Thursday, 20 June 2019

A wine lover's guide to Porto


I recently took a holiday to Portugal, but rather than heading to the Brits-abroad haven that is the Algarve, I was keen to take the opportunity to explore some of the county’s famous and historic wine regions. My trip started in the city of Porto (known as Oporto in Portuguese) which gives its name to the Port wines that the region is famous for, before heading up the Douro river to visit the vineyards of the Douro Valley to look at where the grapes are grown and harvested. I wanted to share with you the wonderful things that I saw (and tasted!) hopefully to provide some inspiration if you were considering a trip to this part of the world - something that I would highly recommend. Given the volume of information, I have decided to split this post into two parts: the first concentrating on the city of Porto and the second on the Douro Valley area.

Background and history

The UK and Portugal have a long-standing relationship, in fact the “alliance” signed into operation between the two countries in the fourteenth century (1373 to be precise) is considered to be the longest treaty in continual operation between any two countries in the world. This relationship had its origins in political and military alliance, but translated itself into trade, which is where the world of wine kicks in. The British are, in fact, responsible for the creation of port as we know it today - British consumers complained to Portuguese wine producers that the red wines that they were importing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were often arriving to the UK in poor condition suffering from the effects of their travels. To remedy this, Portuguese wine merchants began fortifying their wines with brandy to stabilise them, which gave rise to the fortified wine that we know today.

This trade led to a large number of enterprising British families moving out to Portugal to get involved in the wine trade and gave rise through inter-marrying with Portuguese wine families to some of the largest and famous port houses that you think of today with names such as “Graham’s”, “Taylor’s” and “Cockburn’s” alongside “Ferreira” and “Burmester”. Port wine continues to make up a significant portion of Portugal’s trade with the world and dominates the city of Porto.

Location and setting

Porto is actually two different cities, the city of Porto itself sits on the north bank of the Douro river and is where most people live. The city is marked by quite steep hills and labyrinthine streets that wend their way around the hill. It is a charming city with lots of beautiful buildings giving an indication of the wealth that the trade has brought to this part of the world. As you wander around the city you inevitably encounter a series of attractively decorated public buildings that have characteristic blue tile festooned to their sides and fronts, which make for some pretty dramatic reliefs as you wander the streets.

On the south side of the river you have the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where all the warehouses for the port houses are situated. These are all found along the river as historically the companies sent their port in barrels down the river from their vineyards towards Porto in boats called rabelo. Nowadays, the wine tends to be transported by large trucks as it is much safer, quicker and there is less chance of the wine spoiling en route. The rules of the Portuguese Port Wine Institute (the region’s governing authority) stipulate that port wine must age in Vila Nova de Gaia for it to be called Port wine, which means that the warehouses are still where the all-important ageing process takes place. Vila Nova de Gaia was selected for the purpose due to its connection with the river, but also its northward-facing aspect, which means that it escapes the worst of the Portuguese summer sun - which can be punishing and push the mercury above the 40 degree mark.

Porto is easily accessible from the UK and most-other European cities with regular flights taking place. The temperatures in the height of summer can be severe (as mentioned previously), although its coastal setting means that it benefits from an Atlantic breeze - this does on the other hand mean that humidity can get quite high. As such, I would advise against travelling in July and August just from a comfort factor. There is nothing to stop you travelling in winter, but I think that the optimum times to visit this pleasant town are the spring or autumn, when the temperatures will be pleasant and comfortable.

As this is a travel guide I don’t intend to give a detailed description of the production process for port wine or go into the different types of port - I will take it as a given that you know those things. However if you want to learn a bit more about these I would direct you to this informative post from Wine Folly, which has some very useful information.

So, to the point of this article! If you find yourself in Porto for a couple of days and you want to get some ideas of things that you could do, here are my recommendations…

Visit a Port House

Quite obvious one really! Most of the main port houses offer tours and tastings that are informative and provide a good opportunity to taste their ranges of production as it is important to learn that there is more to the world of port than the vaunted vintage ports - with tawnies, rubies, white ports and pink ports all playing their part in the ranges to provide drinks that suit all palates and all wallets. Also, it is important to know that the Douro DOC produces table wines, both red and white, of great quality - these are often over-looked by consumers.

I started my trip with a visit to Churchill’s Port House, which is one of the newest houses having only been created in 1981. It was created by John Graham, of the famous Graham’s family who wanted to start a new business after they sold their old one. He named the house “Churchill’s” after his wife’s family - they are keen to stress that they bear no relation to the famous British PM, although I’m sure such an auspicious name helps when selling to the UK and US! Churchill’s house style is to favour drier, spicier ports over the sweeter ports that people may be familiar with; which was intriguing to me.

I started with their White Port “Dry Aperitif” which is blended to an average age of 10 years, much longer than most white ports on the market. The result is a much more complex white port; I mostly enjoy white port as a “Porto Tonico” (i.e. Port and Tonic - a delicious alternative to a GnT), but this warrants being drunk on its own as a proper wine - it has a nice orange note to it and served chilled would make a good aperitif or an accompaniment with seafood (available from Hedonism wines for £17/500ml bottle). I also enjoyed their Ruby Reserve, which has an average age of four years; served chilled it has generous red fruit and berry notes, not over-sweet but lovely and fresh. An excellent value wine. In terms of their vintage ports, I tried the 2011 which was truly wonderful - quite floral on the nose, but a real power to the wine when drunk. The 2011 ports were celebrated as a once-in-a-generation vintage, if you can get hold of any then do - and then put it away for the next 20 years…! I also tried the 2016, which was obviously very young but was already showing beautiful elegance with a rose aroma alongside the fruit notes. There are some (including my host) who profess to preferring to drink vintage port when it is young for its youthful exuberance and fruity flavours; I must say that I fall into the category of preferring the wines to come into its maturity. I bought one of these following the tasting - so ask me in 20+ years how I’ve got on with it! (the 2016 is available from Crump Richmond Shaw for £265/case of six bottles).

