Monday, 10 September 2018

Cappuccini Resort hotel review – history in the hills of Franciacorta, Italy



Where is Cappuccini Resort?

Cappuccini Resort is perched on a hill on the slopes of Mount Orphan in the heart of the Franciacorta region, in the province of Brescia, Italy. It’s closest to the little village of Cologne (not the German one). It’s a great base from which to explore the region’s many vineyards and wineries, as well as the beautiful Lake Iseo, which is quite a bit smaller than Lake Como, but just as beautiful and a lot quieter.

There’s quite a big hill to get up to get into the resort. You’ll be fine in most cars, but if you’ve hired a little Fiat 500 like we had, you will have to give it some welly to get up the hill. It took us two attempts!

We drove from Lecco in Lake Como which was around a 90-minute drive. If you want to fly, it’s a 30-minute drive from Bergamo-Orio al Serio airport, 55 minutes from Milan-Linate airport, and 90 minutes from Milan Malpensa and Verona-Villafranca-Catullo airports.



What’s Cappuccini Resort like?

The original monastery was built in 1569. In 1805, the Kingdom of Italy suppressed all convents and monasteries, and the place fell into disrepair. But in 1987, Rossalba Tonelli and her family decided to bring Cappuccini back to life and open it as a hotel and resort, and things are still run by the Tonelli-Pellizzari family today.

Staying there feels like a mix of staying in someone’s home, an actual monastery, and a wellness retreat. It’s quiet, and you do feel like you’re sneaking around at times, but mostly it just feels very peaceful. Strolling from your room to the dining room, through the cloisters lit up with fairy lights is all very, very lovely.



What are the rooms like?

Cappuccini is a renovated monastery, and the 14 rooms – with names such as ‘The Tenderness of Brother Ottavio’, ‘Aurora Fra Angelo’, and ‘The Joy of Brother Augustine’ – are former monks’ cells which still keep a lot of hints to the past.

It did feel a little like entering a prison cell going through the first metal-barred door off the cloisters, but the comedically-sized tassel key to open the room door was a bit more plush, and a little less penal. Our room was large and relatively sparsely decorated, with a large fireplace in the corner. It’s very much in an ‘old’ style, but fitting and in keeping with the resort’s history.

The bathroom is similarly large, with a decent power shower and views out over the gardens. Just be careful you don’t end up flashing someone.



What is there to do?

You’ll want to get out and about in the Franciacorta region, but the temptation to stay perched away from everything on the hill is strong. It’s a great place to relax, eat, drink, bathe, and explore. There’s a lovely outdoor saltwater swimming pool with loungers and views out over the region, and garden paths with olive groves and vegetable patches to wander around.

About 300 metres down the hill from the main building, there’s a spa with indoor pool. If you’re staying at the hotel, you can book 30minutes of private use of the hydrotherapy pool, which is a great space to relax in – although 30minutes is not a lot of time to do it in. The only problem is getting in and out of the spa – there’s an electronic gate which I guess people are meant to be monitoring, but it took a good ten minutes on both ends of our visit to get the doors to open. Not particularly relaxing when you need to hot foot it back to the airport.

Always important, what’s the food and drink like?

There’s a large wine menu featuring loads of Franciacorta at reasonable prices. Many of the bottles are between the 25-35euro mark – which is what they’ll cost you to buy direct from a shop/website in the UK.

Breakfast consists of super fresh croissants, homemade jams and preserves, bread, fruit, pastries, mini cookies, fresh orange juice, and double espressos all round, enjoyed on the patio overlooking the herb patch with a happy little bunny hopping about.

Dinner is seriously good, and was my favourite meal of the entire trip. We were one of four or so tables in the restaurant, but there was still a quietly relaxed atmosphere and we didn’t feel awkward. The menu is full of traditional Italian flavours, but with a modern, creative twist, and a definite focus on local produce. Most of the herbs and vegetables come from the hotel garden. Highlights included a veal ragu, and the steak tartare amuse bouche.

So overall…?

If you want to simultaneously be able to get away from it all, and be in the middle of an exciting and still relatively undiscovered region full of delicious food and wine, Cappuccini Resort is the place to be.

For more information, you can book Cappuccini Resort through Booking.com, or through their website.

And if you have no idea about Franciacorta, how it's made, what it is and more, check out our guide to Italy's fanciest fizz. 


I stayed at Cappuccini Resort on a trip to Franciacorta organised by Clementine Communications and hosted by the Franciacorta region. Although the stay was complimentary, all my opinions are my own and not in any way influenced by delicious Franciacorta wine. 

