Monday, 15 August 2022

The wines of British Columbia



In June my wife and I headed to western Canada for a long, overdue holiday. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we spent plenty of time hiking in the Rockies, looking out for bears and looking at stunning scenery. However, you may be surprised that we also wanted to do some wine tasting…! British Columbia as a wine region is a very large, very varied and relatively new one (at least in terms of wine regions around the world). It is made of a number of sub-districts stretching from Vancouver Island in the west through to the Kootenays in the East. The climate varies hugely over this range: the area around Vancouver and Vancouver Island is a temperate rainforest, but as you hit Osoyoos in the southern Okanagan Valley you find yourself in the desert. I think this was one of the things that I was least prepared for when visiting the region from the UK.

My perception of Canada prior to embarking on this trip was that it is a cold, northerly country. Actually, where we were in southern BC we were considerably further south than the UK - more on a level with France from a latitude perspective, which explains its propensity for growing French varietals. In fact, I am willing to bet that quite a few people that read this article will be positively surprised to hear that Canada has such a burgeoning wine industry; people may have been aware of its reputation for producing high-quality Ice Wine, but premium Chardonnay or Bordeaux blends? I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that very little wine from BC makes its way over to the UK / Europe. I was told by one producer that 90% of wines produced in BC are drunk in BC. Judging on the experience from my trip, I hope this changes soon!

Source: Wines of British Columbia, which is an excellent source for information if you are planning a trip

We were undertaking a road trip holiday and made a circular loop from Vancouver which took us through the Similkameen and Okanagan valleys, before we headed up towards the famous sights of Banff, Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefields and Whistler. Having a couple of days in BC’s wine heartlands at the beginning of the trip was a great way to ease ourselves into the country, recover from our jet-lag and stock up on wines to enjoy for the rest of our trip! We made our way to a few vineyards over a couple of days, but we quickly realised that we were not nearly as ambitious as others who were visiting the region - many people we met long the way were taking in eight to 10 vineyards in a day. Wine tourism is a serious business there! We saw plenty of people out on what looked like remarkably civilised “batchelerette parties”, but also great initiatives such as cycling wine tours which were promoted to reduce climate change impact (public transport is next to non-existant in the region and pretty much everyone drives).

 

I will shortly take you through where we went and (of course!) what we drank, but before that some general observations. Firstly, the people we met along the way were without exception incredibly kind, generous, and wonderful hosts. They were thrilled to have interest in their wines from us and we were looked after tremendously. Thank you to all those who played their part in that. Secondly, the quality of the wines we tasted was very good. I had been told not to set my expectations too high, but I found that the producers I was making were producing excellent quality, high-end boutique-style wines. Admittedly, I had sought to visit vineyards people had told me were at the top end of the quality spectrum. We did see plenty of evidence of production of wine at the other end to satisfy the casual drinker. Thirdly, as with many wine producing areas the impact of climate change is very real for producers in BC. They obviously have to think about vines that can cope with the deep, long Canadian winters; however my surprise was that they also now have to think about dealing with intense heat in the summer. Temperatures well above 40 degrees in the summer are commonplace. Last year in Osoyoos they experienced a ‘heat dome” which you might remember reading about where temperatures reached 54 degrees, which resulted in wild fires in the region and caused smoke taint in some parts of the crop. 


Similkameen Valley


The tagline for the Similkameen Valley wine area is “a river runs through it”, which it really does! As you drive through the area you are very conscious of the rolling hills that surround you and the wide river valley where the fertile land exists that houses the vineyards. We visited Clos du Soleil vineyard who are a relatively young vineyard, having started production in 2006. The vineyards current owner, Mike Clark - a quantum physicist who previously worked in Cern on the Large Hadron Collider, bought it in 2012. Clark wanted to bring some of his scientific approach to the wine production and has in his time overseen the move of the vineyard to biodynamic farming principles. The soil for the vineyard is rock and sand, the climate is semi-arid - temperatures here can reach the mid-fourties in the height of summer. The very name of the vineyard “Clos du Soleil” gives you a description of its environs - courtyard of the sun - it is somewhat of a sun trap, which is great for the ripening of grapes. The French name for the vineyard gives an indication of the French influence on the estate, almost all of the grapes grown are classical French varietals. The doffing of the cap to traditional styles does not mean though that they do not innovate at Clos du Soleil, recently they have tried out orange wines for example to rave reviews - particularly from the hipsters in Vancouver! 

 

 We tried a number of different wines in our tasting, I will pick out a few of our favourites. One of their more entry level wines is a lovely Fumé Blanc which is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It spends a little time in oak barrels which just gives it a lick of breadth and texture, to accompany its fruity freshness. It is all succulent fruity notes: passionfruit and grapefruit abound. I found their 2019 Winemaker’s Series Chardonnay to be a step up in terms of quality - this spends 10 months in oak and you feel it in terms of the extra richness. I bought a bottle of this and had it one evening when we cooked a seafood pasta dish and it was *chefs kiss*…! On the red side, I’d actually already snuck a sample of one of their most sought after glasses at a wine bar in Vancouver: trying their 2016 Célestiale which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot - a classic Bordeaux blend. The 2019 Célestiale recently received a 92 score from wine critic Anthony Gismondi. Tasting an older vintage showed that this wine could really age well - the ‘16 was in a very fine spot when I tried it, but it easily had another five to seven years in it. The 2019 was clearly a baby and had a very long future ahead of it.