I also visited Cockburn’s Port House, which has an informative group tour that takes you around its facilities. It was interesting to learn some of the history of this famous brand and see the initial thoughts on where it is going to go in the future following its acquisition by the Symington Family Estate portfolio (one of the powerhouses of the port world!). 
For those who are unaware, Cockburn’s is actually pronounced “Co-burn”; something, I think, designed to make it sound less like an STI…! 

In terms of their wines, I tried their Special Reserve which is their entry-level ruby port that has an interesting bouquet featuring some fruity notes (blueberry) that I was expecting, but also a touch of vegetal notes that I couldn’t quite place. On tasting, it has a fruit-facing profile, with a little spice on the mid-palate that lifts it a little. Not a world-beating wine, but decent at the price (distributors). Next up was their Late Bottled Vintage port - LBVs are often, to my mind, where some of the best value is to be had in port. This was another pleasant wine, quite a pretty nose - blackberry notes with a little sweet spice to give it a bit of depth. On the mouth it was decent, lacking a little in some of the depth that I was hoping for. Lastly, I tried the 10 year Tawny Port; which had lovely butterscotch and caramel notes to it, with a slightly pretty, floral note that I couldn’t quite place. When tasted this wine had beautiful sweet notes of vanilla and caramel, but it then moved on in the mid-palate to a hazelnut-like nuttiness which hinted of a slightly more oxidative ageing process on this wine - more like some sherries. I love this style of wine - definitely something that you could either have with dessert, or even have a glass of if you’re trying to be good and not have a dessert! (available from Nickolls and Perks for £24/bottle).

Take advantage of the views

Porto (and Vila Nova de Gaia) as mentioned are set on the banks of the Douro river. This affords a number of places that one can take in some rather splendid views. A couple of locations that I particularly enjoyed were:
Sandeman’s Port House, which has a splendid outdoor seating area with views over the river. It was here where I discovered some port cocktails, which made for a very pleasant drinking experience in the sun. The first was a glass of their Founder’s Reserve Port and lemonade, which made for an interesting take on a kind of sangria. The second was the aforementioned Porto Tonico, which is a particularly splendid summer drink and is now a firm favourite in my household for summer days (when summer eventually turns up in the UK…). They also do food in this outdoor seating area, but I didn’t try anything when I was there - favouring focussing on the cocktails!
The Yeatman’s Hotel, which is sat atop the hillside on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river. This is Porto’s most famous hotel and has a reputation for having an excellent wine list. We headed up there after one of our port tastings and I was in need of something to line my stomach as I had another tasting planned for the afternoon. You could tell that this was a rather fancy place by the line-up of stunning cars waiting outside for the patrons to emerge. With hindsight, we wished that we had dressed a little more presentably! We took a table outside with a beautiful view of the river in front of us, including giving us a proper perspective of the spectacular wrought-iron bridge that spans the river and really is quite the feat of engineering. I decided to go for a Francesinha - which is Porto’s famous sandwich, containing ham, smoked meat and steak, which is then topped off with melted cheese, a fried egg and a deliciously deep and rich tomato sauce, which you pour over the top. This is not the dish to go for if you are looking after your waistline or your cholesterol! I absolutely loved this, it’s quite a big portion - particularly when you add the chips that come with it - but this was exactly what I was after. The hotel also has a 2* restaurant on site, which looks beautiful, I’ll definitely be looking to visit there next time I come to visit.

Take a trip up the Douro

One of the most popular things for people to do when in Porto is to take a trip up the river towards where the vineyards are that make all those lovely port wines. There are plenty of companies that offer day trips on rather smart looking boats (as you can see from the picture on the left!). 
We didn’t look too much into this as we were heading up to the Douro Valley for a few days.


So there you have it - that’s my guide to how to best spend a few days in Porto. I’ll be publishing a follow up blog in a couple of weeks’ time on my experiences and recommendations for things to do / places to stay in the Douro Valley, so stay tuned!

Have your say: have you been to Porto? Did you do anything that I didn’t mention above and that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments below…

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

The Cigar, Whiskey and Tap Water Club - UN Garrison, Lille

Last year I was honoured to have been invited to attend a whiskey* tasting at the UN Garrison in Lille which is situated in the wonderfully historic Citadel in Lille. The Citadel was built in the 17th century and was designed by legendary French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (what a name!) and is today the headquarters of the Rapid-Reaction Corps France, a multi-national UN task-force which is stationed in Lille with the focus of preparing for any situation that requires an international military operation. 

Set deep inside the Citadel is the Lieutenants’ bar, a charming (if a little ramshackle) bar that is set up to allow officers to relax and socialise over a glass of something pleasant; which is an especially important facet when you are dealing with soldiers from all over the world - the need for dialogue and understanding is more important than ever. Now it is hardly a surprise that the officers from this task-force like a drink or two, however a few years ago an enterprising bunch realised that they had a core of people who were not only fans of drinking whiskey (in particular) and smoking the occasional cigar, but that they were also keen to learn a bit more so that they could appreciate these things a little more. To this end they formed the “Cigar, Whiskey and Tap Water Club”; the tap water reference is a sage reminder to all of the need to stay hydrated whilst pursuing one’s hobbies. The Club is run on a membership basis, members get access to tastings without having to pay for them and the membership fees are used to buy in the Club’s stock. At the start of the Club the learning consisted of members drinking the whiskies together and comparing notes, however recently they have invited a local whiskey specialist (Guillaume), who works in the wine trade in Lille but has a huge passion for whiskey to come and give them some tutored tastings at the Club in order to develop their knowledge even further. I was invited along to attend the second of these tastings.