Saturday, 1 September 2018

A trip to Surrey's gold - Denbies


As someone who has come to know a little bit about the wine world, I am well aware of the excitement around the progress that English Sparkling Wine has made over the last fifteen years. However, I am constantly surprised by how little this message has spread both around the world, but also (and perhaps more alarmingly) amongst people who live in the UK itself. Those of you who have been following my posts for a while will know that I periodically pressgang (not that they need much encouraging!) a ragtag ensemble of musicians from my amateur orchestra into doing a wine tasting event around London. Over previous years this has even extended to taking a tour around one of the many fantastic English vineyards that one can get to within an hour’s travel from London (our last trip was to the magnificent Hush Heath, where I learned the delights of their sublime Balfour Brut - see post here). This year I sought to organise another event and was thrilled to find us romping our way through the not-quite-so-lush (owing to recent dry weather) Surrey countryside and heading towards Dorking. On the train I was still being caught off-guard how many people were only discovering now for the first time that the UK even has vineyards, let alone that it was some award-winning sparkling wine!

We arrived at Dorking and made our way over to the Denbies winery, which is about a 15 minute walk from the station. One of the first things that you notice is that the area is teeming with cyclists - particularly over the summer. Box Hill is not far away at all, a notorious climb that featured in the London 2012 road cycling event (as a new cyclist myself, it is something that I am hoping to be attempting in the not-too-distant future). We arrived into the extremely impressive Visitors’ Centre at Denbies and were greeted by Anne who was going to be our guide for the day. There is a rather impressive looking “Wine Train” that takes visitors through the winery’s vineyards, but we opted for a slightly different tour - a walking tour through the vineyards themselves, where we would try some of the wines as we wended our way through them.

The Denbies estate was originally a large pig farm, but it was acquired by the White family in 1984. A nearby Professor of Geology and wine enthusiast, Richard Selley, spoke with the owners and told him that his knowledge of geology and local climactic conditions suggested that the site had excellent potential for winemaking. It possesses those familiar chalky soils that link the south-east of England to the Champagne region of France, and make it perfect for growing the traditional champagne varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Furthermore, the relief of the Denbies estate offered those much sought-after southerly facing slopes that create the best growing conditions for those noble grapes.

As we started our trip with Anne we were given a map of the estate and the first thing that you noticed was that the estate carries a lot more varieties than the three that make the traditional champagne blend. There were varietals that I was well aware and expecting to see such as Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Sylvaner - all Germanic grapes that tend to grow well in English conditions; but there were also some rather surprising varietals too, including some that were completely new for me such as Reichensteiner, Solaris, Seyval Blanc and Auxerrois. Anne explained that given winemaking is still in its relative infancy in the UK a lot of experimentation is taking place; additionally due to climate change factors varietals that were previously discounted are now showing as having a real potential. We are starting to see more and more reds being experimented with; how long before we see good quality English Cabernet Franc to rival that of the Loire, or even start to see some luscious Merlot or some racy Syrah?

The vineyards themselves were extremely well looked after and Anne was on hand to give us many useful bits of information that helped us to understand the challenges of wine production, but also its rewards. What was also impressive was the volume of people who were visiting - admittedly this was a relatively sunny Saturday in August which is the peakiest of peak times, but we saw a number of people exploring the vineyard and making use of the public rights of way that run through the estate giving glorious views over the surrounding countryside and across to the aforementioned Box Hill. The Visitors’ Centre is a large and rather lovely looking building with plenty of information about the estate and its history, with an attractive café on site and a slightly fancier restaurant for nicer meals. They have the ability to host and cater weddings on site as well. After our tour we made our way to the wine shop and tasting room to try a few more wines and make our purchases and they were exceedingly accommodating with our seemingly-insatiable curiosity!

The Wines


So, with all this being said; “what wines did you try?” I hear you cry! (OK, I don’t, but I’m allowing myself some writer’s licence…) We tried four different wines on our tour around, plus a couple of notable wines in the shop.

NV Denbies Cellermaster’s Choice Whitedowns Brut (Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner). Wonderfully fresh and vibrant; crisp, red apple notes with a zesty lemon flavour to it too. Although this is a NV wine, all the grapes were from 2014 and I think this slight bit of age gave the wine a little bit of a bready aroma. A very pleasant mid-afternoon sparkler to sip whilst watching the cricket (other sports are available, but not as good...).

NV Denbies Rose Hill (Dornfelder and Rondo). Nice and light with some subtle peach flavours. A nice, salmon-pink in the glass; this is a bargain alternative to a more-pricey Provence-style rosé.

NV Denbies Surrey Gold (Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus). Slightly too sweet for me, in between an off-dry and a sweet wine. Perhaps at a demi-sec level. Pleasant green apple flavours to the wine nonetheless. Interestingly, Anne told it that this was one of the vineyards first wines and is a firm favourite (and indeed, bestseller) amongst their regular, local visitors.

2015 Denbies Redlands (Dornfelder and Pinot Noir). Low tannins, but with very pleasing red fruit notes of cherries and strawberries. We all concluded that serving this wine chilled with a summer’s BBQ would be rather splendid.

2016 Noble Harvest (Ortega). A wine that has been allowed to develop a botrytis note to it, giving it that glorious marmalade-profile, whilst still in great balance from the grapes’ naturally-high acidity. This wine would make for a wonderful accompaniment to any dessert course.

