Thursday, 6 December 2018

Wine subscription boxes: the best ones on offer

For me, one of the best ways that you can expand both your knowledge about wine and your wine collection is through a wine subscription. Wine subscriptions tend to work in various ways but there are a few general models: the first is one where you pay a monthly subscription fee to a wine merchant or distributor, who at an interval that you agree use the funds to buy wines that you can then have delivered or stored in reserves; the second is a subtle variation where you get a monthly box of wine in exchange for whatever subscription you pay. As you can probably imagine, like anything, the more money you put into the subscription the greater either the value of the wines that you buy or the volume of bottles. The real beauty for me, is that you put your hard-earned cash in the hands of real experts with often long-lasting and deep relationships with producers, and that you can take advantage of the wine merchants’ superior buying powers to get access to special wines or producers that as a lone collector you may not have access to. Obviously, the trade-off is that you don’t personally select your wines, but letting someone else make that decision can often be a relief!
Over the last few months, I have tried a few different subscription services and will take you through these and give you my thoughts on them:

The Wine Society

The Wine Society is a wonderful merchant whom I believe that every UK wine lover should be a member of. They are run as a co-operative and therefore the profits that they make our put back into the business, which often allows them to keep their prices at a very reasonable level. In fact they went about three or four years recently without putting their prices up; they have had to do so recently due to post-Brexit related currency fluctuations. Another real strength of the Wine Society is that they have been around since 1874 and as such have really well-developed relationships with producers. This translates itself to a very sustainable approach to business, which puts them at odds with supermarkets, who by-and-large use their huge demand to screw down producers to the lowest possible price in order to maximise profits. The Wine Society, however, takes a different approach realising that unless they offer a fair price to their suppliers that they may not exist in the future and that would be to everyone’s detriment. It is fair to say that I favour this approach strongly, over the supermarkets’.
In terms of subscription offerings, the Wine Society has a number of different Vintage Cellar Plans, including “World Classics” (reds from round the world, outside of France), “Claret” and “White Burgundy” cases (which speak for themselves), and lastly “French Classics”. I have been a subscriber for a few years now to their “French Classics”, currently at a subscription level of £55/month, which gets me 24 bottles a year (with an average bottle price of £25 - £30). The bottles are reds from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône; I wish that I also got some whites, but alas this subscription doesn’t offer any. There is an option to take a supercharged French Classics subscription at £200/month, which gets you even better wines, but that’s a little rich for me…

One of the aspects that I particularly enjoy about the Wine Society’s subscription is that I can transfer the bottles direct to their storage facilities in Stevenage, which means that I can leave the bottles in a well-looked after facility until I am ready for them. At £8 (+VAT) per case of 12 bottles, I feel that this is excellent value. I am still working on getting an area in my house with conditions that I am happy with to store wine for long periods of time, in the meantime I like the fact that I can store these bottles somewhere where they are safe and maturing nicely.

Over the last few months I have withdrawn some of my wines from storage and sampled some to give you an idea of the kinds of wines that I have had within my subscription:

2013 “Les Hauts Jarrons” Premier Cru Savigny-les-Beaunes (Burgundy): Sat lovely and light in the glass, cherry red in colour with a hint of tawny. On the nose the primary aromas were rich, red cherry with a little touch of strawberry compote; there were also some slightly deeper, savoury aromas of bacon and leather. When tasted, the high acidity was notable and gave it a real bite, the dominant flavours were of red fruit. This was a very pleasant wine, that over the next five years is going to be beautiful. I’m glad I have five more bottles!

2009 Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis en Medoc, Bordeaux): A light ruby in the glass, this had pleasant berry aromas (blackberry and black cherry) with a touch of damson about it. On tasting, this had a really decadent feel to it, soft tannins which have opened up nicely. There were notable dark fruit flavours to the wine (prunes?) and a pleasing pinch of dark chocolate. A real crowd-pleaser of a wine that is drinking very nicely indeed right now.

2010 Pierre Aiguille Paul Jaboulet Aine (Gigondas, Rhone): This is a robust and rich southern Rhone wine made from a blend of Grenach and Syrah. Being that little bit older it has a slightly deeper nose to it with plenty of oak-induced smoke and savoury leather notes to accompany the familiar red berry fruit aromas. On tasting, it has a noticeable weight to it, although it is nicely counter-balanced with a good acidity to the wine, which means that you don't really notice the 14.5% alcohol on the wine. This is a really excellent wine and a timely reminder that the southern Rhone is about much more than just Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of wines that I've got in my cellar (both the ones that are in my actual house and the ones that are in storage in Stevenage). I look forward to expanding my selection over the coming months and years!