Okanagan - Naramata Bench


When I was looking for suggestions of where to stay when I visited Okanagan I received a number of recommendations for Naramata Bench. As we arrived, it became clear why. This was a stunningly beautiful area - a serene and wonderfully calm lake in the middle of it, flanked by gentle slopes which seemed to be covered in vineyards. This part of the Okanagan seemed to have the highest concentration of vineyards in the region, as you are driving along the roads you pass estate after estate. It is a popular destination for bachelor / bachelorette parties, some people do it by cycling between vineyards. 



As this is one of the more renowned parts of the Okanagan property prices have increased considerably. This tends to mean that most of the wine estates fall into the “boutique” production category - they are small production, but high on quality. That description is perfect for Daydreamer Wines who are nestled on a hilltop with glorious views over the valley. They are unique for a number of reasons - firstly, their head winemaker Marcus Ansems, comes from Australia - but more importantly he is a Master of Wine. That means he seriously knows his wine! A second unique thing about them are the sheep that they have grazing their vineyard who if you’re lucky will come and check you out during your visit. I was shown around by Adam, who is a globetrotting Brit with a love for wine who was settled in British Columbia. I must say that I was struck by how much Adam felt clearly part of the Daydreamer family - the passion with which he spoke about their work was really inspiring. 

As I mentioned wine production for Daydreamer is small, very small in fact - they only produce 2000 cases per year! They have a core stock of Daydreamer wines that they make every year, which is their entry level wine. I really enjoyed their 2021 Daydreamer Rosé, which had a light and pretty nose and was full of summer berry notes. On the palate it was juicy and fresh with a great balance and predominant notes of strawberry and ripe red cherry. We also tasted their 2021 Pinot Gris and Riesling, both of which were also excellent quality and particularly good value. On top of their Daydreamer range they make their “Marcus Ansems” range of wines which they only produce in years when they think the quality is high enough. From their Marcus Ansems range we tried their 2021 Viognier. When done well, Viognier is one of my favourite grapes - but it can also be done rather clumsily and end up a little flabby and ‘meh’. This was certainly in the former camp, as opposed to the latter - a seriously impressive wine. On the nose, it was really well balanced with both tropical and citrus fruits coming to the fore. I also got a faint hint of vanilla and a bit of blossom, which lifted it a little. On the palate it was very fresh and juicy - the predominant flavours were of nectarine and peach, but it had a great richness and weight to it. I bought a bottle of this, which we drank by a fireside in Lake Louise - divine! 

Okanagan - Osoyoos and Oliver 


As you head southwards from Naramata and head towards the US border you feel that the environment starts to change. You move from the grassy valleys and towards a more arid environment. Osoyoos is the most southerly part of the Okanagan wine area and is actually a semi-desert. I think it says something of the way that Canada is often portrayed as a cold, wintery country - but I had no idea that Canada had such variety in its climates!

 

The main part of my visit to Osoyoos involved a trip to see Nk’Mip vineyard, which is owned and run by First Nation people. This was such a remarkable story and an interesting visit that I intend to write a whole separate piece about it - so watch out for that! However, on the way back we stopped off at Phantom Creek vineyard in Oliver. This was clearly a vineyard on which some serious money had been spent - the visitors’ centre and tasting room building was absolutely stunning, with epic views across the valley, however I think what will stay in my memory was the two beautiful sculptures that flank the entrance to their complex. They add some serious drama to the scene. We hadn’t booked ahead for this vineyard and chanced our arm - mistake! They were fully booked, however we were very lucky that one of the staff who felt sorry for us (we may have played the ‘but we came all this way… pretty please!’ card) and managed to get us a couple of samples. He asked what we were interested in and I mentioned that I had heard great things about their Riesling. Well, the good things I’d heard were certainly true - it was gorgeous. I just had to buy a bottle, as you can see from the photo. Exploring their visitors’ centre we also found out that they have a brilliant restaurant on site - next time we come we are definitely booking ahead! 
 
So there you have it - hopefully I’ve piqued your interests in learning more about wines from British Columbia. Have you tried any? Let me know in the comments if you have any favourite producers or recommendations. Also, watch out for my second post on the amazing Nk’Mip winery, which will be coming out in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Happy Piña Colada Day – a little cocktail history and the original recipe

Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. Image by Zixi Zhou on Unsplash

Piña Coladas are a bit like Marmite – you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. They might not have the sophisticated image of a Negroni or an Old Fashioned, but you’d probably also never dream of drinking one of those on a beach in Puerto Rico. 

Like most cocktails, the history surrounding them is a little contentious. The most popular story goes that on 15 August 1954, Ramon ‘Monchito’ Marrero was working as head bartender at the Beachcomber Bar in San Juan’s Caribe Hilton. He poured pineapple juice, creamy coconut (likely Coco Lopez cream of coconut, which was newly available at the time) and a decent slug of Don Q rum into a blender – and a legend was born. 

However, Ricardo Garcia, who also worked at the Caribe, said it was actually him who invented it, and Ramon Portas Mingot also claims it was his idea, but at the Barrachina Restaurant in Old San Juan around a decade later. 

Interestingly, Diffords Guide reports there was written reference to a drink named Piña Colada back in a Travel magazine issue from December 1922. That however didn’t feature any coconut. 

The Piña Colada has gone in and out of fashion over the years. Quality levels took a serious hit in the 1970s as bartenders made quick giant versions with cheap mixers, but that’s been clawed back in recent years, with lighter twists and more focus on quality ingredients.

There’s still a lot of love out there for the Piña Colada, and it even has its own day: 10 July. So grab some ‘strained pineapple’, whip up some desserts, add a bit of coconut and rum to your Hawaiian pizza (ok, or maybe don't), and of course, mix up a taste of tropical sunshine in a glass. 