NV Denbies Greenfields (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay). Has those classic hallmarks of good Champagne on the nose with a sort of bready, apple-compote note. The wine itself is very balanced and elegant with dominant flavours being of citrus fruits (in particular, some rather lush lemons). A great aperitif wine or a toasting wine at a wedding.

2013 Cubitt Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay). Somewhat steelier and more precise nose than the Greenfields, with citrus and green apple notes coming through very clearly. Here the mouth of the wine is where it reveals its structure and class, with a broad spectrum of flavours starting with insistent citrus fruit notes, before more complex, richer and deeper notes take over. Evolves nicely through the finish. A thinker of a wine.

Almost all of these wines are available at Waitrose for purchase and many other outlets.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Olivier Dauga: One man’s crusade to make French wine sustainable


One of the best things about getting to know the world of wine is the people that you meet along the way. The people I meet who are involved in the world of wine are among the most generous, most passionate, most fun-loving and, fundamentally, most decent people that you could ever hope to meet. They share a deep love of the world they work in and love nothing more to talk about this passion over a glass of wine. A perfect case in point for this was a couple of weeks ago when I was invited attend a tasting of the wines made under the guidance of the larger-than-life Olivier Dauga, at Primrose Hill’s recently opened La Ferme restaurant (a sister restaurant to La Ferme in Farrringdon and jointly run by all-round good guy Mike Turner (AKA @pleasebringmemywine).

The setting


We started off upstairs in La Ferme’s cosy champagne-area with a relaxed Q&A with Olivier, during which we tasted some of his wines over a couple of delicious sharing platters that had been organised by Mike and his chef (the saussicon and foie gras, in particular, were divine!). After this we moved downstairs to the restaurant itself for a light supper alongside more of Olivier’s wines. The supper was delectable too, with a couple of highlights being a refreshing courgette Gazpacho soup (made with basil and an almond milk-mousse to accompany the courgettes), some delicious mini Croque Monsieurs and Madames and, saving the best ‘til last, a selection of absolutely divine canelé served with salted caramel sauce, served alongside some beautiful Armagnac.

Olivier’s “Green Charter”


An ex-semi professional rugby player, Olivier is a tall man with somewhat of a Jeff Goldblum-like vibe about him. His convivial, slightly eccentric nature, was perfectly epitomised by his fabulous bright pink shirt, which he carried off with aplomb.

Olivier has established a wine consultancy business, which advises wine makers in Bordeaux and southern France on the practicalities and challenges of moving to organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking. His passion for this subject comes through abundantly from talking with him - I think his ethos was best summed up when he said that: "our first priority must be to protect the environment, with the second priority being to protect the wine." He is a firm advocate for sustainability (which really shouldn’t be that controversial, after all if you’re not doing something sustainably then you’re doing something unsustainably - and where’s the long-term sense in doing that?) and has translated that into the world of wine.

Olivier's “Green Charter” sets down his sustainable winemaking principles and he uses it to recruit others to the cause through his almost-evangelical fervour, which has resulted in a number of wineries who use him to varying levels as a consultant in order to get their wineries Green Charter acredited. Olivier speaks very frankly about the challenges that one will face along the way, it is not for those who are only looking to make a quick buck; this is a game for those who are interested in the long-term of their winery and the vineyard - but, quite frankly, if you have spent all that money on buying vineyards in France - why would you not want to be in it for the long-run?! 

One of the things that struck me the most about this approach to sustainability was the commitment it takes and the tolerance of risk that one must have. A lot of the chemical interventions and treatments on the vineyard are designed to protect the stock from disease  and maximise yields; moving away from this means that you have to accept that in difficult years you cannot intervene as much as conventional methods, potentially meaning lower stocks, or in really bad years - no stock at all. That takes some guts! What’s the point then? I think it is best summed up by Olivier himself:

“Not all winemakers can or should necessarily become organic, but every producer must work towards complete sustainability if our planet is to continue to produce wine in all its wonderful and varied ways for future generations. I am totally committed to this and am actively encouraging all the wine producers I work with to develop sustainable ways of growing grapes and making wine, as well as marketing and distributing it.”

In the future, Olivier believes, these kind of views won’t be seen as odd, but more of the norm. I didn’t realise, for instance, that by 2020 it has already been agreed that all wines from St. Emilion will have to be on their way to becoming certified as organic - if they haven’t they won’t be able to designate themselves as St. Emilion; that’s pretty huge really!

So what of his wines? We tasted our way through quite a few of them all-in-all, below are some of my highlights:

2017 La Griffe de Pierron Rosé (AOP Cotes de Marmandais) made from 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. The colour sat a lovely light pink in the glass, which was quite surprising for me given the grape varieties that it was made from. The nose was quiet, but on tasting it bristled with juicy freshness and had lovely notes to bright red cherries - just when they are at their most ripe and ready to eat. With an RRP of £8, this felt like an absolute bargain and an excellent summer’s afternoon wine.

