When the presses first started rolling at The Independent in 1986, the annual wine agenda was still dominated by the three Bs: Beaujolais Nouveau, Burgundy's Hospices de Beaune auction in November and the new vintage in Bordeaux. Not any more. The past 12 years have seen seismic changes, with the New World moving centre stage thanks to a focus on grape varieties and hard-nosed marketing.
The traditional French argument about the importance of a wine's provenance remains true. Unfortunately, le Bon Dieu no longer bestows his blessing on French vineyards alone. While redundant European vineyards are grubbed up because there's no market for the rot- gut plonk produced there, the New World is busy discovering for itself not just which grapes to grow but the best places to plant the vines.
The shift from white to red wines is one of the most significant trends of recent years, so on this whirlwind world wine tour, you'll come across more reds than whites. The resurgence of native grape varieties, many of which have long been derided or forgotten, has challenged the traditional dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It would be nice, if perhaps a little optimistic, to think that the next decade will see a continuing proliferation of new wine styles.
Argentina While the Malbec grape lives in relative obscurity in France, it flourishes as one of the most widely planted grape varieties in Argentina. Norton's 1996 Malbec, pounds 4.99, Tesco, unfiltered and unoaked to retain as much natural fruit as possible, is beautifully perfumed with blackberry and damson and a peppery character reminiscent of a supercharged Cotes du Rhone.
Australia It took a generation of neglect before Australia woke up to its valuable heritage and the realisation that the character of the Shiraz grape varies according to the region it's grown in. In the cool climate of Victoria's hills, where it comes closest to expressing the aromatic character of its northern Rhone counterpart, Trevor Mast's 1996 Mount Langhi Ghiran Shiraz, pounds 14.99, Fuller's, is the epitome of Australian pepper and spice and all-things-nice.
Chile It's encouraging to see Chilean producers looking beyond Bordeaux to new styles of red wine. In the shadow of snow-capped Aconcagua, one of Chile's top wineries, Errazuriz, has produced the 1997 Errazuriz Reserve Syrah, pounds 9.99, Safeway, Fuller's, a sumptuously berry-fruity Syrah from its Don Maximiano vineyards. The wine is richly oaky and youthful, while a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon adds class and complexity.
France In the face of the New World's Cabernet and Merlot assault, Bordeaux is licking its wounds. But when the ripeness and richness of a good vintage is coupled with careful winemaking, Bordeaux can still deliver. The 1995 Chateau La Rose de France, Haut-Medoc, pounds 8.99, selected Asda stores, is a "declassified" quality red Bordeaux from the illustrious estate of Chateau Branaire-Ducru in St Julien. Liquoricey, tobaccoey aromas combine with youthful, full flavoured cassis fruit in a stylishly balanced Haut-Medoc.
Italy No ordinary spagbol Valpol, Amarone is the best of Valpolicella. To achieve the required degree of concentration, individual bunches of grapes are hand-picked and laid out on straw mats to dry. Once shrivelled, the slow-fermented grapes produce a powerfully rich, damson- and raisin- like red such as the 1993 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Vigneti Castera, 50cl, pounds 8.55, Waitrose, with, in this instance, the added attraction of a smattering of oak spiciness. Try it with Parmesan, a robust meat such as rabbit or game or simply Italian-style, as a vino da meditazione.
New Zealand If you've only come across one New Zealand wine, the chances are it's Cloudy Bay. At a more affordable price level, brother and sister Jim and Rosemary Delegat's 1998 Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, pounds 6.49, Safeway, Majestic, Unwins, is typical of the Marlborough style, assertively aromatic with undertones of green bean and a full-on, juicy, gooseberry and tropical fruitiness given an exhilarating lift by the freshness of the new vintage.
South Africa The Cape's Pinotage grape is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut grapes developed by Professor Perold at Stellenbosch in 1925. Its qualities were only rediscovered in the late 1980s when it was given the full quality treatment by Beyers Truter. The 1997 Clos Malverne Pinotage, pounds 6.99, Fuller's, Wine Cellar, Waitrose, is a classic example, with its distinctive, tarry, wild strawberry perfume and brambly, mulberry-like flavours enhanced by maturation in French and American oak casks.