So if you like Piña Coladas (…and getting caught in the rain. Sorry, it had to be in here somewhere), here’s what is most likely the OG Piña Colada recipe. And even if it’s not, it’s delicious anyway. 

Don Q Piña Colada recipe

Piña Colada cocktail


Ingredients

60ml (2oz) Don Q Gold (we elevated ours with Don Q Reserva 7)

45ml (1.5oz) fresh pineapple juice

30ml (1oz) Coco Lopez cream of coconut

1 dash Angostura bitters

1 cherry for garnish

Method

Blend the ingredients with half a scoop of cubed ice until light and frothy. Aerated, not thick. Pour into a tulip glass and garnish with a cherry. 

Do you love or loathe a Piña Colada? Let us know in the comments below.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Darnley’s gin launches refillable pouches – plus cocktail recipe

Image: Darnley's Gin


While some alcohol brands are making the strange decision to release NFTs left, right and centre (which we know takes a huge amount of energy), others are taking a more sensible and sustainable route.

Darnley’s gin has recently introduced refillable pouches across its range. The Scottish distiller offers 700ml pouches in its Original, Spiced and Navy Strength gins.

Once decanted into a bottle, or drunk from the pouch, you can return them to the company via Freepost, where they will be recycled.

The pouches weight around 50% less than a standard glass bottle, require less energy to produce, and are made from recycled plastics.

William Wemyss, founder of Darnley’s gin, said, “Our sustainability plans for the brand are one of constant improvement and the launch of our gin pouches is part of this journey. We hope Darnley’s Gin fans will not only enjoy these gins, but also return the pouches so the full environmental benefits of this initiative can be realised”.

Darnley’s might not be the first gin brand to offer refillable pouches, but we’re glad to see it joining the likes of Rock Rose, Twisted Nose, Glaswegin and Bullards.

What does Darnley's gin taste like and a cocktail recipe

Image: Darnley's Gin


Time to grab yourself a gin pouch, put your feet up, and say cheers to the fact that you’re doing your little bit to help the planet. Maybe try mixing up one of these cocktails too?

Darnley’s original is a London Dry style gin, juniper-led (yay!) and made with six botanicals: juniper, elderflower, Spanish lemon peel, angelica root, Moroccan coriander seed and orris root. It’s got a lovely creaminess to it with the elderflower and citrus doing a little Mexican wave dance in your mouth. Once the boogying has died down, it’s got a round and warming finish.

Darnley's Delight

Image: Darnley's gin

Ingredients:

50ml Darnley's Original gin
50ml pineapple juice
10ml dry vermouth
Dash of sugar syrup
Dash of Angostura bitters

Method:

Pour all the ingredients into a shaker over ice and shake rapidly. Double strain into glass. Garnish with three drops of Angostura bitters. 

Do you think it's a good idea spirits brands are moving towards improving sustainability?







Monday, 7 February 2022

Recipes: Want a non-alcoholic drink with a serious kick? Try Gimber



Non-alcoholic drinks are having a moment. It feels like barely a day goes by without another non-alcoholic 'spirit' being released. 

However, while you might want a change to alcohol, you might not want an imitator.

Alongside the many non-alcoholic spirits, we've also seen a bit of a boom in the world of fancy soft drinks.

Of course there's the usual Cokes and juices, but now we're seeing more shrubs and drinking vinegars and interesting cordials.

Speaking of, we recently tried Gimber. And we are fans.

What is Gimber?




Gimber is basically a really fancy cordial, with a serious kick. The ingredients are ginger, lemons, cane sugar, herbs and spices. One of the key compounds found in ginger is gingerol, which not only activates spice receptors on the tongue but apparently has also been found to have restorative properties. Some of the benefits that have been linked to gingerol include anti-inflammation, relieving muscle soreness, reducing stress, alleviating nausea and boosting the immune system. 

The name comes from a blend of 'ginger' in Dutch, French and English: gember, gingembre and of course, ginger.

It came about when founder Dimitri Oosterlynck was fed up of constantly drinking alcohol, or something boring or sugary. He couldn't find what he was looking for, so created something entirely new. It all started in 2017, and has been growing since then.

How do you drink Gimber?


In any number of ways. The 'perfect serve' is 30ml of Gimber mixed with 200ml of sparkling water. That will get you a seriously refreshing drink with a spicy kick. It's warming and zesty. The overriding flavour is of course ginger (at least 38% of Gimber is made with high-quality organic ginger), but you do pick up other herbs and spices too, as well as a citrussy note. 

You can also swap you G(in) for G(imber) in your G&T. Add 30ml of Gimber to 200ml of tonic and finish off with a sprig of rosemary.

You can use Gimber in your smoothies...

Fancy a blast of ginger energy with your breakfast? Try this Ginger Pear Smoothie. 

Ingredients: 
3 pears
1 lime
500ml soy milk
30ml Gimber
Optional: Chocolate chips/lime zest to top

Instructions:
Blend everything together
Serve with grated chocolate and lime zest







You can add Gimber to cocktails...


Ok, so it does make a very delicious non-alcoholic drink, but it turns out it tastes great in cocktails as well.

This cocktail recipe is also non-alcoholic, but if you want to turn your mocktail into a cocktail, swap the Everleaf for gin, white rum or tequila blanco.

Ingredients:
30ml Everleaf aperitif
15ml Gimber ginger
1tsp honey water
Top with ginger beer
Garnish with orange wheels




You can even use Gimber as an ingredient in your cooking

Turns out this fiesty cordial is pretty versatile and works well in this seasonal butternut squash salad.

Mix together roasted butternut squash, red onion, kale and feta cheese. 

