Fuller's, Oddbins, Wine Society), a deep-hued Abruzzo-Puglia blend from the montepulciano and sangiovese grapes with a dollop of primitivo for good measure, and aged in new French oak to give the plush damson-plum fruit a light smokiness. He would have also lapped up the 1995 Osar (pounds 16.49, Oddbins Fine Wine), a "supervalpolicella", if that's not an oxymoron, which uses the Veneto's corvina grape to create a super-concentrated, superior rosso.

The two sparkling wines were notable for the contrast in styles they presented: a fine vintage champagne in the 1992 Mignon et Pierrel Premier Cru Champagne (pounds 19.75, Fine Champagne Co, 01923 774053) and a fizzing Aussie cocktail of sweet red-berry fruits in Yalumba's Cockatoo Ridge Cockatoo Black Sparkling Red NV, (pounds 8.99, La Reserve, from next week). It was disappointing that only four white wines made it to the table. Two Chilean chardonnays were the best contenders: Caliterra's sleek Burgundian- style 1996 Tribute Chardonnay (pounds 8.95, Waitrose) made by Californian winemaker Ed Flaherty contrasting with the exotic, zingier style of the 1998 Sierra Los Andes Chardonnay from Alvaro Espinoza (pounds 6.99, Marks & Spencer).

The unofficial runner-up was Andrew Quady's highly original Vya Preferred California Sweet Vermouth (pounds 12.99, Averys, 01275 811100). A selection of "botanicals" - herbs, spices and citrus rind - are added to a base of orange muscat. Quady, California's maverick producer of the sweet, orange-zesty Essensia, says he aims to combine "the three essential vermouth sensations of warmth, coolness and tingling". The result is a headily aromatic, bitter-sweet infusion of camomile, lavender clove and bitter- orange zest. The Pharmacy Restaurant in London's Notting Hill has adopted the recipe of a fifth part dry and sweet Vya topped up with four-fifths champagne to produce a therapeutic cocktail it prescribes as, er, Vyagra.

Some wines may not be in store yet but are to appear within weeks