20h33 are a wine importer who specialise in wines from the Bordeaux region; in fact their whole name is a reference to Bordeaux wine - 20 in French is “vignt” which sounds very much like “vin” and 33 is the dialling code in France for Bordeaux… clever, eh?! They have a number of different subscriptions that you can opt for at different pricing levels and different calibres of wine, these range from their Discovery box (£50/month) to their Five Star box (which goes for a stonking £500/month). You get six wines every three months for this - I can only dream of the amazing wines that you’d be getting in the Five Star box - what a treat that would be to come home to! I sampled some of their wines at their “Premium” level (£100/month), which arrived in the post in a very stylish-looking black box.
What I particularly enjoyed about this subscription box was that it contained a selection of wines both red and white - you don’t always fancy a rich, complex, red wine!

2012 Château Lilian Ladouys (Saint Estephe, Bordeaux): Had a really vibrant, rich nose with blackcurrant and blackberry flavours dominant; slightly on the jammy side, even. There was also a faint whiff of smokiness on it, which gave an indication of age and time in barrel. On tasting, the tannins were very much still there and doing their thing. This was quite an austere wine at first that had a nice mid-palate evolution that saw black fruit notes come through, without being overly sweet. A bit of a thinker of a wine. I reckon in two or three more years, this will have softened just a little more and will be absolutely delicious.

2013 Château Samion (Lalande-de-Pomerol, Bordeaux): Nice and juicy nose with bags of red fruit personality, strawberries abundant with a side-swipe of blackcurrant and damson coming through. On tasting it was more savoury in profile than I was expecting with a touch of smokey bacon coming through once it had sat in glass for a bit. Probably more developed than I was expecting for a wine of this age. Was a really good food-wine, but also crossed over as a pleasant (if not mind-blowing) sipping wine.

2011 Château Moulin De La Roquille (Cotes de Francs): Featuring a very expressive nose with notes of hawthorne and rose giving it a quite perfumed aroma. There were also primary notes of dark fruit, blueberries and damson, coming to mind. There was also a faint whiff of smoke to the wine, an indication of gentle oak use in the ageing process. On tasting it was rather rich and juicy, with notes of cassis and damson coming to the fore; I thought that perhaps it was a little flabby and needed a little more acidity to give it a little more energy. It was a very pleasing wine to drink, nonetheless.

2015 “Nobody’s Perfect” (Entre Deux Mers, Bordeaux): A Muscadelle, this is an exciting wine made by Dawn Jones-Cooper using a biodynamic winemaking process. On the nose it has bags of stone fruit notes, think peaches and apricots; but with a slight hint of something tropical going on that makes it very interesting. On tasting, this is a lovely and clean wine with subtle citrus fruit notes followed by a delicious minerality that preserves the clarity of the wine. The finish is nice and long due to its wonderful balance. This is a fantastic wine and one that pairs very well with food.

Your Sommelier

The premise behind Your Sommelier is that it was set up by two successful French bankers who, having settled in London, found that they felt that they couldn’t get decent French wine in the UK without paying large sums of money. To remedy this, they set up Your Sommelier which retails wine online and lets people choose between direct purchases and wine subscription boxes (the aim being to take the hassle out of wine selecting, for those people who find it a hassle). Each month you receive three wines, along with product sheets to tell you a bit more about them. I received a selection box from them (disclosure - I was sent this as a sample) that was very much focussed on a Christmas theme - it contained: some bubbles, a claret and a dessert-wine - what more do you need for a Christmas celebration?!

NV Domaine Stoeffler Cremant d’Alsace (Alsace): I am a big fan of cremants, as they represent tremendous value when it comes to bubbles - and I am particularly a fan of cremants from Alsace! This wine features grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois - classic grapes for this region. This wine has a nice mix of juicy, fruity notes (think peaches and apricots), along with a slightly creamy texture that gives the wine a decent profile. What separates this wine from Champagne is the absence of those richer, biscuity notes; but not everyone likes those! This is a very pleasant wine for toasts and aperitifs as it has such a nice clean palate. At c. £12 bottle too, it represents exceptional value!