Spain The family firm of Martinez Bujanda cunningly chose the outstanding 1994 vintage in Rioja to launch a prototype Reserva Rioja, named after its new estate, Finca Valpiedra. The modern single-vineyard 1994 Finca Valpiedra, pounds 13.99, Wine Rack, may come as a shock to those who like their Rioja old and mellow. Based on Tempranillo and with a smattering of Cabernet Sauvignon, its powerful bouquet of spices, concentrated fruit and rich coating of vanilla oakiness, this Reserva is still a baby but already displaying the hallmarks of new-wave Rioja.
United States If Chardonnay is the American wine drinker's apple pie, the 1994 Byron Chardonnay, Santa Barbara, pounds 14.99, Unwins, is its tarte tatin. Byron's Pacific air-conditioned vineyards produce an opulent, Burgundian style Chardonnay fermented in French oak aged on the grape lees for 16 months. This is California's answer to premier cru Meursault. It has an intense banoffee-pie-like aromas and richly nutty, butterscotchy fruit flavour, the acidity keeping it surprisingly fresh and delicately balanced. Anthony Rose
Spirits aquavit to single malt Scotch
Some of us cannot resist an offbeat bottle, but when to open it? Recent progress, however tenuous, in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process offered an excuse to crack open the molasses-based, triple-distilled arak from Jaffa that I found in a shop called Gerry's, in Old Compton Street, Soho, London. For the benefit of anyone else harbouring a bottle, the Arak Yaffawi is slightly syrupy, with a rooty, aniseedy, taste, and was terrific with poppy-seed cake from my local Jewish bakery.
Having nothing Palestinian in my drinks cupboard, I made do with the crisper, again aniseedy, Arack Vieille Reserve, from the highly regarded Lebanese winery Chateau Musar. I found that in London, too, in Selfridges, which has a surprisingly good range of unusual alcohols.
In Eastern countries, the word arak, in various spellings (deriving from the Arabic word for "sweat") is a general term for a spirit, whether distilled from coconuts, molasses, grapes, or whatever is locally available. The Arabs, or the Phoenicians, may have invented distillation, and brought it west by way of the Mediterranean. With our own journeys as tourists, and the spread of ethnic restaurants, we seem ever keener to capture countries' authentic spirits.
From Armenia and Georgia to Italy, Spain, France, and even Germany, the term brandy identifies a grape-based spirit (though in southern countries sometimes flavoured with fruits or nuts). It derives, after all, from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning "burned wine". Set a fire under a copper still filled with fruity wine or grainy beer, capture the steam, condense it back to a concentrated, alcoholic liquid and you have caught what the Germans call Geist, the ghost - or the spirit in English.
The French loosely call all fruit-based spirits eau de vie, "water of life", while saving regional terms such as Armagnac and Cognac for the local classics. Much as I appreciate such refined specialties, I have a sneaking regard for more Hemingwayish brandies made from grape skins and stalks, such as the grappa of Italy and similar marc of France. Both evoke coffee and a brandy on a cold, Alpine morning, though grappa has gone upmarket, with grape varietals in fancy bottles.
In France, coffee and Calvados is another early-morning eye-opener, though this apple brandy is also used to settle the stomach in the middle of a hearty dinner which preferably features the local dishes of Normandy. If you need to create space in your stomach between the pork liver pate and the turbot in cream and saffron, make a trou Normand with a glass of Calvados.
In Alsace, and adjoining regions of Germany and Switzerland, colourless eaux de vie (brandies made from pears, plums cherries and a wide variety of other fruits) are traditionally served chilled as a digestif. The Williams pear, grown in the bottle, is the showiest version, the German cherry Kirsch one of the most popular. One of the most complex I have recently encountered was a German blend of three varieties of raspberries, called Trilogie der Himbeere, available from Barrels and Bottles, 1 Walker Street, Wicker Arches, Sheffield.
In the berry department, the juniper - in French, genievre - gave rise to the spirit that the Flemish and Dutch call geneva or jenever and the British abbreviated to gin. The Germans call it Wacholder, or simply use the term Schnaps, which is loosely applied to any alcohol (a "snap" is something like a "nip"). I recently noticed the German gin Schinken Hager at Weaver's, 1 Castle Gate, Nottingham.