2017 Foncadaure (Vin de France) made from 100% Carignan. This is a wine that is matured in plastic egg-like containers brought across from Australia. The nose was really beautiful and expressive, full of rich, dark fruits (black cherries and blackberry), with a super concentrated taste that packed loads of blackcurrant vibrancy as it was backed with plenty of acidity. There was also a slightly surprising heat and power to the wine that I wasn’t expecting. For a wine that is only a year old this has a heck of a lot of personality to it. RRP £20. We also tried the 2016 Foncadaure, which I found similarly impressive - with huge aromas of damsons and loganberries going on (RRP £20).

2017 Wild Selection VB20 White (AOP Bordeaux), 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This is another wine that is matured in those plastic eggs. There was a pleasing, if not a little surprising, depth and richness to the nose of this wine - something so unlike those SBs from New Zealand. The mouth particularly impressed me, the richness continued and I thought I detected a somewhat oily characteristic to the wine that I actually really enjoyed. A great food wine. 

2016 Kaalys White (AOP Cotes de Roussillon), 80% Grenache Blanc and 20% Macabeu). This was all about the rich and decadent butteriness of the wine, which was balanced against some juicy citrus notes (lemons and a bit of grapefruit). If you had told me that this was a decent level Burgundy I wouldn’t have argued against you. RRP £18.

2015 Excellence de Gros Caillou (AOP St Emilion Grand Cru), 100% Merlot. A pleasingly elegant and refined wine, somewhat classical in its standing. The wine had a nice weight to it with smooth, well-integrated tannins that contributed to its fine structure and balance. RRP £30 - £35.

Conclusion


Meeting Olivier and hearing him talk about his wines and his winemaking ethos was truly inspirational. I am a passionate believer in the need for us all to look at what we can do to be more sustainable in our consumption as we look to preserve the world's resources and environment for future generations so that they too can enjoy the wonderful wines that we do today.

I wish Olivier every success in recruiting more supporters in his revolution.

Lastly, I should add thanks to Louise Hill for inviting me to this fascinating event and Mike Turner for hosting so excellently. 
    

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Friday Cocktail: Our top ten fruity summer cocktails

As soon as the sun starts to shine, I find myself dreaming up fruity and refreshing summer drinks ideas to keep me cool while sunbathing in the garden. And baby, the weather forecast has finally spoken: it's fruity cocktail recipe time.

While I dream up some new ideas for you all, here's a run-down of the top easy and delicious fruity cocktails we at Vinspire have dreamed up over the years...

In no particular order:


1. Cherry Margarita


This recipe was one of the first cocktails I ever created and it remains one of my favourites. Super easy and zingy - the salt rim is a must.


2. Apricot and thyme caipirinha


One of our most recent cocktail creations, this was dreamed up by the cocktail queen that is Lucienne. An aromatic delight - the delicate herby fragrance is a winning match with fat, juicy apricot.

3. Strawberry and lime rosé sangria


I'm growing increasingly in love with sangria, but this was our first ever sangria recipe, and it's great for beginners.

4. The June Bug


A classic tropical cocktail which has many fond memories for me. I used to spend whole nights sipping it with my best girl, Sophie - it's very easy to drink.

5. Blackberry and apple crumble bramble


Yay for dessert cocktails! It may not be blackberry season yet, but this is still an absolutely delicious summer drink - the vanilla really makes it.

6. Limoncello, raspberry and basil martini


This cocktail blends some beautiful Italian flavours and always comes out a beautiful shade of vivid pink. What more could you want on a sunny day?

7. Brazilian Passion Cocoscato


This is delicious. It was created by my favourite Aussie, the gorgeous Jo, who has effortlessly blended passionfruit, coconut and lightly sweet, sparkling moscato. All of my favourite things.

8. Rhubarb and ginger gin fizz


One of our all-time most viewed and loved cocktails, this a very simple, very sippable combination of rhubarb syrup, gin, ginger beer, lemon juice, creme de cassis and a dash of bitters. So, so refreshing.

9. Boozy Key Lime Pie Milkshake


Yay for pie cocktails! This deliciously alcoholic milkshake combines zesty lime, ice cream and biscuits, among other things. Oh, and lots and lots of rum. Make it in batches, because you won't want just one.

10. Strawberry, rhubarb and basil gin fizz


A brilliant way to use Chase's wonderful rhubarb liqueur. Aromatic, summery and almost good for you. Because green stuff, right?

Have a happy, boozy, cocktail-filled weekend, everyone!

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Summer drinks idea: Three simple and healthy spiced iced latte recipes


Ladies and gents, get your blenders at the ready. You're going to be firing those bad boys up pretty shortly.

Today is all about epic blogger: Mira Manek.

Mira is a fabulous food blogger who is on a mission to change our perception of Indian food as being sometimes quite heavy or overly indulgent cuisine, so she's created a huge range of delicious, healthy Indian food recipes.

She's also a whizz at healthy summer drinks recipes, and she's sent us three of her spiced iced latte recipes to try!