2014 Château Moulin de l’Esperance Cuvée Ulysse (Bordeaux): This was a somewhat-disappointing entry level Bordeaux. It had some decent, primary fruit notes, but not much beyond that. In terms of finish, it was all over a little quick really. Bordeaux is one of those regions where you have to spend a bit of money to get a wine worth noting and I feel that this one fell a little short of my expectations (particularly when compared against the others I have noted in this article - although admitting that you have to pay more for these wines).

NV Vignoble des Aubas Gros-Mansang Moelleux (Cotes de Gascogne): This is a pleasing wine (provided, of course, that you like dessert wines. This does a good job of balancing sweet notes on the wine with decent acidity, which means that it doesn’t get too cloying. Overall it is not the most complex dessert wine that I have ever tried, most of the flavour is in the primary notes of candied pineapple and honey. There is however a decent whack of acidity on it, though, which stops it being overly cloying.

Their “Discovery Box” is £36/month, whereas their “Expert Box” reaches up to £60/month (featuring wines from more renowned appellations and producers versus the Discovery Box).


There you have it, a number of different options available to the budding wine connoisseur, who wants to either expand their collection or perhaps learn more about a wine region/area. For those who can afford it, I think setting aside £50 - £100 a month and putting it in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing when it comes to buying good wine will quickly help you develop a little portfolio of wines to choose from. After all, you may have the option later on as your collection blossoms and matures to be able to get into selling some of the wines that you have in your collection (and use the proceeds to purchase some new wines?!).
So, with Christmas coming up - perhaps a wine subscription could be a nice gift idea for that special wine lover in your life?! Or perhaps you can treat yourself? After all, you have been a good boy/girl this year, haven't you...?

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Innocent imbibing: non-alcoholic alternative to a gin and tonic

We love a gin and tonic, we know you know love a gin and tonic… but sometimes, occasionally, even we don’t want to drink alcohol. I know, hard to believe right?

Quite a few people have heard of Seedlip now, which was the first big non-alcoholic ‘spirit’, but a few more are starting to pop up here and there.

One of those is Borrago. Its #47 Paloma Blend is made in the UK, and is a blend of six steam-distilled botanicals. The ingredients are a close kept secret, but I picked up on some pepper, citrus, clove, mint, and spice. It has no sugar, or fat, or calories – and is vegan and gluten free too – so is a bit different to the usual adult soft drink.

Before mixing, the nose is certainly potent. It reminded me of my nana’s old medicinal toothpaste… which is not quite what I expected, and not entirely pleasant. But honestly, once you’ve mixed it, it totally changes. With a good tonic, and a fresh garnish – Borrago suggests orange and basil – it is really delicious, and super refreshing. It's dry, heady, and almost a bit savoury as well. There's a lot going on, but in a good way.

Lime and mint also works nicely as a garnish. Basically, keep it light, and stay away from anything too bitter, like grapefruit.

It’s great to be able to offer drivers, non-drinkers, Dry January-ers, Stoptober-ers, something a bit different from water or squash when they pop over.

Borrago recipes

The Borrago signature serve
25ml Borrago #47 Paloma Blend
150ml Fever Tree tonic
Orange slices
Crushed basil

Pour the Borrago over ice and top up with tonic.

Clap the basil between your hands to release the aromas.

Add orange slices and a borage flower if you have one.

Borrago Green Fizz
25ml Borrago #47 Paloma Blend
25ml Lemon juice
25ml Basil syrup
2 fresh basil sprigs

Shake well over ice. Double strain into a glass loaded with crushed ice and garnish with a large sprig of basil and a borage flower if you have one.

You can buy a bottle of Borrago for £19.99 (500ml), from the Borrago website, or Master of Malt.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Friday Cocktail: Toffee Apple Martini

Although they were a favourite of mine, I don't think I've had a toffee apple since I was about ten. After that, everyone kept going on about how they'd rot and break my teeth, and how they were for kids, and I fell out of the habit of eating them. Autumn became just a bit less fun.

I've decided to change all that this year, and have rekindled my love of the toffee apple by adding an adult, martini-shaped twist. This really is a simple cocktail, but it's definitely one of the absolute tastiest I've come up with. It will also be perfect for Bonfire Night, which, by the way guys, is only a few days away.

Toffee Apple Martini recipe (serves one)


  • 1.5 shot vodka
  • 1 shot toffee liqueur (I used Dooley's)
  • 1 shot apple cider
  • 1 shot apple juice
  • Squeeze lemon juice
  • Toffee sauce and an apple slice, to garnish

Shake it!