In French Flanders, I have tasted a local gin called Grains Noir with whole juniper berries in the bottle. This is sometimes used in the preparation of lamb, rabbit and game dishes. The juniper in gin is a flavouring, and the base, grain or molasses. In a classic Belgian or Dutch jenever, the base of barley malt and rye is very evident in the flavour. Visitors to Belgium or The Netherlands may know the ritual of bending over a brimful glass to take the first sip of an aperitif jenever. After dinner, the fancier restaurants in The Netherlands are serving ice-cold corenwijn, which has the grainy oiliness but no juniper. These spirits are hard to find in Britain except from mass-market producers such as De Kuyper and Bols.
Dry Gin, the English style, has a lighter grain base and more flavourings, usually including citrus peels, coriander and iris. I like the angelica note in Beefeater (from London), the slightly sour, rooty earthiness in Plymouth Gin, and the peppery "grains of paradise" in Bombay Sapphire (from exotic Warrington).
Unflavoured vodkas are distilled close to neutrality, whether from the potato of popular fancy or, more often, grains such as rye (especially in Poland) or wheat (Russia). The term vodka is simply a diminutive of the word for water, though the suffix "of life" is probably understood. Poland's Wyborowa and Russia's Stolichnaya have more character than more expensive vodkas in fancier bottles.
Much the same tradition applies to Scandinavian aquavits, traditionally distilled from potatoes or corn and most typically flavoured with caraway and dill. All of these northern spirits are at their best served chilled, in company with marinated herrings, salmon (garnished with dill) or caviare if you are feeling flush. I have recently enjoyed the Danish Akvavit Jubilaeums, from Villeneuve Wines, in Broughton Street, Edinburgh.
Aquavit is another of those "water of life" names. So is the Gaelic usquebaugh, which metamorphosed to "usky", then whisky. For all the popularity of more neutral-tasting drinks, the most interesting recent success story in the world of spirits has been the intensity of consumer interest in single malt Scotches, a topic addressed with appropriate frequency in these pages.
For the discerning drinker who prizes aroma and flavour it is hard to beat the heathery, peaty, seaweedy, character of the great malts. Even a good blended Scotch has enough of these aromas and flavours to blow away more modish spirits. The unmalted barley, and lack of peat, gives Irish whiskey its own aromatic, oily, roundness (look out for colourful examples such as Green Spot or Redbreast); a touch of rye adds its own note to Canadian; and fresh oak imparts a vanilla sweetness to the corn- based American whiskeys of Kentucky and Tennessee. Inspired by single malt Scotches, the Americans have developed some excellent "small batch" Kentucky Bourbons, among which I am very fond of the rich, fat Booker Noe's, from Jim Beam.
Drinks such as Bourbon, once served predominantly in cocktails or over ice, are increasingly being offered straight in snifter glasses as "sipping" drinks. This is even true of the earthy-tasting mezcal, distilled from the agave, a cactus-like plant of the lily family. In Britain, look out for Monte Alban and Sotol. The juicier, richer, blue agave, grown near Guadalajara in Mexico, produces the more tobacco-like flavour in Tequila. Good examples such as Patron Silver, Chinaco, Porfidio and Tres Magueyes are becoming even more prized. Look out for versions that specify 100 per cent agave, indicating that no other sugars are used.
There are also "sipping" rums, such as the licorice-tasting Appleton Estate 12-year-old, from Jamaica; the perfumy La Mauny, from Martinique; and OVD's Demerara, from Guyana. The newest fashion in rum, though, as we have already seen (page 67) seems set to be the style known as cachaca, from Brazil. Michael Jackson
Beers Anchor Ale to Winter Warmer
The connection between soccer and a drinkable pint has always been tenuous, but I was nonetheless pleased earlier this year to be a panellist in a blindfold judging called The World Beer Cup. Perhaps imagining that Brazil would win the soccer tournament, the organisers of the beer judging arranged for it to reach its climax in Rio de Janeiro. Two British beers were among those judged to be of world class.
Royal Oak, from the Thomas Hardy brewery, of Dorchester, won an award as a pale ale. Like some Burgundies, this ale, available in bottle and cask-conditioned, has a soft fruit aroma and palate. In ales, such characteristics derive from the yeast in fermentation: no fruit is added. In the category for specialities, Fraoch Heather Ale, made in Alloa, was honoured. This one is less fruity than flowery and that characteristic does, indeed, arise from the heather that augments the hop blossoms. The location of the event, the geographical extremes of the two British brews, and the contrast between a conventional pale ale and a revivalist heather confection illustrate just how cosmopolitan beer has become.