At this tasting, Guillaume took us through four whiskies. For each one he really encouraged the group to go through a structured approach to the tasting: firstly, how does it look? what’s the colour look like? is it cloudy or is it bright?; secondly, how does it smell? is it complex? is it sweet? is it smoky?; thirdly, on the mouth how long does the finish last? does it change/develop as you taste it? what are the primary/secondary flavour notes? I am quite familiar with this approach when it comes to wine, but it was useful to try it out with the whiskies too as it helped me to think about them that little bit more.

We tried our way through four very different, but really interesting whiskies through the evening. I really liked the selection that Guillaume went for, plenty of variety and some real curve balls to keep us on out toes. The other thing that Guillaume did to keep the learning experience real was to pour all the whiskies blind so that we didn’t know what we had in our glass; then he asked us to go through the tasting process (sight, nose, taste, finish) in order to get us to really think about the whiskies and what we could tell of them. This really helped me personally to bring a structured approach to the tasting process and I was surprised at how much I got from it. It was only once we had collectively come to a conclusion about the whiskey that he did the grand reveal and announced what we had been tasting.

So, what did we try?

Armorik Whiskey Single Malt de Bretagne; this was a light and elegant whiskey on the nose, quite pretty in fact. On the mouth, however, it really surprised us as it was a lot more complex and profound than we expected. In truth, no-one predicted that this was a French whiskey, and I think that it why Guillaume chose it and out it first. There was clearly some Gallic pride going on here, that they could make a thoroughly decent whiskey that wouldn’t taste out of place in a serious (or maybe semi-serious) whiskey tasting.

One Shot Highland Single Malt Whiskey from the Ben Nevis Distillery (first fill, sherry cask); this was a lovely and rich whiskey that had a much more complex nose than the previous whiskey, I could pick out notes of honey, butterscotch and a little bit of a fruity twist. On tasting, there was a really long finish with a kind of cherry cola sweetness to it.
Laphroaig The Cooper’s Choice; this was served to us blind and we were asked to guess what it was. The group who were at the tasting were pretty knowledgeable - we all reckoned it was an Islay whiskey from the smokiness and a couple went with Laphroaig. They were correct! This was a proper smoke bomb of a whiskey, my tasting notes actually say “like tasting an ashtray”! I’m not sure that I meant that in a necessarily complimentary manner.

Gifted Stills of Scotland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey (bottle 001 of 888). Guillaume saved a special whiskey for the last one of the tasting. This one has a slightly reddish tinge to the drink and had a quite light and pretty nose with red fruits (strawberry?) on it. This whiskey has an exceptional provenance in that it is first aged in bourbon barrels, before being aged further in old barrels from legendary right-bank Bordeaux estate, Cheval Blanc. The tasting notes on this were incredibly complex and deep, with a predominant flavour of cherries.

After the tasting we took the opportunity to explore a few more drams of the excellent selection that the club held (along with some tap water of course) along with a cigar. What a fabulous way to spend an evening!

This was a really enjoyable experience. It was lovely to talk with these soldiers who have come from all over the world (I spoke with people from France, Germany, the UK, the US, Canada), discuss current events and hear what they make of their role as peace-keepers in this increasingly complex world. It was also nice to see this diverse group making real efforts to get to know each other and develop friendships that will help them to serve together better. But more than anything, it was a lovely setting for a group of people to come together and share an evening over a glass of whiskey or two (along with a cigar and a glass of tap water to keep hydrated, of course!) and learn a bit more about the world off whiskey.

* Note: I have used the spelling "whiskey" throughout this piece in keeping with the group's name. Traditionally "whisky" is used by the Scots, whereas "Whiskey" is used by the Irish, but I thought it would be easier to have a consistent spelling through the piece...

Friday, 15 March 2019

Two wine tastings in a day? Challenge accepted...!

Last Thursday I had the day off from my day-job, which was exceedingly fortunate as I had received invites to two prestigious wine tastings that day. They were very different affairs, but I enjoyed both tremendously and as is always the way with these kinds of tastings, I learned a heck of a lot (plus I got to drink some delicious wine!).

Côtes du Rhône Tasting

The first tasting of the day was held in the rather splendid H Club in London’s Soho. H Club is a private members’ club that specialises in catering for members of the creative arts industries. As you would expect the building is stylishly laid out and features a number of rather lovely looking bars and restaurants for people to wine and dine customers and hold business lunches. The tasting that I was there for was held in the “Forest Room”, which was a rather attractive looking room with a forest motif around it and tables set up which contained 92 different wines to taste from the Côtes du Rhône (CdR) appellation. This includes both wines that feature the CdR general designation and also some wines from named villages within the Cotes du Rhône area.

I love these kinds of tastings. They are free-pour, which allows you to choose what you want to taste and you get to work your way around at whatever speed you see fit. Obviously, if you are going to taste your way methodically around these wines you will need to spit, which means that you often find yourself in a queue at a spittoon - although fortunately there were plenty around for the tasters to use.