1. Rim the glass by dipping it in a plate of toffee sauce. It's a slightly messy task, and will induce much finger-licking (bonus.)
2. Combine the vodka, toffee liqueur, cider, apple juice, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker and stir vigorously. You can do this over ice (and then strain) if you like, but I prefer this particular recipe without (I normally just use vodka from the freezer, and make sure the cider and apple juice is refrigerated for a while before use.)
3. Pour carefully into the glass, and garnish with a slice of apple.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Bonfire Night Cocktail: Grand Spiced Coffee

I know today is Halloween, and so you're probably spending the afternoon thinking about whether you can pull off that fancy dress costume you've got planned and deciding which of our Top 10 Halloween Cocktails to make, but We Need To Talk About Bonfire Night.

Because you might also be planning a Bonfire Night party this weekend, and because you also might want to stock up on some tasty drinks treats for the big night itself, we've decided to make our latest cocktail all about Remember, Remembering the 5th of November.

Whether you're planning on being out at a fireworks display, playing with sparklers in the garden, having a big bonfire with your neighbours or even just curling up indoors and listening to the whizzes and bangs outside your window, this cocktail is the perfect treat.

There's something about the blend of orange and cinnamon that makes this one heck of a coffee: not just for Bonfire Night, but for the whole of autumn. 

Grand Spice Coffee recipe (serves one - multiply as needed)

This classic combination of strong coffee with Grand Marnier’s notes of orange is heightened by the sweet taste of cinnamon – the ideal cocktail to keep you warm by the Bonfire.

  • 22.5ml Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge
  • 1 espresso shot
  • Cinnamon powder
  • Whipped cream
  • Ginger powder

1. Combine the espresso and Grand Marnier in a cocktail glass, with a pinch of powdered cinnamon.
2. Top with a thin layer of whipped cream and sprinkle with powdered ginger

Recipe and photo provided by the lovely guys at Alexander and James.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Friday Cocktail: The Crambaretto for Bonfire Night

If you're looking for a nice, easy, warming, tasty cocktail that doesn't need much brain power, look no further than the Crambaretto. It puts together some gorgeous autumnal flavours, and will heat you through any Bonfire Night celebrations you might have planned.

Don't be fooled by the simplicity, the rich, fruity, soothing flavours are perfect for sipping, and cry out for a pitcher to be close at hand.

This will also be a beautiful pitcher to have at Christmas dinner parties, but to be honest, I just drink it all year round.

The Crambaretto recipe (serves one)


  • 3 shots cranberry juice
  • 1.5 shots amaretto
  • 0.5 shot triple sec/cointreau/grand marnier
  • 2 tbsp fresh orange juice

Shake it!

1. Pour all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake it like a catherine wheel.
2. Strain into an old-fashioned glass, and garnish with a slice of orange and - if you have any handy - a couple of fresh cranberries.

Image taken from FibroBlast's photostream under the CCL

Thursday, 25 October 2018

A wine odyssey in Madeira

What do you think of when you hear the word “Madeira”? For some people it will be the famous Madeira cake, for others it will be an island escape beloved by British retirees, for others still it will be Cristiano Ronaldo (best not to dwell on that one), and lastly, for some it will be that odd bottle of wine that your grandparents keep in their drinks cabinet and they serve with cake. I visited Madeira recently and a big part of the motivation for the trip was to get to know and understand the wines of Madeira a bit better. I flew into Funchal and set about exploring this quaint little city that has an old-world kind of charm to it and, fortunately for me, is the perfect place to explore the Madeiran wine scene.

A visit to Madeira royalty - Blandy’s

The first stop on our Madeira tour was to visit one of the most famous wine brands in Madeira, but also the world - Blandy’s. Blandy’s Wine Lodge is situated on the edge of one of the nicest squares in Funchal, which is saying something as Funchal has quite a number of charming squares. We met up with our guide for the morning, Rita, who explained that we would be starting our tour with a quick trip to a local vineyard circa 10 minutes away - the only vineyard within the Funchal city limits. It is a small vineyard that is attached to a Blandy family property that was bought in the 19th century and contributes a small proportion to the overall Blandy production, as most of the grapes that it sources for its products are bought from local farmers who it incentivises to grow better produce through increased prices for superior quality grapes.