Dress with a mix of 1tsp Gimber, 20ml olive oil, salt and pepper.








Where can you buy Gimber?

You can buy it direct online (with a 20% discount for your first order) or from the likes of Daylesford, Selfridges, Whole Foods Market, Planet Organic, Dorchester Collection and Harvey Nichols.

It costs £2.99 for 20ml, £14.95 for 200ml, £24.50 for 500ml, and £27.90 for 700ml.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Crus Bourgeois - Bordeaux’s hidden gems?

The last year has been odd to put it mildly. Many of the things that we previously took for granted - and often under-appreciated - we simply haven’t been able to do. For very good reason, as we have had to keep people safe and this has meant sacrifices across the board. Nonetheless, the absence of many of the things that we used to do will have left a holes in a lot of our lives. 
 
For me one such thing has been the ability to attend wine industry events. There has been great innovation from the industry through the rapid development of online tastings and at-home sampling sessions, but quite frankly I have missed the ability to walk through a room, meet the people who make all of this amazing wine that we love, talk to them about their wares and, of course, try their wines. One event I have always looked forward to is the yearly Crus Bourgeois Bordeaux tasting. It was always held in such lovely venues, I tended to bump into friends there and also it was a great opportunity to try these exciting wines. 

 

Steven Spurrier with his Bride Valley wine
I am reflecting on this with a slight melancholy this year as it was at a Crus Bourgeois tasting a few years back that I first met Steven Spurrier (who recently passed away). Of course, he was dressed up in a very dashing suit resplendent with a pocket square, and I was far too star struck to introduce myself to him. Fortunately I put that right at a later event where he was exhibiting his Bride Valley sparkling wine and it was wonderful to meet the great man.
 
For obvious reasons the usual Crus Bourgeois tasting couldn’t take place in 2020, however I was very lucky that I was sent a few bottles to try out this year by my good friends at Phillips Hill Wine PR (many thanks to Jo, Louise, and the team). A great opportunity to reacquaint myself with these wines and a reminder of why I would recommend that you check them out for yourself. Worth also noting that the 2020 Bordeaux En Primeur offerings will be out shortly - definitely worth checking out as 2020 was a very promising vintage (despite all the Corona challenges). 
 

What are Cru Bourgeois wines?

 
Before I tell you about the wines I tasted, a little bit of background and information to set the scene. Crus Bourgeois wines are a classification of wines used in the Medoc, which is on the left bank of the Bordeaux wine region. This region is renowned for its classified growth wines, a system established in 1855 of five classes of wine, representing wines of exceptional quality. The Crus Bourgeois is a very recent addition, which seeks to provide a framework and a promise of quality of wines that sit below the classified growths. This makes them necessarily a lot more wallet-friendly then the wines classified in the 1855 system - more on that below.

 

Image taken from the Crus Bourgeois association
It is fair to say that the system for establishing the Crus Bourgeois system has not been smooth sailing and there have been a few revisions to the system over the last few years since it was first launched in 2010. However in 2020 an agreement was made on the longer term structure for this system. Wines will be reviewed every five years for quality and consistency, and will be grouped into three levels of increasing quality: Crus Bourgeois, Crus Bourgeois Superieur, Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnel. Encouragingly environmental sustainability is one of the significant factors in the grading. The whole Bordeaux region is making remarkable strides in this field - which is great to see. To achieve the higher accolades there is a significant amount of scientific and sensory testing that takes place, including tasting by an independent jury. It is a pyramid system of quality; in 2020 249 estates were classified: 179 were awarded Crus Bourgeois status, 56 were awarded Crus Bourgeois Superieur and only 14 were awarded Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnel. This is big business if you want to receive the highest levels! The 2020 awards will stay with the estates for five years when all will be re-assessed. 

What wines did I try?

 
I tried three wines - all of them from the Haut-Medoc region. For each of them I’ll indicate the grading the estate received in the 2020 classification (although noting that these classifications only apply to the 2018 vintage onwards, so the wines below are all technically Crus Bourgeois), the grape varieties used in them, along with the price point and where you can buy them.

First up was a 2016 Chateau D’Aurilhac (2020 categorisation - Crus Bourgeois; 49% Merlot, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.5% Petit Verdot, 2.5% Cabernet Franc), £18.50 from Lea and Sandeman. Sitting a nice deep ruby in the glass, it was quite light and pretty on the nose with blackcurrant and blueberry notes, accompanied by touches of smokiness. I also thought I detected a slightly floral note to the wine. On the palate, the tannins were soft. I was immediately struck by how well balanced the wine was, which gave rise to an impressively long finish. Primary notes were dark fruits (mainly black cherry), but the savoury notes were there to give the wine its balance.

 

Next up was a 2015 Chateau de Malleret (2020 categorisation - Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnel; 56% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot), £24.50 from Lea and Sandeman. This was a lot deeper in the glass - a properly dark crimson to it. A little bit spicier and more exotic on the nose, it had the same dark fruit notes - but I felt with added concentration. To taste this was certainly a bigger wine. More tannic structure to it, but accompanied by a more luxurious mouth-feel. I felt that the wine had a much deeper and more savoury after-taste - slightly more ”serious“ than the first wine, but that does not mean that the wine was less enjoyable. The finish was similarly long. This was my pick of the three wines.

Last up I tried a 2011 Chateau Lamothe-Bergeron (2020 categorisation - Crus Bourgeois Superieur; 50% Merlot, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon), £14.19 from Co-op. You could tell this wine had more age on it than the other two, it was brick red/brown around the edges, but a faint ruby red in the middle. Lovely ripe berry fruit on the nose, but there were some accompanying savoury notes to add depth to the bouquet. On tasting the tannins had all but gone, but there was some decent acidity to the wine still which gave it some structure. This was a very pleasant wine to drink, not overly showy - but in the perfect spot for drinking now - and also priced very reasonably.
 