The whites 

I started with the whites and was really impressed with the quality. I was (unwisely) a little wary of whites at this level of designation, but I knew that at the mid- and top-level Rhône whites can be fabulous; so I was intrigued to see what these wines would offer. Overall these wines were priced between £5 and £15 and represented tremendous value, they were a real joy, particularly at the price point. Lovely acidity and fruit flavours (mainly juicy lemon and apricot), with some real weight to the wines. Not particularly seeing much evidence of oak and buttery flavours, but more with a depth and balance of flavour.

The rosés

After the whites, I moved onto the rosés - there were only a few on show and I found them to be rather pleasant and rather serious wines. There are some rosés that are a little wispy, dainty and thin; designed to be quaffed in a pub by the bucket-load. These weren’t that kind of wine, they had a bit of presence and style and would have gone nicely with food.

And now... time for the reds!

It was time to move on to the reds - there were much more of these on show over a couple of vintages. One of the things I quite like about these kinds of tastings is that it allows the relatively uninitiated (like me) the chance to learn a bit more about the wine world and one of the main things I was able to do was look at trends within my assessments of the wines. What became quickly apparent was that I was favouring the 2017 vintage over the 2016; I found the 2017s to possess well integrated tannins with nice, dark fruit notes but a savoury profile that gave the wines real structure and depth. In comparison the 2016s were a little shorter, sharper and more acidic; lacking a bit in depth and nuance. The other thing that really stood out is that in the (relatively) small number of wines at a higher price-point (in this case £15+) I found that there weren’t really any wines that stood out from some of the excellent wines that were being sold for £10 - £15. In terms of value for money, you were better off staying at the lower end - in my opinion.

I must confess that my notes above lack any reference to specific wines as I misplaced my notes from the tasting on the way home. Fortunately I had written up some general musings on my ‘phone though!

I must offer many thanks to Alexandra Gerolami who organised this event and kindly invited me along to.

Wines from Spain Tasting

Next up was a trip to the very definition of a bar with a view - the Skygarden in the infamous “Walkie-Talkie” building for one of my favourite wine events of the year - Wines from Spain. The line up of producers that come and exhibit at this event gets better and larger every year and the organisers do a wonderful job. This is the first time, however, that they have held the event in Skygarden and it was also my first visit to this bar. I know that tall buildings in London are not everyone’s cup of tea, but once I was up there and looking out over the Thames and around London’s skyline it really is a breathtaking sight. What better place to enjoy a nice glass of something?

Some highlights

I didn’t spend a huge amount of time wandering around the producers, but I did enjoy discovering some wines from Marques de Murrieta - one of the most historic Rioja producers. Their 2009 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva was an excellent example of a Gran Reserva that is just entering its drinking window, but has years ahead of it. I was also intrigued by their 2014 Dalmau which contains predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and is their attempt to create a “super-Rioja” in the vein of “super Tuscans”. 

I also enjoyed spending a bit of time with Altanza Bodegas, another Rioja producer but this time sampling their sherries made in collaboration with Roberto Amillo (Jerez). I particularly enjoyed their Colección R. Amillo Olorosoand Palo Cortado both of which were rich, vibrant and balanced. I also particularly liked the bottle designs that they used, which gave the wines a very distinctive look.

A Verdejo Masterclass with Sarah Jane Evans MW

The main reason, though, I didn’t spend much time walking around the various producers is because I was very keen to attend one of Wines from Spain’s ever-excellent and informative masterclasses - this time from the inimitable Sarah Jane Evans MW on the wines of Rueda. I first met Sarah Jane when I went to Rioja last year for the Cata Estación last year and I knew that I’d be in for a treat with her masterclass. Rueda is an area that not too many people outside the wine trade will know too well - however it is the spiritual home of one of Spain’s greatest contributions to the wine world - the Verdejo grape. The people from Verdejo are on a bit of a mission to get their wines better recognised in the UK and it seems to be working as sales are up year on year for the last couple of years. 

We tried our way through five different DO (Denominción de Origen) wines from Rueda but I want to focus on my two favourites. The first was a 2017 Belondrade y Lurton(100% Verdejo) which had a supremely expressive and floral nose that exuded class. This wine had been aged in French oak and had a beautiful buttery characteristic (which contrasted some of the other, slightly more angular wines in the tasting). This wine will develop and evolve over the next couple of years - I certainly plan on getting hold of a few to see how they go! Now for something completely different (as they say…) with a NV Carrasviñas Dorado Ruedafrom Félix Lorenzo Cachazo which was largely Verdejo but importantly possessed 20% Palomino Fino which gave the wine a lovely oxidative nose that I adored as a sherry-lover. For me this was a wine that will divide crowds; I loved it as it felt like a half-way house between a traditional Verdejo and a Fino sherry - it would go beautifully with food, some nice olives or even some salted almonds. Mmmm…!

Sarah Jane was as interesting and amiable a host as ever and I really enjoyed this tasting of some lovely wines.

There you have it - two wine tastings done in a day. Lots learned, many lovely wines tasted. A reminder of why I love living in London so much.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Open That Bottle Night 2019 - what did you open?

For some people the last weekend in February is a rather special time. I am one of those people. A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wine-based concept that I fell in love with - Open That Bottle Night. Briefly the premise is that February is a dreary month and people need something to brighten it up. Two wine lovers who wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher decided that they wanted to find a reason to open that special bottle of wine that you’ve been saving for a while. They told of stories of people who have been holding onto that bottle of ‘45 Haut-Brion and agonising over when was the right time to open this majestic wine and too often people held on to the wine too long only to find that it hadn’t been stored properly or that it had some kind of fault. Instead, to Gaiter and Brecher they felt that the bottle of wine that you have in your cellar should be the occasion; invite friends and family round to enjoy that bottle of wine in great company! I love the idea of this and have now done this for the last few years.