Most of the grapes are sourced from the south-west and north of the island. This charming little vineyard has rows of vineyards in both the traditional format that most people are familiar with, but also the latada format where vines grow over trellises to form a canopy that looks quite attractive. We saw several varieties that go into Madeira whilst we wandered around, including Terrantez and Verdelho; but we also saw evidence of herbs and plants also being grown in this space nestled above Funchal - according to Rita, the Blandy family sell produce from this vineyard garden to several of the top hotels in Funchal, they also rent out the attractive house that borders the vineyard for holiday lets (find link to hotel). Talk about diversifying your estate!

After this little excursion we headed back to Blandy’s Wine Lodge for a tour around the museum, which had lots of interesting information about the Blandy family, its heritage and development over the years. The Blandy family is currently headed by CEO Michael Blandy, with his son Chris Blandy who runs the company day-to-day. The Blandy family itself has a considerable property interest in the island, it owned famous Reid hotel in Funchal up until recently, as it sold it to the Belmond Group in 2014. In addition to this they have interests in shipping companies, insurance and a number of other ventures. This really is a family that has become central to the whole of the island’s life.

After the museum we had an incredibly exciting behind-the-scenes tour to the family’s private wine collection - which was a sight to behold! They had bottles of Madeira going back through the 19th and even the 18th centuries. The oldest bottle of wine in the collection is a 1755! Madeiran wines are particularly well known for their extraordinary longevity and as such they are very confident that the 1755 would be perfectly wonderful when it is eventually opened for drinking. I asked what occasion the 1755 is being saved for and the answer was that they weren’t sure - in truth it seems to be something of a family heirloom now, being handed down from generation to generation; no one wants to be the one that finally opens it! It was really quite awe-inspiring to stand next to one of the oldest bottles of wine in the world. The 1755 grabs the attention but what was also noticeable was the comprehensiveness of the collection of 19th century wines; most vintages from this century are represented. We joked that the room felt a bit like a cross between a library and a museum, but in truth this is what it was the collected knowledge and experience of the Madeira island going back over 200 years.

The Wines

After all of this, it was time to taste some of their wines! We made our way through to their private tasting room, which was elegantly decorated and had a real sense of sophistication to it. We started off with tasting four of their 10 year old blends each showcasing a particular grape; the Sercial, which had a slightly sherry-like profile with tangerine notes off-set against cinnamon and sweet spices; the medium-dry Verdelho, which had a butterscotch nose and a pleasant combination of candied citrus and ginger flavours off-set against a nice salinity; the medium-sweet Bual, which had a quiet nose but a warm and generous taste with clove and Seville Orange flavours; and finally the sweet Malmsey (which is the anglicised name for the grape Malvasia), which had a rich and welcoming nose with date and treacle flavours that were balanced out on the mid-palate by a nice acidity, which gave for a long and glorious finish. These four wines showed that at 10 years old, these blends can show a nice breadth of profiles - something to please everyone!

Now it was on to the big boys! We started with three Colheitas (single year wines that are released earlier than the vintage wines), the first being a 2002 Sercial which had a fabulous oxidative nose with a nutty aroma that once again made me think of a sherry - this time a darker Amontillado-style sherry. On sipping, I found the wine to be rather fine and delicate with a little heat on the mid-palate. The second of these wines we tried was a 2003 Bual, this had a much more generous nose on it with rich and deep aromas that were slightly smoky. On tasting the first thing that I noted was that this had more presence to it, it coated the mouth nicely; the tastes were predominantly of candied orange, but what I particularly liked was that mid-palate you got this rush of acidity that cleansed the mouth and gave it a very nice finish and prevented it from becoming cloyingly sweet. Impressive stuff! Last up in this grouping was a 1999 Malmsey; the colour in the glass here was notably darker getting much more towards a tawny colour in the glass. When smelled, the aroma was a little more subtle than I figured it would be - there were hints of butterscotch going on; on tasting this was a pure-pleasure-experience, it had notes of sweet spice and butterscotch going on. I felt that this wine lacked a little of the nuance of the 2002 and 2003, but made for a lovely drinking experience.