Conclusion

 
Overall, I was very impressed with these wines. They were all wines of great quality and with them all being priced at under £25/bottle, I feel they represent excellent value. To get into the classified growths you are looking at spending £50/bottle and up (and up and up!). These are well made wines that will go with food wonderfully, but also make for great drinking on their own with friends (now that we can do that kind of thing again…). 

I think it’s interesting that all of the wines were made up of a large amount of Merlot, something that the left bank is not known for. I suspect that is a deliberate ploy to make the wines softer and more approachable. These aren’t wines to be collected and hoarded away for years before you finally open them - they are wines designed to be drunk and give pleasure. I’d definitely recommend checking them out. If you find any good ones let us know in the comments below!

 

Disclaimer:

 

I was sent these wines as a press sample (thank you again Jo and Louise!). The opinions contained within this article are my own. 


Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Meet the Winemaker: Brendan and Laura from Unico Zelo

 

As we reach the end of what has been a fairly traumatic year for people all around the world. In the world of wine there are many challenges that the industry had faced during this ”annus horribilis”: climate change, severe weather events, choppy international trading environments (understatement alert!), bullying and sexism, the impacts of COVID-19, to name but a few. However, it does feel right to look for some positives amidst this gloomy outlook. I’m a born optimist you see…! One of the main ones for me has been the sudden innovation in thinking around how wineries and producers can communicate with the external world. There has been a rush in new thinking in this space and initiatives have kicked off all over the world - from the prevalence of “Instagram-live” events where producers can talk directly to their market (big shout out at this point to Brad @winetimelondon who is doing this par excellence over on Instagram each weekday evening - check him out if you haven't seen it!); to virtual wine tastings and virtual winery visits - where you can have all the fun of experiencing the products of a winery and meeting the producers, experienced from the comfort of your own home. 
 
Nothing will replace the true joy of standing in a vineyard and directly experiencing the relief of the land, feel the texture of the soils; but as we start to appreciate the impact of international travel on our carbon footprint and the fact that trips abroad can't be accessed by many people, it does feel that these virtual experiences can help bring us closer as consumers to producers and appreciate their product without the time-, and resource-hungry, travelling. 
 
These themes of innovation and sustainability-focus are all brought together in the latest on our series of Aussie “meet the winemaker” series. I spent a very pleasant couple of hours last weekend with Brendan and Laura Carter of Aussie winery “Unico Zelo”. (You can check out my piece on one of other “meet the winemaker” sessions with Oliver’s Taranga here).  
 
Unico Zelo is a winery located in south Australia, near Adelaide and is an endeavour that they built from scratch, which is incredibly impressive when you consider what they have achieved. They produce fantastic wines, at accessible price points, in a way that leaves minimal impact on the environment. On the neck of each of their wines, Brendan and Laura emblazen their philosophy - “from the land we belong to” - and this very much speaks to the approach they take with their wine. Brendan explained this to us by saying that he tries to marry the concept of planting grapes that are perfectly suited to the environment that they find themselves in with low-intervention wine-making styles. The two concepts are very much symbiotic, Brendan says, as you can only have minimal intervention wine-making if you select grape varieties that perfectly suit the environment that you are working in. 
 
It is precisely this point that marks Brendan and Laura out as trailblazers; they acknowledge that there are exceptional sites for production of those grape varieties that did a great deal in putting Australia on the wine-map: Shiraz and Chardonnay. However, and they are extremely passionate throughout our discussion about this, they believe that most of Australia’s wine-growing areas are not sited in places which are suited to production of these varieties. Brendan and Laura looked at the areas around Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley where they source their grapes from and saw that the biggest challenge that they were going to face is that these areas experience drought conditions frequently and that the cost of water had been steadily rising over the recent years. As such, they concluded that they should not be looking to those grape varieties like Shiraz and Chardonnay, who hail from the comparatively wet regions of the Rhône Valley and Burgundy (respectively); instead, they felt that they should be looking at planting grapes that are more suited to their environment - and looked to Italian grape varieties. Their zeal on this point is verging on the fervent - and they are earnest on their mission of passing this message on to winemakers in their surrounding area - with varying levels of success. This is remarkable when you think about it - they are trying to help their competitors see that they need to adapt to survive. Just one of the many remarkable things about Brendan and Laura.


Unico Zelo’s wines



I tried three of their wines, which I purchased from All About Wines (the prices quoted are from their website) who have a good supply of Unico Zelo’s offering.
 
I started with their 2019 “Jade and Jasper” Fiano [£15.99] (UZ make several different Fiano) which had a lovely rich, vibrant colour in the glass. On the nose it was Quite rich and aromatic, I found it very expressive. On tasting, it was  bright and crisp with a crunchy green apple kind of vibe going on. I felt the wine was very clean and fresh, with a rather zippy acidity giving the wine a fairly electric profile.

 

Next up was a 2018 “Cherry Fields” Dolcetto [£15.99] produced in Clare Valley (a little further north than Adelaide Hills and somewhat renowned for Riesling). Interestingly Brendan told us that a very well-known Australian wine producer used to own the site that they get the grapes from but felt that they couldn’t make it work, which gives weight to Brendan’s idea that they were using the wrong grapes. They have opted instead for Dolcetto, a grape renowned for its usage in the wines of Piedmont. On the nose this was a little bit smoky, but was redolent of ripe, bright red fruits - it smelled so inviting! On tasting, it was very balanced, notable levels of acidity, but rich with dark cherry notes. I found this wine to be very approachable, not in a bad way - purely in an “this is a very pleasant wine to drink” kind of way!