In 2016 I opened a bottle of 2012 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett (Mosel, Germany).

In 2017 I opened a bottle of 2012 Tignanello (Tuscany, Italy).

In 2018 I opened a bottle of 2011 Clos Mogador (Priorat, Spain)

So, what did I open in 2019 I hear you ask?

I went back to Italy for my wine this year. I had a lovely bottle of 2005 Muga Reserva that I was severely tempted by and a bottle of 2006 Pichon-Longeuville Baron that I was eying up, but I was surprised to find that I was instead drawn to a 2009 Casanova Di Nero Tenuta Nuova (Brunello Di Montalcino, Italy). This was a wine that I picked up direct from the winery when I visited it in October as part of a walking holiday I went on through Tuscany - something that I can highly recommend (the photo on the left is on the way to the winery as you walk up the drive!). Very few places in the world truly excite the senses like Tuscany does, the food, the wines and the scenery are all absolutely phenomenal. We walked through the countryside that gives you Brunello di Montalcino (one of the very best red wines in the world, in my opinion) and that gives you Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I wrote a piece for Vinspire on my experiences in Tuscany that you can read about by following this LINK if you are interested.

So, enough of the trip down memory lane - tell us about the wine! I decided to give it about an hour in the decanter as I wanted to coax it back to life; it had been sleeping for ten years after all. In the glass it had an interestingly murky appearance, with a kind of damson red to it. On the nose it was all I could have hoped for and more; it was fragrant and evocative. I noted primary aromas of "fruits of the forest" with blackberries and blueberries coming through particularly strongly. There was also definitely some deeper and more interesting notes of cedar, marzipan and tobacco that gave the wine a real majesty in the glass. When I tasted it I admired the beautiful freshness and cleanliness to the wine, which had a real poise about it. The tannins were nice, smooth and well-integrated, as one would expect from a ten year old wine of this type. There were lovely dark fruit flavours with a nice lick of savouriness and smokiness to the wine that I enjoyed thoroughly. All in all this was a truly wonderful wine and one that was perfect for "Open That Bottle Night". We paired it, appropriately, I think, with a Tuscan Sausage Stew and the wine was a great match for it.

Did you drink anything special for "Open That Bottle Night"? If so, what did you drink? If not, do you fancy doing it in 2020? Start thinking about what that special bottle of wine could be and who you could share it with...!

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Cooking with booze: Burns Night – Highland stew – Recipe and cocktails

Photo by Jun

I may not have an ounce of Scottish blood in me, but I’m always up for a good knees up, especially one that involves whisky. While many people will be tucking into the haggis this Burns Night, you may want an alternative dish to devour while you’re mumbling your way through Auld Lang Syne after one dram too many. 

I won’t commit the mortal sin of calling this a pie when it’s a stew with a puff pastry top, that’s for the gastro pubs of this world to do. But it is a very tasty Highland stew with puff pastry top, and is the perfect dish to serve this Burns Night.

Highland stew with neeps and tatties
(Serves four)


900g stewing beef (two packets)
100g smoked lardons
500ml stout
200ml ruby port
2 large white onions
3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp flatleaf parsley
5 pickled walnuts (and 2 tbsp pickled walnut vinegar)
60g butter
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp plain flour
Salt and pepper

Puff pastry top
Ready rolled puff pastry

Neeps and tatties
Half a swede
16 new potatoes

1. Marinate your beef in the stout, with the garlic and bay leaves for around five hours in the fridge, or overnight if possible.
2. Preheat the oven (fan) to 130°C.
3. In a large pan, heat the oil and butter.
4. On a medium-high heat, brown and seal the beef. Once browned, remove and set aside.
5. In the same pan, fry the bacon and onions until the onions are soft and translucent.
6. Stir in the flour and mix, then add the port, stout marinade, beef, and season.
7. Transfer to an ovenproof casserole dish, fit the lid, and cook for 2.5hours in the oven, stirring occasionally.
8. Remove from the oven and pop back on the hob, so you can cook your puff pastry tops. Halve the pickled walnuts and add to the stew, along with the pickling vinegar. Simmer for around 30minutes. 9. Add the chopped parsley just before serving.

Neep and tatties
1. Roughly chop the swede into large chunks and boil for 50minutes.
2. Parboil the potatoes for 10minutes in salted water.
3. Pop the potatoes into the oven with the stew for 15minutes, then turn the heat up to 200°C when the stew comes out and roast for 30-35minutes.
4. Drain the swede and roughly mash together with a decent amount of butter.

Puff pastry tops
1. Unroll the puff pastry and cut into shape
2. Pop in the oven for 10-15minutes until golden brown


If you don’t fancy a night on the drams, here are a couple of loosely-Scottish cocktails (they feature whisky), to get you in the mood.

Scotch Old Fashioned 

While rye or bourbon are the 'proper' choices for an Old Fashioned, it's Burns Night, so we're heading away from the whiskey and hitting the whisky. Granted, you're not going to want to use the Belvenie 50-year-old single malt you've all got lying around, but a smooth, clean, not-too-peaty, Scotch will work great.

50ml Scotch whisky
3/4tsp light brown sugar
A few dashes of Angostura bitters
Orange peel
A little patience

1. Soak the sugar in the Angostura and begin to dissolve with a spoon.
2. Add a good handful of ice cubes and continue to stir.
4. Add around half the whisky and keep stirring.
5. Add the rest of the Scotch and stir some more.
6. Stir for another couple of minutes.
7. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

Haig Clubman

For those of you who might not be quite into your whisky yet, this is an easy, light, accessible drink to start with. We can work you up to the Laphroaig in a couple of months...!