If you're looking for an ice cold, refreshing, healthy drink for this glorious summer weekend, these are perfect - not only are they super simple and much healthier than most recipes, they only use three ingredients (and two of them are the same for all three recipes!)


Ingredients for Spiced Iced Latte recipe

For each latte, you start with:
  • 400ml almond milk
  • 3 dates


Then, you simply add:


Cinnamon Iced Latte:  ½ teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
Health Benefits of Cinnamon: Antioxidant rich Cinnamon can regulate blood sugar levels, is a natural anti-inflammatory, can reduce heart disease and has been shown to lead to various improvements for Brain Health.

Fennel Iced Latte: 3 teaspoons fennel seeds
Health benefits of Fennel: Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C, folate, potassium and dietary fibre and is on of the best antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods. Fennel is used to treat anaemia, indigestion, flatulence, constipation, colic, diarrhoea, respiratory disorders, menstrual disorders, and can benefit eye health.

Saffron Iced Latte: one pinch saffron
Health benefits of Saffron: Vitamin rich Saffron contains important antioxidants that help protect the human body from oxidant-induced stress, cancers, infections and promotes overall well-being of the body. Saffron also works wonders for hair and skin.

How To Make It:

1. Place all the ingredients into a high-speed blender and blend, pour into glasses with ice and serve. 

NOTE: You will need to blend the fennel for longer to ensure all the seeds are broken and blended.

Happy weekend, everyone! Go forth and be refreshed.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Wine for Beginners: Five red wines to serve chilled for summer


Most of the year, we're perfectly contented drinking our red wine at room temperature, am I right? I mean, we really couldn't care less whether it's served fresh from the wine rack, the shop shelf or straight from the bottle, we just want a glass of sodding wine and we don't want to faff about it, thank you.

But suddenly, as soon as summer hits, we get all fancy and start thinking about how lovely it would be to have a lightly chilled glass of red to sip with our barbecued tuna steaks and plates of charcuterie. HOW RIGHT YOU ARE, SUNSHINE.

How cold should I chill my red wine?

The good news is, you don't need to wait very long for your wine to cool down in the fridge.

When most people suggest serving a red wine cold, they refer to it as 'lightly chilled' or 'cellar cool'. Half an hour in the fridge is ample time to lower the temperature enough to freshen the wine up a bit - any more than that and the chill will mask the wine's flavours.

Which kinds of red wines should I chill in the fridge?

Generally speaking, only choose light, fruity wines with a nice zippy acidity to serve chilled. Full-bodied, tannic wines just won't benefit from the cooler temperatures.


That said, I'm not your mother - experiment with chilling any wine you fancy, if you like. Just don't come crying to me if your Chateauneuf-du-Pape tastes a bit funny.


Five red wines you can serve chilled

1. Beaujolais

My number one red for the fridge - the cherry, bubblegum freshness of this wine is so much tastier at cooler temperatures.

TRY: Cuvée des Vignerons Beaujolais, £7.65 at Waitrose - a perfect entry-level Beaujolais to sip with a big plate of charcuterie.



2. Pinot Noir

Not the really good stuff, generally speaking, but tasty mid-week bottles from New World countries like Chile or inexpensive French pinot is lovely after a few minutes in the fridge.

TRY: We've recommended this a few times before but OH GOD the delicious Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir is on offer again at just £6 at Tesco). Hold me back before I buy it all!


3. Italian reds

Now, step away from the expensive Barolo, but some of those lighter, juicy Italian reds are lovely with a little refreshing chill to them.

Some suggestions include barbera d'asti, frappato, and especially ESPECIALLY decent Lambrusco, which is the most perfect summer drink even if it isn't as popular as it should be in the UK yet.

TRY: If you're a member of the Wine Society, grab a bottle of Vecchio Moro Lambrusco for £11.50 - you'll soon be converted.


4. Cabernet Franc from the Loire

Lucienne has already told us all about Loire cab-franc and so I hope you're converted already, but this under-appreciated gem is heaven to sip lightly cooled in the summer. It's not too different to Beaujolais in style.

TRY: Saumur-Champigny 2012 Chateau de Targé, £9.89 at Majestic - lots of red berry fruit and a brilliant firm structure.


5. Cinsault

This grape variety pops up all over the place, from South Africa to Chile to southern France, and tends to have a lovely, lightly peppery character and cherry flavours. It's not as light as the other reds I've mentioned so far but somehow it still tastes delicious when lightly chilled - just don't overdo it.

TRY: Percheron Old Vine Cinsault, £6.25 from ND John. You rarely find a wine that good for that price these days.

And one for luck - Freddy discovered an incredible red vinho verde (yes!) called Tinto Bom at RAW wine fair years ago... it's available here from Portuguese Story for £12.50 a bottle. Well worth a try!


Are you converted to cool reds? Leave a recommendation for me in the comments!

