Food & Drink: Nice, if you can taste them

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT: There were a few surprises among drinks at the Organic Food Awards - namely the no-shows
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The Independent Culture
IF VIRTUE IS its own reward, even where there's no cash on offer, I was amply rewarded a couple of weeks ago by spending two unpaid days as a judge for the 1998 Organic Food Awards. The results haven't been announced yet, so my lips are sealed for the moment about what I tasted and who won the gongs. But I can divulge that I was judging drinks, both soft and hard, and that it was fascinating.

The judging took place in two venues, first Rocinantes restaurant in Bristol and then, a few days later, the Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. The second session was particularly gratifying: beautiful gardens, one of the country's best hotel-restaurants, a warm, sunny autumn day. We did the judging indoors, so the lively wasp population of Great Milton couldn't get at the goodies, then lolled about in the garden before partaking of a light lunch. I had more appetite than my colleagues who'd had to practise their judge-craft on sausages, racks of lamb and roast chickens. Their loss, my gain.

In the drinks section, everyone lost through no-shows: promised samples that simply didn't turn up on the day. Among them was the Caledonian Brewery's Golden Promise Ale, which would certainly have been well received. You can buy it from Waitrose Beer Direct (0800 188 881) and elsewhere for around pounds 1.65/500ml. Other items of note failed to arrive for the simple reason that their makers hadn't entered them.

For my money, the most lamentable non-entrant was the range of soft drinks sold by Rock's, a small family firm founded in Berkshire in 1981. I am a serious fan of their delicious Organic Lemon Cordial, a zappily citric beverage with well-judged sweetness and the flavour of the whole fruit - juice, pith and skin. The other flavours are orange, lime, lemon, ginger, elderflower and blackcurrant, all made entirely without preservatives or other additives.

This line is available only in health-food stores and from organic specialists including London's Planet Organic (0171 221 7171). Easier to find is a more recent range of Rock's squashes (orange, lime and lemon) which are sold by selected Sainsbury's and Waitrose; I've tasted the orange, and it is good stuff (though I still like the cordial better). The cost is around pounds 2.95 for the squashes, pounds 3.25 for the cordials.

Something else missing from our tasting samples was wine. There was once an organic wine competition, but it ran into an immovable object in the form of EC regulations and is now defunct. But there are still organic wines - many, in fact. One of the principal importers specialising in the field is Vintage Roots (0118 976 1999). This interesting and admirable company was founded in 1986 with the help of an Enterprise Allowance Scheme, pounds 40 a week of Thatcher's Old Vintage Entrepreneurial Incentives which enabled them "to get the business off the ground without making a profit". Now they are making a profit. They have some 350 products on their books, including wines from such famous names as Guy Bossard in Muscadet and Huet in the Loire. They also sell beers, ciders, soft drinks (including Rock's) and even balsamic vinegar.

But organic wine has become a mainstream business. Some of the best products we tasted came from big companies that have branched out in this wholly laudable direction, and in wine, too, some of the heavy hitters have weighed in. To wit: Penfolds Clare Valley Shiraz/Cabernet 1996 (around pounds 8, widely available from Safeway, E H Booth, Victoria Wines, Majestic and independents). This is a superbly rich cocktail of minty nose followed through with plummy, spicy fruit on the palate. Gorgeous stuff, and certified organic.

From California, where you would expect to see organicity leading the way, the wines of Bonterra are wonderful things and none better, in my view, than Fetzer's Bonterra Chardonnay 1996, Mendocino County (around pounds 8, Oddbins, Wine Cellar, Fullers, Sainsbury's and elsewhere). This is a richly oaky, all-singing, all-dancing Chardonnay of the big fat buttery school. You wouldn't think of it as worthy because it drinks so well. It would certainly win something in my organic wine awards, if I were handing them out.

And finally ... No claims of organic purity for a pair of reds from Hardys, but both are worth buying. First is Banrock Station Mataro Grenache Shiraz 1997, Southeast Australia (pounds 4.29, Safeway). Immediately captivating stuff, lively but easy-going, ripe, warm fruit and good length. Second is a plainly named Australian Cabernet Sauvignon they've made for Sainsbury's, no vintage and no great subtlety but enticing and juicy and immensely enjoyable at pounds 4.99. These Australians alone should make you realise that the battle for the low-to-mid-price red market has not been conclusively won by South America. Not yet, anyway.