The other day, I joined the movers and shakers at Manhattan's most fashionable pub, The Gingerman, to celebrate and taste the Champion Beer of Britain: the perfumey refreshing, dryish Bluebird Bitter, from the brewery adjoining the Black Bull pub, near Lake Coniston, Cumbria. I was also on the blindfold panel that unanimously chose this beer as Champion, at the Great British Beer Festival, in August.
Why go to New York to sample a beer from the Lake District, especially one I had already tasted? I flew to America for pounds 140 return on Virgin. The cost of a standard-class return on Virgin trains to the Lakes is pounds 132. For the extra eight quid, I enjoyed a lot more excitement about Bluebird in New York than there was in London.
It is only in their own countries that prophets are without honour. Hence the popularity at the Great British Beer Festival in London each year of a bar called Bieres sans Frontieres. The selection varies each year, but tends to include world classics such as Anchor Liberty Ale, from the US; the intensely hoppy Dutch lager St Christoffel Blond; a huge selection of Belgian ales, from Antwerp's softly sociable De Koninck to the powerfully dry, crisp, Saison Dupont of Wallonia; complex French Bieres de Garde such as Trois Monts; malty German lagers from the Benedictine abbey of Andechs or the secularised Augustiner and Paulaner breweries; and delicate Czech examples such as Lobkowicz.
Contrary to stereotype, the new cosmopolitanism in beer has reached even this island race. Most pubs may be content to offer a fairly standard range of bitters and lagers, but supermarkets reach far beyond that, and so do some new-generation bars. In London, this is evident at brewpubs such as Pacific Oriental, newly opened in Bishopsgate, offering a hoppy Pacific Pilsner and a banana-tinged German Wheat Beer with dishes such as tiger prawns, Macao chicken and Japanese vegetables. Likewise the Soho Brewing Company, with its Irish-accented, slightly buttery, Red Ale and its nectarine-ish Wheat Beer. Or Mash, in both London and Manchester, with its toasty Scotch Ale.
One of my most interesting beery encounters of late was with brewer Jim Sanders, whom I first encountered at a pub called Federal Jack's, in Kennebunkport, Maine. When I ran into him more recently, he was designing beers for a new brewpub, now open, in Glasgow. This is the Miller's Thumb Brewing Company, at the Canal pub in Anniesland, on the road to Loch Lomond. I loved the grapefruity note of Washington State hops in its India Pale Ale, and wonder how much further such influences may extend in British breweries.
After a spell in Oregon, brewer Sean Franklin came home to Harrogate, north Yorkshire, with an enthusiasm for the powerfully aromatic qualities of American hops. These now feature in the cask-conditioned ales from his Rooster's brewery, notably one called Yankee.
The somewhat older established Young's brewery in London, is currently offering (through Tesco) a mixed six-pack, including American-sounding notions such as its Chocolate Stout; robustly English lines like its Winter Warmer, Ram Rod and Special Bitter; its hugely hoppy London Ale (which, despite its name, is Belgian in inspiration); and an elderflower lager, which the Germans might make if such ingredients were allowed under their Beer Purity Law.
Greene King, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, is even thinking of extending the cellar of oak vats in which its iron-tasting Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale is matured. I was tickled to note that the brewery has, in its publicity, taken up my suggestion that this enormously distinctive ale has some stylistic parallels with the great Rodenbach Grand Cru, made not far away in Belgium.
Another East Anglian brewery that leans towards Flanders is Fenland, in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire. I love both the coriander taste and urbane name of its spring/summer Sparkling Wit, inspired by Belgium's similar Hoegaarden White. Now, for winter, Fenland promises an abbey-style ale with the port-like notes offered by some Belgian Trappists.
Will any British brewer ever produce a malty lager in the original, dark- brown style of Bavaria? The American brewer at Freedom, in London, recently did. The experimental batch was quickly consumed at the White Horse in Parsons Green, Fulham. After the Christmas rush, perhaps Freedom will brew it again. Michael JacksonReuse content