Friday, 13 July 2018

Three of the best easy and boozy ice lollies for beginners: gin and tonic, mojito, bellini flavours



It’s hot. You’re hot. Everything’s hot and you feel like you’re melting. You need to cool down with a boozy ice lolly (or four, who’s counting?) which are easy to make at home.

Alternatively, for a British Summer: it's cold. You're cold. Everything's cold and it's raining so much it looks like the sky is melting. You need to cheer yourself up with a boozy ice lolly. Or four. Definitely four.

Here’s a selection of our favourite recipes.

All of these tasty treats require sugar syrup. To make your own, simply heat 2 parts sugar in 1 part water until it dissolves, then chill.

Need a lolly mould? Most supermarkets do them, including Sainsbury's lolly moulds for a mere £2.50!


The classic G&T ice lolly recipe

Light and refreshing, these are hard not to love.

Ingredients:
  • 15ml of your favourite gin
  • 80ml tonic water
  • 15ml sugar syrup
  • 10ml lime juice
  • Slices of lime or cucumber
How to make it

Mix all the liquids together, pour into lolly moulds, add a slice of lime or cucumber (depending on your taste) and freeze for six hours.


Add watermelon for a watermelon mojito!
Photo: Wicker Paradise (CCL)
The Mojito popsicle recipe

Minty fresh, boozy goodness. Need we say more?

Ingredients:
  • 15ml white rum
  • 20ml lime juice
  • A handful of mint leaves
  • 10ml sugar syrup
How to make it

Mix the rum, lime juice and sugar syrup together. Soak half the mint leaves in the mixture for ten minutes.

Put a piece of mint into each mould, add the mixture, then top with soda water and freeze for six hours.


The Bellini ice lolly recipe

For a sense of occasion, go up market with Champagne, or stay true to the Italian recipe with Prosecco.

Ingredients:
  • 25ml peach purée
  • 60ml sparkling wine
  • 10ml sugar syrup
How to make it

Gently mix the ingredients (so as not to lose the fizz in your fizz), pour into lolly moulds and freeze for four – six hours.

Have a lovely weekend - even if the sun doesn't shine. Tell us your brilliant weekend plans in the comments.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Falling in love with Rioja - the "Cata Estación" experience


We live in troubled times. It seems that everyone is quarrelling with each other, co-operation appears to be a swear word, and working together for a greater good is a mere pipe-dream of out-of-touch hippies. Against this backdrop it was wonderfully refreshing to visit somewhere in the world that represents the antithesis of this; the Haro region of Rioja Alta. In the picturesque, slightly sleepy town of Haro you find the premises of the sub-region’s seven wine producers: Viña Pomal, CVNE, Gómez Cruzado, López de Heredia, Roda, Muga and La Rioja Alta. All of these producers are to be found in the town’s Barrio de la Estación (neighbourhood around the station) as they back onto the local railway station due to the historical importance of being able to load the wine for distribution across the country, and indeed, the world. 

Each of these producers are renowned in their own right for producing wonderful Rioja wine and are fiercely proud of their products and their provenance. Against this backdrop, you’d expect to find a sharp rivalry, or perhaps even open hostility between the producers. Au contraire! Instead, the producers have decided in recent times that their strength lies in their combined value as a sub-region and, building on this, committed to putting on a combined event that showcased the glory of their wines, their terroir and their region. The event is known as the “La Cata del Barrio de la Estación” which translates as "the tasting of the neighbourhood around the station" and takes place biennially. The main event is held over a weekend, where around 3,500 people visit the celebration and partake in the wines. On the Monday afterwards, there is a private tasting for 800 or so sommeliers, wine journalists, wine bloggers. I was lucky enough to be invited to this year’s event, which was the third time that they have held it. Previously I had not tried anything better than mid-level Rioja and was familiar with their pleasant, if somewhat uninteresting, coconut and vanilla sweetness from those oak barrels. I suspected that there was more to Rioja than this and was keen to see if my suspicions would be confirmed! 

A celebratory meal to start 


After the three hour bus ride from Madrid to Haro (note to potential visitors, Bilbao is a much more conveniently situated airport than Madrid for visiting Rioja) we were brought to the La Vieja Bodega restaurant where a stylish canapé reception got the event underway, with speeches from Agustín Santolaya, the current President of Cata Estación wine experience (and MD of Bodegas RODA), as well as the incoming President. We were also treated to an advance preview from Sarah Jane Evans MW, one of the pre-eminent voices on Spanish wine and, in particular, Rioja, who as “Maquinista del Año” (the engine driver for the year, keeping the rail theme going) was to give a master-class the next day. The audience very much represented the great and the good of the wine making community from Haro, as well as from the gastronomic scene and local and international press; an impressive bunch! 

You know this will be a serious dinner!
Dinner was served shortly after the speeches concluded and we were shown to our tables, where the number of glasses on the table told us that we were due to get down to some serious tasting! Each producer selected a bottle from their collection to present at the table, the offerings were: 2009 Viña Ardanza, 2011 Muga Reserva Selección Especial, 2005 RODA I, 2014 CVNE Imperial Reserva, 2012 Alto de la Caseta, 2014 Montes Obarenes Selección Terroir and 2005 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva. 