 

My last wine was a 2019 ”Truffle Hound“ Barbera, Nebbiolo blend [£15.99], also produced in Clare Valley. In the glass this felt richer and darker than the Dolcetto, the fruits were move black fruit than red fruit. On the palate it was concentrated and intense, there were some quite deep notes at the outset, but on the mid-palate I felt that you got a nice sweep of acidity that provided some good balance to the wine. 
 
You’ll notice that all of the wines retail in the UK for the same price. Again this is deliberate from Brendan and Laura - they say that they aim to make approachable wines, at price points that are also approachable. They know and respect those producers who make ”crafted” wines that generate expensive price tags and become collectors’ items, but that’s not what they got into the game for. They got into the game to promote their ethos and to make great wine sustainably in a way that means that people in 50 to 100 years can also make this wine. Sustainability is an absolute cornerstone of the Unico Zelo story. Brendan and Laura are keen to point out that this isn’t with a hippy, tree-hugger, mindset - instead it is with a business hat on. After all, if something isn’t sustainable, then it is unsustainable, and that is not great for a business model.

COVID-superstar     

Brendan in Decanter for his
“Wine for the People” show

Over these last few months, Brendan has become somewhat of an international COVID superstar (indeed, some of you may have seen that Brendan was featured in the January edition of Decanter on this). He started doing a series of live-streamed, wine-related video content. Brendan told us that he started doing this because he felt a need to remain in connection with people when COVID-restrictions meant that they couldn’t do this in the normal ways. In particular, he was keen to find a way to replace the social element of people finishing up their work and heading for a drink with their mates. So how have they gone about doing this? Brendan launched a series called “Wine for the People”, a purposefully social, irreverent take on wine and friendship. This has featured inspired broadcasts on subjects like “shit wine inventions” that you get sent by relatives when they know you’re a wine lover, and looking for wine matches with all the different flavours of Pringles. Seriously. It’s fun, it’s a little silly, it’s what we all needed in 2020.
 
Many thanks to Brett Jones (@austwinetasting on Twitter) and Ollie Farquharson (@ollieozwineuk) for setting this up, and of course huge thanks to Brendan and Laura for giving up their time to spend a couple of hours with us. It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation and truly inspiring. With innovative and forward-thinking individuals like them in the wind industry, I have every hope that it will be able to survive the tumultuous events we are currently experiencing. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Wine-influenced gin with Chapel Down’s gin


Two of the great loves in my life are wine and gin. I was really excited then when I recently received as a gift two bottles of gin from a distillery run by giants of the English wine scene - Chapel Down. Chapel Down have been experiment with their product line for a little while now. Their beer “Curious Brew” is really worth looking out for - it features on the drinks list of some pretty great restaurants, particularly a couple of high-end Indian restaurants that I have been to.

So, when I received these two bottles of gin I was intrigued. I was ever more interested when I looked at the bottles and saw that the two bottles had been made by distilling the grape skins of two of the grapes that they use for their wines - Bacchus and Pinot Noir; the idea being that the spirit created would take on some of the characteristics of the grapes that were used in the base spirit. Interesting… my inner wine geek is curious - time to make a taste test!  

Bacchus Gin

 

I started with the Bacchus. Bacchus is a Germanic grape that many people feel that the climatic conditions in England could lead to this becoming the preeminent grape for still white wines. It tends to display gooseberry and elderflower notes; with a very high, rapier-like, acidity which gives it bite and freshness. In their gin Chapel Down distilled the base spirit with botanicals of coriander, elderflower, lavender and orange peel (amongst others). Neat in the glass, I could tell that this was a very aromatic gin - on the nose I got a little hint of that coriander spice, along with the more expected citrus notes. 

 

I made this into a gin and tonic with an 100ml serving of Schweppes Signature Collection tonic water and added a garnish of lemon peel. This made for a very fresh and clean GnT, which really picked out those lemon / citrus notes. I also thought that I got a bit of those elderflower notes that I was expecting from the Bacchus influence and the botanicals. 

 

To experiment a bit further, I made a Gin Martini with the Bacchus gin - which is probably my all time favourite cocktail. I love it because it is both simple (only two ingredients) and complex (because you can play with it so much and I am quite particular as to how I like it!). Here is the recipe that I followed:

 

70ml Chapel Down Bacchus Gin

20ml vermouth (I used Sacred English Dry Vermouth)

Stirred not shaken*

Garnish - twist of lemon

 

I am not one of those people who only puts a hint of vermouth in their martinis, or who just uses it “to coat the ice”; I like to taste the influence of the vermouth in the martini - and when you have an award-winning, highly-crafted product from someone who know what they are doing, why wouldn’t you want to taste it?! This was an excellent Gin Martini, I really think that the aromatic flavours from the gin came through nicely and complemented the twist of lemon. 


because James Bond is an idiot and doesn’t know how to make cocktails.


Pinot Noir Gin

 

I probably don’t need to introduce Pinot Noir too much, but worth noting that it is one of the four grapes that goes into Chapel Down’s Sparkling Brut - in fact it currently makes up 42% of the blend (some of you may be thinking “four grapes? What’s the fourth grape?” Good question - there is 5% Pinot Blanc in the Brut). The gin is infused with botanicals of coriander, dried red berries, Angelica root, citrus fruits, rosehip and rosebuds. The first thing that you notice about the gin is that it does have a slightly rose colour to it in the bottle. On smelling it you really do notice a different flavour profile - this is more floral, it as a kind of prettiness that reminded me of a rose blooming away happily in June. I thought I detected some red fruit notes of strawberries and red cherries, but I wondered if I was looking for that because I knew of the PN influence and the botanicals. 