After this we were treated to a couple of the their “Frasqueiras” wines, which are their single vintage wines that are aged for at least 20 years before bottling. It should be noted here that stock from exceptional years are kept in barrel much longer - I saw evidence of barrels from 1948 that are still waiting to be bottled for a special release! We started with a 1980 Terrantez, which is a Madeira grape that is much loved by wine aficionados, but is not grown very extensively. This had an exotic, complex and profound nose. On tasting what I noted was that the wine was perfumed and delicate; the alcohol isn’t really discernible, but what is noticeable is the remarkable balance to this wine which evolves and develops on the palate. Fruit flavours (strawberry, fig) with a mid-balance acidity flush that cleanses the palate and leaves the mouth salivating slightly. An incredible wine. After that it was time to try out the 1977 Malmsey, which sat a very dark amber in the glass, almost teak-like. The nose on the wine was rich and inviting, like a friendly welcome from a good friend you haven’t seen in years. On the palate it had beautiful sweet notes of treacle and raisin, but it also had some aniseed notes going on too. This reminded me of a PX sherry, but once again benefited from a mid-palate wave of acidity, which prevented the wine from becoming over-sweet.

I would highly recommend a visit to Blandy's Wine Lodge if you find yourself in Funchal. 

A visit into the hills - Vinhos Barbeito

The second part of our Madeiran wine odyssey (can a two-part wine tasting experience be described as an “odyssey”? Probably not…) saw us travel slightly outside of Funchal to an area called Câmara De Lobos to visit Vinhos Barbeito. Now I mentioned that I didn’t know much about Madeiran wine before this trip, however I had of course heard of Blandy’s before I visited. Vinhos Barbeito were a new one to me, however they featured highly on the list of wineries to visit on every person I consulted who knew about Madeiran wine - so visiting them seemed an obvious thing to do. Barbeito are a family-run business, which was established in 1946 by Mario Barbeito Vasconcelos; they were originally based in Funchal occupying the space that the Cliff Bay resort is now on, but they sold up their valuable land to developers and moved their location out of town to improve their facilities - even if it has made them a little harder to access now (we got a taxi out of Funchal to visit them which cost about €20, but got a bus back which only cost about €5)

We were shown around by Leandro who gave us a tour of their production facilities which are very impressive with clearly a lot of investment going in as everything looked very modern and hi-spec to me. As with Blandy’s they don’t tend to grow their own grapes, instead relying on buying from local farmers and incentivising them to produce higher quality grapes by rewarding those who do with higher prices. Their production has an annual volume of 250,000L - 300,000L (which is about a third of what Blandy’s produces), which makes them a relatively small, but still significant, producer of Madeiran wine (which has an overall annual production of around 4m litres).

The Wines

After our tour around the facilities we went to the winery’s lab for a tasting which featured 19 wines. I won’t list them all, but will describe the ones that were most interesting to me.

We tried a couple of very young wines, as Leandro was keen to demonstrate the evolutionary process of the wine’s development. The 2012 Tinto Negra had an almost orange-wine like approach to it, with flavours (suitably enough) of orange coming through nicely. The point of this wine was to demonstrate that Tinto Negra although a black grape, can make a wide-variety of wines from very dry, all the way through to very sweet. From their 10yo wines I particularly enjoyed their 10yo Verdelho which had floral and delicate notes of jasmine and tangerine going on, but in a nice rich style. This was said to be a great wine for pairing with Sushi, which I must say I am now very keen to try out!

Their 2004 Malvasia (they don’t use the name “Malmsey” here) had a remarkable nose that seemed almost vegetal to me (it reminded me of cucumber or Aloe Vera), but the palate was a complete contrast as it featured rich and fragrant taste profiles with some mid-palate nuttiness that gave it great depth. Barbeito do a range of 20yo blends under the label “Ribeiro Real”; I enjoyed these wines greatly, with the 20yo Malvasia standing out for me - it possessed a menthol- or eucalyptus-like presence, which gave the wine a glorious finish that was balanced perfectly.

At this point Leandro started reaching for the really impressive wines! We had three Frasqueiras: a 1988 Sercial (which possessed largely savoury, nutty notes and I declared to be a “thinking wine”, i.e. one that you can’t sip absent-mindedly, but one that requires you to concentrate on it); a 1981 Verdelho (which had acquired more tertiary notes of leather and bacon, yet was somehow more of an easy-drinking wine); and a 1995 Boal (that had incredible balance to the wine with the initial sweetness evened out in the mid-palate to give a long, hedonistic finish).