I was immediately impressed with the quality, elegance and beauty of these wines; gone were the heavy, over-used oak notes that are essentially used to disguise poor wine-making. Instead, we were tasting balanced, subtle and delicate, yet powerful wines. Each had its own character and charm, however I had a couple of favourites from the selection. 2005 Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva from López de Heredia, which had an absolutely dynamite aroma in the glass, really complex with dark black fruit and tobacco notes accompanied by an intriguing smoky profile. On the palate it had touches of ripe strawberry and a bit of cranberry bite. This is a wine that is still young and will only improve with time. I also really enjoyed the 2011 Muga Reserva Selección Especial which had a more elegant and perfumed nose than the López de Heredia; I felt it was almost Burgundian in profile with clove and rose aromas coming to the fore. To taste it had juicy flavours of red cherry and lush plums, all carried off with a beautifully supple elegance. I had been particularly looking forward to the 2014 CVNE Imperial Reserva as I had heard a lot about this particular vineyard; it had a warm, generous, rich and smoky nose that really excited. When tasted it had a front end burst of fruit and spice and a really power and body to the wine, however we were all a little surprised that they chose to showcase a wine so young still - this has 20+ years ahead of it and I would dearly have loved to have seen a wine with a bit more maturity to feel its development and additional complexity. 


The food that we had alongside the wines was also excellent; for a starter we had slices of cod in a Riojan Pisto (obviously!) and a Pimiento Choricero sauce; for main course we were served a slow-cooked tail of beef with a mushroom and foie gras sauce; for dessert we were treated to a caramelised French toast that was rich and decadent (picture on the right). Cooking for an entire restaurant on this kind of scale and to this level is a special skill and was carried off with aplomb. 

During the meal I had the pleasure of company from some of the international press corp with whom I was sharing the meal, but also Victor Charcan (Sales Director, RODA) who was very generous in telling us all about the wines that they make, the challenges that they face in the region and his hopes for the future. It was truly illuminating and helped me to appreciate his wines even more. This was a really excellent evening and a great aperitif before the real business of the following day. 

The main event 


The main event started relatively early the next day and commenced for us with something that I was really looking forward to - Sarah Jane Evans MW’s masterclass. This took us through 14 different wines (two from each producer) with some nice variations, including some older vintages and some whites. It wasn’t done as a tutored tasting, i.e. everyone tasting their way through at the same time; instead, Sarah Jane hosted a number of guest speakers whom she interviewed on varying topics whilst we were making our way through our wines and taking our notes. I should also note, that it was very impressive that Sarah Jane conducted all of these interviews in Spanish - we were given an earpiece which had live translations of the interviews so that we could keep up to speed as they went along; all very technologically impressive! Here is a summary of my notes from the tasting: 

Reds


2010 Viña Pomal Gran Reserva - a pleasant, warm nose with black fruit and some sweet spice. Rich and opulent on the palate with a great balance to the wine. 

2010 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva - notably darker and richer than the Pomal, more plummy and damson notes. Really powerful and weighty wine, with a fair amount of heat to it from some pretty intense tannins. Will be a great wine, but needs five to ten more years. 

2014 Gómez Cruzado Honorable - pleasant nose with compote-style fruit and a touch of perfume. Notably simpler than the previous wines, lighter in style with more delicate fruit notes. Well balanced, if not overly complex. 

2006 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Tinto Reserva - a relatively quiet nose, with nice ripe strawberry notes. On tasting, I felt that the acidity was quite high, as were the tannins. This felt like it needed another five years to really express itself properly. 

2010 Roda 107 - heady and brooding nose, with dark fruit (black cherry and blackcurrant) and sweet spice notes. A really joyful wine to drink, full of ripeness and richness. There were bags of blackcurrant and clackberry flavours, underpinned by some still fairly insistent tannins. This was pleasurable to drink now, but give it longer and it will reward you for your patience. 

2015 Torre Muga - an expressive nose with plenty of energy. I noted that this tasted like a “coiled spring”, it was full of potential and ready to go! Lots of dark fruit flavours, along with high tannins that gave it a rather grippy mouth feel. 

2017 La Rioja Alta Garnacha de Finca La Pedriza - this was a complete curveball for me; a 100% Garnacha wine and only one year old. It had a beguiling nose that was smoky and sweet with dominant notes of cloves and cinnamon. On tasting, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this wine - it was full to brimming with rich, red cherry notes; there were tannins, but they weren’t too prevalent. This was a beautifully, elegant wine and one that really surprised me.   

2001 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia - at first this had a slight funk to the nose, but after a bit of time in the glass the aroma got better and better and BETTER! I kept a bit of this one in the glass right to the end, just so I could keep smelling it - beautifully heady mix of dark fruits, along with some woody elements (Hawthorne?); as it evolved it presented sweet spices and then increasingly rose and dark chocolate. Just phenomenal! On the mouth it was a wonderfully elegant wine, that is showing perfectly right now. It still possessed a firm tannic grip, which retained its structure and then lad a long, glorious finish. My favourite wine of the tasting! 