 

I made this into a Gin and Tonic using the same measure of tonic as in the Bacchus, but I added a different garnish, this time frozen strawberrries, in order to bring out those aromatics. This drink really gives you a lovely, lush and fruity GnT - but those floral notes are still there too. I really enjoyed this. Whereas the Bacchus was a classic, summery GnT; this felt a little more autumnal - which is quite appropriate right about now!

 

To play with this gin, I went in a different direction and to my other gin-cocktail-favourite: the Negroni! I figured that the red berry notes would make for a good accompaniment to those bitter Campari flavours. Negronis are really simple to make, I used the following:

 

30ml Chapel Down Pinot Noir Gin

30ml Campari

30ml Asterley Brothers Dispense Amaro 

 

This made for a really rather excellent negroni, I was very pleased with my hunch that this would go well.

 

So there you have it, two really excellent and interesting gins that would make the perfect gift for the wine lover in your life, or a nice addition to your own selection. Both bottles can be bought from the Chapel Down shop for £35/bottle, but they are doing an offer on two as a pack for £60.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

A forward-thinking whisky: Nc'nean


For those of you who've been following this blog for a while, you may remember reading a post that I wrote last year about the launch of a new distillery in Scotland called Nc'nean (I wrote about this experience and where their unusual name came from, so I won't cover that again in this piece). They launched with the release of a set of unique "botanical spirits", which were designed to act as a precursor the whisky that they were hoping to release this year (you can still buy a bottle of their botanical spirit on Master of Malt for £24.95). Well, fast-forward a year (and the less said about that year the better...) and it is time for Nc'nean to unveil their whisky to the world. It seemed somehow appropriate that whereas the botanical spirit was launched at a glitzy event in 2019 at a private members' club, the whisky was launched in 2020 in a virtual tasting over Zoom!

It says a lot about Nc'nean and their CEO, Annabel Thomas, that despite all of the difficulties that 2020 has thrown at them - they have been able to achieve so much. They opted to sell the first 10 bottles of their whisky through an auction to raise money for charities - knowing that first bottles are often valued highly amongst collectors. They weren't wrong. The 10 bottles raised a record £92,000 for charity, with the first bottle going for an incredible £40,000 (you can read more about this story here)!

If that were not impressive enough, Nc'Nean has continued its voyage of sustainability - which is a concept at the very centre of its brand. Annabel told us with great pride that they had been successful in working with a supplier to bottle their whisky in 100% recycled, clear glass which requires no virgin sand in its production and reduces its carbon footprint by 40%. Furthermore, Annabel said that Nc'nean are considering a programme whereby people can return their used bottles to the distillery for refilling. Very impressive stuff! In addition, Nc'nean have made great progress on their aims for zero waste to landfill (in 2019 they achieved 99.9% waste being recycled) and efforts to solely power their distillery from sustainable energy sources. You can read more about their sustainability initiatives here.  

The Whisky!

I'm sure some of you are thinking, "this is all well and good, but what about the whisky? What was that like?!". 

Well, to launch their whisky, Annabel was joined on the call by Dave Broom - a noted whisky expert who writes at The Whisky Manual, and took us through the tasting. We started off by sampling the whisky - which sits a pretty gold in the glass - neat. On the nose it is quite heady with some spicy notes at first that are gradually replaced with softer fruity notes. There are some slightly sweet vanilla flavours there too. On the palate the first thing I wrote down was "beautiful!"; it was really open and warm, with slightly sweet and fruity with stone fruit notes (peach and apricot) which is then subsumed with a bit of warmth and spice. The really impressive thing with this whisky was just how complex and developed it was for a whisky only three years old.

You can buy Nc'nean's whisky from £47.95 (without the option of buying a cardboard container - which they offer to reduce packaging) from their website. Their first batches sold out very quickly, but they are currently taking orders for their October bottling - I'm certainly going to be placing an order!  

The "Whisky Six"

Whisky Six Nc'nean

Photo taken from the Nc'nean website
 
After this Dave took us through an alternative way of enjoying the whisky - a "Whisky Six", which is a highball serve that is used for single malt whiskies. According to Dave this was a very popular way of enjoying whisky as a long drink from the nineteenth century that has latterly fallen out of fashion, but is a method that Dave very much enjoys. The recipe that Dave and Nc'nean suggest is as follows:
  • Two parts Nc'nean whisky (50ml)
  • Four parts soda water (100ml)
  • Chunks of ice
  • Garnish of mint  

The result is a nice and refreshing drink, which is complemented by the mint. The aim of the drink isn't to mask or hide the whisky, but to enhance it. Annabel spoke about wanting to showcase her whisky in this way in order to make sure that a wide and diverse group can appreciate the drink. This is another area that is at the heart of the Nc'nean project, embracing gender diversity - Annabel leads a team of 10, seven of whom are female; something which is not typical of your average whisky distillery!

I would like to thank Annabel and the team at Full Fat for inviting me to attend this virtual launch - it was a great experience! I shall be following carefully Nc'nean's development over the next few years. To my mind anything that promotes a more sustainable and more inclusive world can only be a good thing - if that thing is also a whisky then even better! 

Disclaimer: I was sent the whisky as a sample. The opinions contained in this article are nevertheless my own.  