After these we moved on to a 50yo Bastardo (one of the rarer Madeira grapes, better known to the wine world as the French grape, Trousseau). This wine had a remarkable smoky, yet savoury profile to it, but on tasting it was once more wonderfully balanced with fruit at the front of the palate, nutty notes in the mid-palate and an end-palate swoosh of acidity that carried it through. Glorious! Last up was a 40yo Malvasia which had an wonderfully complex nose and an incredible concentration to the wine; the thing that I remember most about this wine was the energy that it seemed to possess. This is a wine that you feel is still young at 40 years old and will potentially reach its maturity and potential in another 40 years!

The two words that I wrote down in the conclusion of my notes to this tasting were “elegance” and “freshness”; particularly when contrasted with the wines from Blandy’s, which were richer and deeper. 

In conclusion...

I don’t think that I could say that I favour one house’s style over the other, they both have things that they do very well and have their own merits. What I do conclude is that the spectrum of wines that Madeiran wines cover is much broader than I expected. I feel that in the fortified wine world, Madeiran wines sit somewhere between Port and Sherry, but are more aligned to Sherry than Port due to the breadth of flavours that you can get (bone-dry all the way through to very sweet); but what I particularly liked was that these wines, even the older and more complex ones, never became cloying or over-sweet. They always displayed a freshness  and a balance to them. This was completely unexpected to me as I (falsely) regarded Madeiran wines as a sickly-sweet drink that your gran would have with her cake in the afternoon. I was wrong (words that I am longing to hear some UK politicians utter…), Madeiran wines have a lot going for them and are something that I look forward to learning more about over the coming years. 

I am certainly a Madeira convert!


I would like to thank both Blandy’s (in particular, Anna and Rita) and Barbeito (in particular, Leandro) for their hospitality on my visits.

If you want to visit Blandy's Wine Lodge you can find it at: Avenida Arriaga, 28, Funchal, 9000-064

If you want to visit Vinhos Barbeito you can find them at: Estrada da Ribeira Garcia, Parque Empresarial de Câmara de Lobos - Lote 8, 9300 - 324 Câmara de Lobos

Disclosure: I did not pay for either of my visits or the tastings. Nevertheless, the opinions in this article are my own and I was not paid to write this article.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The ten best Halloween cocktails

If there's one time of year everyone seems to go all out for, with the most elaborate, fanciful cocktails, it's Halloween.

We've brought you plenty of Halloween cocktails over the years, including Laura's three ghoulish Halloween cocktail creations (the Hell's Martini, Greener Colada and the Bloody Cham-Pain) and now we've headed to the world wide (spider) web for more.

1. Dark and Stormy Death Punch

I like this because it's gruesome enough with the lychee and cherry eyeballs, but actually tastes amazing. The ice cubes are made with lychee syrup, and the ginger beer makes this perfectly seasonal, too.

A proper cocktail, Halloween-ified, with class.

From Food and Wine.

2. Bloody Shirley Temple

A simple idea, but sickeningly effective. The idea is you fill the syringes with grenadine (but you could also use something like blood orange juice.)

In fact, this is a perfect mocktail for people who are off the booze or for any small trick or treaters you see creeping around.

From This Grandma is Fun.

3. Jack-o-Lantern cocktail

I like this because it takes a simple Halloween concept, and makes it into something more.

Of course, the pumpkin top is going to make this very difficult to drink (unless you... put a straw through the orange slice?!) but then again, the novelty of this will probably wear off pretty quickly too...

From The Spruce Eats

4. Luscious Sour Apple Champagne cocktail

Most of the green Halloween cocktails are made with Midori, the fabulous green melon liqueur I use in the Greener Colada, but if you want something less tropical,this is a gorgeous, ghoulish-coloured alternative.

It's made with Champagne, apple sours, vanilla vodka and triple sec. Doesn't that sound gorgeous?
Absolutely brilliant work by Will Cook For Smiles.

5. Hocus Pocus Punch

I just love how this looks like a swirly spell happening inside a glass. It's also pretty healthy, seeing as it's stuffed full of apple and blood orange and filled with a low-calorie sangria.

You can buy lots of tasty low-alcohol wines from Skinny Booze, or pick your favourite moscato (we love Mrs Wigleys!)

Found on WomansDay

6. Boozy Butterbeer

That's right Harry Potter fans, it's a boozy version of Butterbeer. This comes from Heather Bailey's wonderful blog and is a pretty close match to the real thing (well, the one I tried at the Warner Bros Studio Tour anyway!), with the addition of some delicious vodka to make it more Deathly Hallows than Philosopher's Stone.