50ml Haig Club
35ml Appletiser
6 dashes ginger bitters

Combine all the ingredients in a highball or tumbler, with plenty of ice, and garnish with a very thin slice of root ginger.

How will you be celebrating this Burns Night? Hitting the haggis or using the night as an excuse to pull out that tasty Scotch?

Friday, 18 January 2019

The top ten mega mocktails for January

If you’ve been doing ‘Dry January’ and have actually stuck to it, then firstly, pat yourself on the back. Secondly, scream and shout because it’s nearly over (ish)! To make things a bit easier, we’ve rounded up the ten best mocktail recipes we could find.

The key to a mocktail’s success is down to intrigue; you can’t shove an average cordial in a glass, top it with soda, and garnish it with a slice of lemon, expecting to be wowed. Sure, we don’t need booze all the time, and there are plenty of top-notch soft drinks around to tantalise the taste buds, but cocktails work due to the balance of alcohol, sugar, acidity and bitterness - you’re not likely to get that with just an elderflower spritz, are you?

If you’re feeling like you’re missing out on all those lovely alcoholic delights that you keep seeing on Instagram, it’s time to get serious about mocktails. Fresh fruit, citrus and herbs are your heroes here, you want to be building your drink as you would a proper cocktail, and don’t be afraid to make your own syrups; they’re easy to do and will keep in the fridge for ages.

Just put in a teeny bit of effort before being able to smugly sip on something extra special... Your drunken pals will certainly be eyeing up your saintly glass!

We’ll start with something deliciously fruity and classically British: strawberries.

  • This floral fresh Strawberry Rose Water Fizz from Kitchenette Blog is simple but effective. And if you love it, when it gets to February, try topping with prosecco instead of soda water.
  • The Pink Panther from Nosh My Way is smooth, creamy and kind of retro. Strawberries and cream will always be a winning combo, but add pineapple into the equation and hello.

Another British classic - though a slightly more sultry - fruit, with its deep purple colour, is the blackberry. 

Next we have some zingy mocktails...

Herbs are where it’s at with these next three.

Finally, the indulgent creamy mocktails for any time that you require some comfort.

  • Lavender Hot Chocolate from A La Mode is a fragrant hug in a mug. You can buy lavender in the supermarkets now (with all the herbs and spices), but don’t over-do it or you’ll be in soap territory.
  • Sweep Tight have come up with the awesome Coquito, with coconut milk, evaporated milk and condensed milk. Anything made with that dreamy milk is going to be frickin’ ace. FACT.

Now go and have some booze-free fun.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

New Year, No Alcohol - Alcohol Free Drinks (Part 2)

Welcome to the second part of my guide to staying dry(ish) during the lean month of January. 2 weeks in and its been tough....So tough that I fell to pieces 1 week and 6 days ago, so rather than this being a 'Let's get through this together' piece, this is now a 'I feel your pain, but will not join you in your suffering' piece. That has not stopped me from searching out some other non-alcoholic alternatives to your Wednesday night tipple in front of the big match.

I enjoy a good beer on a special occasion (Birthdays, Weddings, Tuesdays,..), so the hardest part for me was missing out on a nice tasting brew without the big percentage to go with it. With it being the season for abstention, there are so many low and non-alcoholic beers on the marketplace to choose from, finding one wasn't going to be a problem. Finding one with flavour, bite and refreshment within the liquid could have been.

Exactly like alcohol-free wine, non-alcoholic beer starts off as the real deal. The grain is steeped in hot water, sugars extracted creating the wort (sugary liquid). The hops are added with other spices to balance out the sweetness of the liquid with the bitterness of the hops. Yeast added, this starts converting the sugars to alcohol. The difference is that rather than alcoholic brews being bottled/canned/kegged, the newly created beer is heated (to boil the alcohol away) through 'vacuum distilling' so as not to alter the beautiful beery flavour too much.

Alcohol free beer is not really a new phenomenon. It was first produced on a large scale during the Prohibition period in the US during 1920s, where brewers needed something to keep their 'regular' drinking, whilst also keeping on the right side of the law. 'Near Beers' (as they were called) were so popular that near 1 billion litres were being produced by 1921, with all the major beer producers of the day (Miller, Pabst, Schlitz) getting in on the act. Nowadays, alcohol free beer is booming, largely thanks to changing drinking cultures and a considerable boom in the Middle East. In this country, a survey conducted by AB Inbev (owner of the non-alcoholic Becks Blue brand) showed that of people looking to cut back the drink, 34% will turn to alcohol-free beer, a 20% increase on the previous year and that 19% of the people surveyed admitted that they couldn't taste the difference between 'fake' beer and 'real' beer. Now, that either shows that the tastebuds of the people who were surveyed had either been obliterated by booze to the point they couldn't detect an ABV if it smacked them in the face, or that producers had started to create an amber nectar that had all of the taste of the real thing, with none of the headache-inducing side effects. Time for me to find out...

First up to face the bottle opener was the Erdinger Alkoholfrei 'beer' (available at for £1.64 a bottle). I put the beer word in inverted commas as its technically not a beer at all, but an isotonic drink that looks and pours like a beer. The problem I've always had with alcohol free beer is that it is too sweet, and this also has a tinge of sweetness, but not overly so. It really does have elements of Weissbier, that slight grainy and wheaty taste and a very full and creamy texture. I would go as far to say that you could slip one of these into a Wheat Beer drinking fest and not notice that you had a 'ringer' in the midst.