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Discovering Oliver’s Taranga


One of the unexpected developments during 2020 has been the wide-spread adoption of video conferencing across the world. This has given rise to all kinds of innovation and creativity within the wine trade. I have experienced this in the form of virtual wine tastings and wine seminars that have helped to fill some of the void of those events and wine travels that we would normally go to, but are unable to due to the “current climate” (no more needs to be said here!).  

I have been lucky to have been included in an awesome initiative that has been started by Aussie wine legend Brett Jones who is a big deal on social media under the handle @AustWineTasting and UK-based wine merchant Oliver (Ollie) Farquharson, who specialises in distributing Aussie wines from his business Helver Wines. Brett and Ollie hit on the genius idea of promoting the wine of people who they know and respect through hosting Zoom calls with these producers and a group of UK-based wine lovers, myself included. The aim of these sessions is to allow us to get to know the people behind these wines, to ask them questions and to chat generally about matters ranging from the impacts of COVID-19 on the wine trade to our collective hatred of the “clean wine” movement. We all buy at least a bottle of the producers’ wines, from a local indie wine merchant - also doing our bit to keep the wine trade going. Over the last few months we have had memorable sessions with Dowie Doole (who do an amazing sparkling Shiraz) and Santolin (whose Chardonnay is next level good!). However, for our last session with Corrina Wright from McLaren Vale’s Oliver’s Taranga, I hit on the idea to gather a few of us on the call together to hold a socially-distanced wine tasting session for the call. That way we could taste a greater selection of the wines. It was with great joy that I welcomed Lee, James, Peter and Carrie to my house and we got set up for the call (plus Serena who joined us from Cyprus as you do!).

 

Before, I talk about the wines - a bit of information about Oliver’s Taranga. The vineyard was planted in the nineteenth century and gets its name from “Oliver” which is Corrina Wright’s (the boss) family name (they were originally from Scotland but emigrated in the nineteenth century) and “Taranga” which is the aboriginal name for the site and means “crossing point”. Until the 1980s the vineyard grew grapes which it sold to neighbouring wineries - these weren’t just any wineries though, they included Penfold’s and D’Arenberg - so you can tell that they knew what they were doing. Corrina then persuaded her father to let her start selling wines under her own label and this is where Oliver’s Taranga wines came from. When you look at their selection, whilst there are familiar grapes on their range (Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.), what is immediately notable is the inclusion of lesser known grape varietals for the Maclaren Vale region such as Fiano, Tempranillo and Sagrantino. Corrina explained that this was a mix of wanting to do something different and looking to future-proof the vineyard against climate change. In particular, she was looking to Italy and Spain to find grapes that flourish in drier/drought conditions, something that is an increasing issue in the region.
 

So, onto the wines - what did we try…?


We started with their 2020 Fiano (we of course remarked on how this vintage will be viewed in a few years’ time, consensus was that it will be infamous). On the nose it had nice green apple and slight stone fruit (peach / nectarine) notes. James noted that he thought it had the slightest hint of white pepper, reminiscent of a Grüner Veltliner. On the mouth this was delicious and fresh with a really vibrant acidity that gave it a zippiness. It was though, really nicely balanced, in that it doesn’t have an ascerbic / tart after taste that burns the mouth, instead the juiciness is what lingers. A really pleasing wine - good with food, but equally good to drink on its own on a summer’s afternoon. Available for £16/bottle.      

 

Next up we had the 2017 Tempranillo (better known as the grape that is used to make Rioja). This was a really pleasing wine, with lots of quite pretty flowery notes to it, to match. There are some fruity flavours in this wine, more on the dark side, but there is also quite a nice savoury element to this making it a decent wine to have with some food. Obviously given the Spanish connection, I’m thinking some nice tapas (chorizo and padron peppers - yum!!). Available for £18.99/bottle (2018 vintage now)

 

After this we had a couple of Shirazes, young and old which allowed us to do some comparisons. 

 


First was the 2017 Shiraz, which we all remarked was an immensely impressive wine. We hadn’t decanted it, but it already had a presence and a maturity that belied its relative youth. Its tannins had already softened and we were really bowled over by the depth of the wine. The dark fruits that you would expect were there: blueberries, plums and blackcurrants come to mind, but there was already an impressive breadth to the wine, we were getting those deeper notes of coffee and dark chocolate. A big hitter, indeed! Available for £17.50/bottle.

 

We compared this against a 2004 Shiraz (which was under cork), which we did decant. As expected with a wine of increased years on it, this had got some tertiary development on the wine with more smoky, savoury, meaty flavours coming through. That’s not to say that all the fruit was gone however, with those characteristic dark fruits (black cherries, blackberries) coming through. The 2004 is ridiculous value for a wine of this quality, but we were also really impressed with the 2017. I think I may be purchasing a few more of these in order to see how it develops over the next couple of years. Available for £23/bottle.

 

The last wine we tried was a new grape for me, their 2014 Sagrantino. Sagrantino, as you can probably tell, is an Italian grape that is known for being the most tannic grape varieties in the world. I hadn’t tried it before from Italy but was looking forward to trying this example. The wine had a tremendous power to it, with a lovely brooding nature. It had all the dark aromas that you would want - dark fruit and a chocolate / cocoa profile to the wine, but I also thought it had a nice floral note to it too. On tasting, yes the tannins were there, but they had already softened nicely to my taste. It left the wine with quite a rich and opulent mouth-feel. Definitely a good wine to have with some as expensive a cut of sirloin that you can get. Available for £24.99/bottle.

 

All wine prices are quoted from Wanderlust wines who stock Oliver’s Taranga wines in the UK. 

 

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Corrina for taking the time to talk to us, and to Brett and Ollie for putting all of this together and organising this rag-tag bunch. Wine folk really are the best people!