Martin Isark's wine column

Martin Isark's wine column

Clear winners

You can’t really call yourself a vodka drinker if you haven’t sampled at least a few of the flavoured varieties that are on the market - such as those with lime, vanilla or strawberry.

The sweetest things

Once, a liqueur was generally accepted to be a sweet alcoholic drink, flavoured with fruit, herbs and spices and consumed as a digestif after a meal. Indeed, Drambuie, Cointreau and Tia Maria are still quite popularly drunk as such and easily keep their places on high-street retailers’ wine shelves.

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Champagne supernova

What’s happened to our famous British reserve? It seems any excuse for a party and we’re opening the fizz. Just last year, in fact, we consumed an incredible 32 million bottles, an increase of more than 26% on sales in 2002. And if you take into account those unregulated bottles bought by the booze-cruisers, the annual figure might well be nearer 40 million. That’s a lot of celebrating.

Exploding a bourbon myth

Ever asked for a bourbon and been poured a Jack Daniel’s instead? It’s a common mistake: JD is actually a Tennessee whiskey, while bourbon is synonymous with Kentucky - all but a couple of brands of bourbon are made there, and Kentucky is the only state allowed to put its name on the bottle.

Yo ho ho!

In Britain, the production of sugar from sugar beet provides some useful and lucrative by-products: the earth washed from the beet can be sold as topsoil and the leafy tops make rich compost. But probably the best recognised is the black syrup left after processing, known as molasses. Here it is used as a nutritious cattle feed or, more rarely, distilled into industrial alcohol.

True to their roots in the Old World

EUROPEANS feel an affinity with Argentina. The country is naturally beautiful and its capital, Buenos Aires, offers a style of architecture that is appealing and even familiar. Over the centuries, Spaniards, Italians, French and Germans have set up home there, so it is perhaps not surprising that Argentina’s sport, food and wine are more characteristic of the Old World than the New.

Put your money where his mouth is

Raeburn Fine Wines (0131 343 1159) is a shop like no other. Opened as Raeburn’s Grocery Store in 1976 by Khushi Mohamed, on Comely Bank Road in Edinburgh, it boasted a liquor licence, sold a popular mix of drinks and groceries and soon specialised in cut flowers. Many of its first customers remain loyal to this day.

Sweet and cheerful

HOW fashions change.

Call in the experts

WHAT’S the bet that your first wine buys were mass-produced chardonnays or cabernets from the local supermarket? Perhaps you graduated to Oddbins or Majestic, where wine-literate staff introduced you to fruity reds and in-your-face whites from the New World. Now it’s time to take the next step - to the expertise and considered wisdom of traditional wine merchants.

The lighter side of Burgundy

Gamay is an early-ripening, thin-skinned black grape, best known for producing cheap, fruity, early-maturing Beaujolais wines, as created by Georges Duboeuf in his flower-bedecked bottles. He certainly put Beaujolais on the world wine map, but over the past few years his reputation has been tarnished. Now red-wine lovers regard his wines with cynicism, seeing them as a mere step away from grape cordial.

The heavy burden of duty

Britain’s booze-cruisers cost the country billions of pounds in lost revenue. The rise in cross-channel shopping sees one in seven bottles of wine consumed here arriving tax-free, as well as one in eight bottles of beer and one in ten bottles of spirits. By anyone’s reckoning, this all adds up to an enormous sum - but not one big enough, apparently, to concern the government.

Clearing out the dead wood

IT used to be thought that wine drinkers in Britain loved the taste of oak, and that we believed it was a sign of quality. Even the cheapest chardonnay, they said, needed its requisite shavings before it would sell. Germany’s producers, worried about export sales, got caught up in the hype, and several oak-aged rieslings found their way into our shops. Luckily, most of these producers have come to their senses and stopped contaminating their wonderfully aromatic wines.

Australian currant affairs

When ripe, the black, thin-skinned cabernet sauvignon grape smells and tastes of freshly picked blackcurrants. It’s a flavour that drinkers have come to regard as the embodiment of Australian wine. There are interesting complexities: some clones add a minty twist to the finished wine and, if the grapes are ripened near a windbreak of eucalyptus trees, the wine can be spiked with their fragrance.

Less froth, more flavour

UK beer drinkers are ultra-fickle and it’s a hard job for the marketers and PRs of the big brands to stay one step ahead.

Friends of the earth

IN THIS organic and biodynamic tasting, the quality of both red and white wines was extremely high, with not one corked or faulty wine among them. I was overwhelmed by the excellence of the Nature Perrin, Côtes du Rhône, a biodynamic wine produced in the southern Rhône - and at only £7.55 a bottle. Normally quality biodynamic wines start at £20, and the very best soar to several hundred.

It's only natural

Fifteen years ago, people made organic wine because they genuinely wanted to provide a healthier alternative to what was on the market. Unfortunately, in many cases quality was not part of the equation, and customers preferred the much better-tasting non-organic varieties.

Strength in numbers

Any drinker trying to stick to their recommended daily allowance (two to three units for women, three to four for men) will be keeping an eye on the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) in their favourite beer or wine. But if you avoid every drink carrying a high ABV, you will miss out on some real gems.

Add a little sparkle

MOST of the world’s wine regions produce their own sparkling wines, though none, of course, is as famous as Champagne’s.

A toast to champagne

Only the very best grape years give rise to vintage champagne; non-vintage is delivered from lesser ones. Both are made from white or black grapes, or from a mixture of the two. Vintage champagne must be aged for at least three years before it can be sold, although most is aged for much longer. Non-vintage champagne is only aged for 15 months, so consumers assume that vintage is far superior. This is not necessarily the case.

Rosé future of summer

Think and drink fashionable pink this season: rosé wines are making a comeback. If that makes you shudder at the memory of Mateus Rosé, fear not - there is much on the market to make you forget that icon of the ’70s.

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