Next was the San Miguel 0,0% Limon (available at Ocado, £3 for 4). The Lass persuaded me to grab this one, as she is fervently following the Dry January concept. San Miguel isn't really my tipple, but I have tried the 'added Lemon' fad with beer before and not found it too bad (Fosters Radler isn't a bad summery drop). This wasn't really my drop. Tasting slightly like cooled down Lemsip, you get bashed with a smack of sweetness and, although it is refreshing, it's just too artificial for me and you may as well be downing a pint of Lemonade.

Last in line was Sainsbury's own Czech Low Alcohol Pilsner Lager (£1.20 a bottle from Sainsburys). Now I know this isn't an alcohol-free beer, but I had heard really good stuff about this and at 0.5%, its still considered low alcohol, so I shall include it (na, na, naa, naaa, na...). I wasn't disappointed. Made by the Staropramen brewery, I like their own brew and this one is just as good. Clean, crisp, it has the sharpness you want from a lager and still has the slight bitter kick of a fully hopped version.

So, having tried both alcohol free wines and beers, I have to say that I am impressed with how similar some of the examples I have tried are to the real thing (or at least have crammed in some flavours that stop you from wishing they were). Is it enough to get me to quit the drink permanently? Evidently not from my statement at the start of this article. I am coming from a slightly biased point of view (as I obviously work in the industry), but my mantra has always been 'Drink less and Drink Better'. Binge drinking is always a bad idea, but if people feel they have to give up having a drop of the good stuff for a whole month to 'give their liver a breather', then they are really telling themselves that they are drinking too much in the previous 11 and feeling guilty about it.

However, will I turn my nose up at the offer of an alcohol free beer in the pub, in favour of over-sweetened carbonated brown fizzy slop? Not anymore...

What is your opinion of the alcohol-free drinks market? Have you tried any that would recommend to Vinspire readers? Comment on our twitter page or on our facebook page!

Sunday, 6 January 2019

New Year, No Alcohol - Alcohol Free Drinks (Part 1)

(courtesy of Stuart Miles and

As the last bong tolled on Big Ben at midnight 31st December, 2018, many of you lovely people would have greedily been tucking into something tasty and boozy to welcome in the New Year. What you may have also been doing is saying goodbye to your beloved companion Alcohol for January; your partner through the good times and bad, the devil (or angel) on your shoulder guiding you through life's tricky decisions such as "I know I'm at work at 6am tomorrow, but should I really leave the bar yet? Nah..." or "Karaoke is definitely my bag, but will one more glass of plonk make me better? Damn right it will!"

'Dry January' has become a phenomenon that is really taking hold. As people shudder at the excesses that come with a bit of time off from work at Christmas and the excuse of over-eating and over-drinking, the charity Alcohol Concern and the government joined together to push the idea of giving up the booze for 31 days, in order to get the population to think more about their consumption and the effect it can have on them.

Now, not being one to be tight-lipped on questions of drink, I have my reservations with regards to it, which I'll come to later, but rather than give up in its entirety (even smokers have to have something minty to chew on to munch through the cravings), I have decided to see if there is something on the market out there to fill in the gap of 4 weeks where many of you will be abstaining and waiving the hand of 'no thank you'. Over two articles, I'm going to try some of the alcohol-free alternatives that you can get on the market at the moment (and I'm not doing a taste test on different flavours of Fanta, if that's what you think...).

There are 3 main ways in which you can get rid of the alcohol in wine, but it is important to remember that even de-alcoholised wines start off as normal 9%-12% beverages, and the removal of alcohol only happens after the fermentation process has been completed. The main way of doing it is through a process of 'Steam Vacuuming', where the wine is passed through a vacuum and heated to remove the alcohol (alcohol has a lower boiling point than other liquids), allegedly without getting rid of all the flavours of the wine. Other ways it can be done are through 'Reverse Osmosis' (forcing the wine through a membrane to separate the alcohol from the wine) and through centrifugal force (essentially throwing the alcohol out of the wine - this one is rarely done as it takes many attempts to get a finished product). Debate rages about whether these processes alter the flavour compounds of the liquid (one read of The Daily Telegraph critic Victoria Moore's opinions will have you running for the nearest Shiraz), but the best way to test to see is by quite literally 'downing the entire bottle'...

First off, me and The Lass (who is content to push alcohol to one side for January) popped the cork on Echo Falls Tisane (available at Asda for £3 a bottle). The USP with this is that even though it technically contains 10% grape juice concentrate, it looks like a proper sparkling wine and even smells faintly of a Cava-like drink. A bit citrussy, and a bit herby on the nose (it is infused with Green Tea, mind, so I'd hope it should do), it looks a faintly like apple juice in the glass. Tasting-wise, it isn't bad. Lively stuff and it has a clean taste. Nothing like the real thing though mind.

The following day, we consumed Eisberg Alcohol Free Rose (available to buy in Morrisons for £2.75). We'll start with the good point. Marketed at only 33 calories per glass, it seems to be the perfect tipple for the staunch Dry January-er. Unfortunately, the bad points seem to pile high. It has a slightly oxidised pink look to it, like someone has diluted crab paste. It smells of jelly babies and has a real sweetness on the taste. The taste isn't unpleasant, but it has a slightly fishy aftertaste. Not for everyone.

To finish off, we then tucked into Sainsbury's 'Winemakers Selection' Alcohol Free Red (on sale at Sainsburys for £3). What I found startling was how sweet the wine was. After having a sly butchers at the label, I saw that it has 7.5g of sugar per 125ml glass! Fine if you are trying to avoid the booze, but not so great if you are trying to keep the calories down. It has a slight undiluted blackcurrant cordial taste to it and quite light in body. Perfectly drinkable if you chill it slightly, but don't treat it as a normal red wine.