2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial - another beautiful nose to this wine, expressive and elegant with touches of floral elements to it. On tasting, there was slightly more body to this wine than the Tondonia, which meant that it retained a real power and weight. This felt like it still had a few years of development ahead of it before it hit its sweet spot. This will be a phenomenal wine. 

2001 Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva - this was another wine that really grabbed me when I smelled it; plenty of brooding power to it with a dark and stormy profile full of black cherry, blackcurrant, smoky bacon and forest floor notes. On the palate it was pure hedonism from the first sip, silky smooth, rich and opulent, tannins well integrated into the wine, and a finish that went on for well over a minute. An exciting wine that showed how great Muga can be - loved it! 

2001 Roda II - a quiet and understated power to the nose on this wine, slight primary notes of fruit but soon replaced by secondary, more savoury, notes. Another really decadent wine to drink, full of luxuriant blackberry compote notes; all set off with a wonderful balance and a long finish. A beautiful wine now, and one suspects it will still improve with more time. 

Whites: 


2017 Viña Pomal Vinos Singulares Maturana Blanca - a refreshing wine with a pleasant gooseberry and elderflower nose and bags of lemons brightness and vitality on the mouth. 

2015 Gómez Cruzado Montes Obarenes - rich, broad nose with a pie-crust style depth to it. On tasting it possessed a definite oakiness, which gave it a beautiful decadence. This reminded me of a well-made Burgundian Chardonnay - high praise indeed! 

2014 CVNE Monopole Clásico - one of the more interesting wines of the tasting; as well as having a classic grape (Viura), it also had a slight dosage of Manzanilla. The nose was intriguing, plenty of mango/pineapple brightness, but also definite notes of buttery richness. On the mouth it possessed pleasing acidity and balance, with juicy, Amalfi-lemon vibrancy.  

More mornings should be like this...

Following the masterclass, we moved to a food tent where we were given some vouchers that would allow us to purchase food from an array of food stalls. Now, these weren’t just any food stalls, these were food stalls manned (and womanned) by some of the greatest chefs from the Spanish gastronomic scene and had been conceived by such Michelin-starred luminaries such as La Rioja Michelin Star chefs Francis Paniego (from El Portal del Echaurren) and the Echapresto brothers (from Venta Moncalvillo). 

Michelin-starred croquettes!
Of particular note were some absolutely incredible ham and chicken croquettes which were as smooth and creamy as you could hope for. I also particularly enjoyed a local speciality which is known as “shepherds’ bread shavings” served with La Rioja sausage, grapes and an egg yolk (to bind it all together). I had heard about this dish and it had a lovely simplicity to it, yet it was satisfying, rich and just what was needed after a morning wine tasting. We finished our lunch with a dessert, which was the complete opposite of the last dish: complex, thought-provoking and decadent. Created by Juan Angel Rodrigalvarez his “Maravi de Chocolate” dessert was made from delicious, rich dark chocolate, but offset against sea salt and olive oil to add to the flavour profile. It also had some nice textural elements that again served as a good counterpoint against the smooth and luxuriant chocolate.  

Oh! To get in behind that gate...
In the afternoon, the Bodegas opened up their doors and hosted tastings of their own where you could explore their offerings further. I chose to spend a fair amount of time exploring CVNE’s wines and was pleased to find my way onto a tour around their wine cellars, which included discovering a fascinating section of their cellars which was used to mark their centennial (1879 - 1979), they put a bottle of wine from each of the vintages from these years into a vault and then locked it up and threw the key into the local river! Anyone up for trying to find that key?? 

As we were exploring the vaults, we were truly honoured when the Sales Director opened a bottle of 1976 CVNE Imperial for us to try; if you recall, I had been very keen to try an aged wine from this vineyard and where better to try it?! The wine had lost that weight and heaviness from the young wines, but it still possessed a noticeably vibrant burst of acidity. The flavour profile had both softened and evolved with its age, leaving a more complex and interesting wine that really showed how top Riojas benefit from giving them some time. 


Conclusion 


I think it should go without saying, but I feel very lucky and honoured to have been invited to this wonderful event. It was beautiful to see these producers coming together to put on this showcase for their wines and their region. As ever, visiting wine regions helps me to understand and appreciate them more; I see the pride and passion of the people who make the wines; I get to know the landscape, the topography, the environment and the terroir; and you start to understand the history and the provenance of the wines and the region. I will now be a lifelong fan of the wines from this region and am already looking out for them on the wine lists of restaurants that I visit. 

Thank you so much to the organisers - especially Blanca and Maria, who did a phenomenal job in looking after us, both before and during our stay. 

In the spirit of full disclosure; I did not pay for this trip, however nor was I paid to write the article. The opinions within this article are, nonetheless, my honest opinions.