There are many different places where you can get 'de-alcoholised wines'. Not only are there specialist websites that you can peruse to see what percentage-less bottles you desire (a couple of the best ones are or, but you can easily wander into your local supermarket and get a good selection of products for you to choose from.

Next week, I'll give you a run-down on some alcohol free lagers that can hopefully tame the raging beer beast inside you.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Best supermarket champagne, fizz and sparkling wine

Sparkling wine is the perfect party drink. We’ve picked our selection of the best bottles of affordable fizz for this Christmas and New Year’s Eve.


Tesco Finest Premier Cru Brut ChampagneChardonnay and Pinot Noir

Wow wow wow. For the money, this Champagne is exquisite. An absolute bargain. So much wine for £19. Elegant, fine, crisp, intense. Buy some.

This Champagne spends 30-36 months in the bottle during the second fermentation, which is longer than the average for Champagne. The Chardonnay grapes come from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards near Avize, and the Pinot Noir comes only from the Grand cru villages of Bouzy and Ambonnay.

Aldi Veuve Monsigny Champagne Brut
Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir

This is one of the best value supermarket Champagnes out there. It’s quite often on offer below £10, which is a bit of a bargain. It’s made by Champagne house Philizot & Fils, which is one of the smaller houses. Peachy, a bagful of apples, a lovely creaminess and a nice acidity. Nothing too complex about it, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable.

Waitrose Brut Champagne
Pinot Noir (90%) and Chardonnay (10%)

This is another good value for money champagne: it’s smooth, ripe and elegant. It also has a lovely biscuity toastiness to it, and will go very nicely with lighter pastry starters, or simply as an aperitif. It will happily stand up against some of the big bruts in the champagne world.

Italian fizz – prosecco and Franciacorta

Tesco, Finest Franciacorta
Chardonnay (80%) and Pinot Bianco (20%) 

I’ve been singing the praises of Franciacorta for a good while now, and it’s great to see a relatively inexpensive (and good) bottle in a supermarket. This Tesco Finest example is produced by Castel Faglia. The nose is lemony and doughy – reminds me of a lemon and poppyseed muffin. It’s got a delightful green apple note that gets a bit creamy towards the end, and soft bubbles. If you see bottle of this, do get your hands on one, especially if you haven’t yet tried Franciacorta.

Aldi Prosecco Superiore DOCG

Floral, ripe apples, peachy tones, not too sweet, and with a refreshing acidity, a DOCG wine for this price is good value. DOCG is the highest classification of quality among Italian wines. And when it comes to prosecco, a DOCG one has to be produced in the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Specific.

Sainsbury's Conegliano Prosecco, Taste the Difference

This is my go to supermarket prosecco, and has been for a few years. It’s not too sweet, has fine bubbles, and yummy floral, apricot and citrus notes. Unfortunately though, it’s rather easy to drink.


Calvet Brut Rosé, Crémant de Bordeaux 2016
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

I’m not sure if I should be recommending this wine or not, as it is deliciously moreish. It’s fruity, aromatic, and complex, with a long finish. It’s such a lovely colour too, and much dryer than the blush pink would suggest. It’s perfect as both an aperitif, or to serve with dessert, especially if you’re having a lighter, fruit-based pud. This Crémant is made in the same way as a Champagne, with a second fermentation in the bottle for 11 months before disgorging and dosage.

Calvet Brut, Crémant de Bordeaux 2016
Sémillon and Cabernet Franc

If pink isn’t your thing, Calvet’s Brut Crémant is also lovely. With Crémant, you’re getting a champagne-quality product at a prosecco price, and it’s a good one to try if you fancy something a little different. This wine is fresh and balanced, with fine bubbles, and it tastes like melon and brioche. The Brut has a second fermentation in the bottle for nine months, before disgorging and dosage.

Sainsbury's Crémant De Loire Rose, Taste the Difference
Chenin Blanc (85%) and Chardonnay (15%)

This Crémant is a little sweeter, but is still a perfect party sparkler. It’s also just as delicious in summer as in winter. It’s full of vibrant berry flavours with Galia melon. This is one to have with your smoked salmon blinis on Christmas Day morning.

English sparkling wine

Greyfriars sparkling classic cuvee 2013
46% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir & 18% Pinot Meunier

English sparkling wine is still on the pricier side, but this Greyfriars’ cuvee is surprisingly affordable at £20 a bottle. It’s bone dry, and packed with green apple and lemon flavours. On the nose, it’s minerally (it’s the only one of Greyfriars’ wines that hasn’t been oaked) with zesty citrus and green apple. And there are plenty of bubbles. There are only 11,000 bottles of this vintage, and they’re getting down to the last few, so it’s the last chance you’ll have to taste it.

Bluebell Vineyard, Hindleap, blanc de blanc 2014
100% Chardonnay

Bright, fine bubbles, rich in the mouth, and a very long finish. It’s super fruity, with sharp pink grapefruit, and softer melon. Perfectly delicious to drink today – and drink it I have, with fabulous fish and chips from Fosters in Alderley Edge – but it will keep for a good few years too. 

Chapel Down Three Graces 2014
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier

I’ve had this wine a few times now, and it’s one I really love. It’s great value for the price, and it’s got a lot going on. It’s got aromas of baked apple pie, and some of that rich sweetness comes through when you taste it, mixed with a crisp acidity. Smooth, fine bubbles.