7. Pumpkin Sangria

Another 'oh look, it's a pumpkin!' cocktail, only this time it's full of the real thing.

It's another of the more classy Halloween cocktails I've found, so if you're having a more sedate spookfest, a glass of pumpkin sangria might go down a treat. It's full of spice, with a little maple syrup added for some autumnal sweetness. Gorgeous.

Found via Food Network.

8. Brain Haemorrhage Shot

This is just gross, right? But so brilliant!

The effect is created by using liquids with different weights and densities, which sounds a bit curdle-tastic, but the taste is rather like peaches and cream thanks to the peach schnapps and baileys combo. Sounds wrong, but is somehow right.

Found via the brilliant James and Everett.

9. The Poison Apple

Possibly my favourite ever halloween cocktail now I've discovered it. It's been created by The Little Epicurean.

The eery-looking cocktail has that wonderful Snow White motif, but the shiny red apple garnish is totally striking. And it's made with whiskey, sour apple schnapps and cranberry juice.

10. The Bleeding Heart Martini

A classic martini, but instead of an olive garnish, Martha Stewart uses a baby beetroot that's been speared with a metal cocktail stick, giving the effect of a bleeding heart in your drink. Wow. That's fascinatingly creepy. She's a genius.

All these and more are featured in our Pinterest board: Spooky Halloween Cocktails and Drinks.

I hope these cocktails give you chills of excitement and spookify your drinking this Halloween. Tell me your favourites in the comments, and send me any other amazing recipes you know!

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Five drinks tricks to make your Halloween party a treat

The spookiest day of the year is fast approaching, and if you're planning on doing the Monster Mash at a Halloween party, you're going to need some drinkspiration if you want to make it a real 'graveyard smash'.

Here are five epic drinks tricks to make your halloween party a real treat (see what I did there? Ghoulishly clever...)

1. The ghostly face and hands in the punch bowl

If you're serving up a spooky, cauldron-esque punch, you can take it to the next level by having ghostly hands and a haunted face floating in it, both keeping it cool and terrifying your guests.

This wonderful old video on the Martha Stewart website tells you how to do it perfectly (you just freeze some water inside plastic gloves and a plastic mask). It's so easy but really effective.

2. The adorable ghost marshmallows in a Halloween hot chocolate

Not all ghosts are scary: some are just plain adorable. Don't let your Halloween cocoa be without these adorable little ghost marshmallows. All you need is some edible black marker, which you can buy for just £1.99 from The Craft Company.

There are many variations of this online but this is by far the cutest. We have Family Fresh Meals to thank for that.

3. The ghoulish glassware

Nothin finishes off a spooky cocktail (or even just your regular tipple) like a ghoulish glass, and there are plenty of them about, some of which are far better than others.

I recommend Amazon's skull goblet (£11.23) or Hobbycraft's skull glass (£2) for some spooky sophistication.

DrinkStuff also sell Halloween syringe shots (bottom right) you can fill with your favourite red cocktail (or fill with a grenadine-spiked shot): a set of 5 is £4.99.

If you're not convinced about spending that kind of money on something you may well only use once, these skull paper cups (bottom left) are £2.95 and are still pretty stylish.

4. The pumpkin ice bucket

This really is one of the best ideas I've found. It's practical as well as decorative, and ridiculously easy to make. You just scoop out all the innards, line it with ice cube bags or the like, and fill with ice and your bottles of choice.

You've got Southern Living to thank for this idea: there's a video tutorial on their site, too.

5. The creepy ice cubes

There are loads of Halloween ice cubes out there - from filling the tray with plastic spiders or gummy worms to dyeing the ice cubes red with blood orange juice.

My all-time favourite, however, has to be the eyeball ice cubes - again from the genius that is Martha Stewart. You simply use radishes and pimento-stuffed olives - they take about five minutes to create and are well worth it when you pop one in your guests' glasses. You can also use just black olives instead if you'd like your eyes to be darker...

We hope your Halloween is spooktacular.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Awesome autumn drinks: beer, ale, cider

The ground is awash with leaves all hues of red and gold, the clocks will be changing soon, and our evenings are already getting dark. All perfect reasons to gather friends for Sunday roasts or hearty home cooked meals.

Step away from the light lagers and move on to more comforting brews; think barrel-aged beers, amber ales and stouts. The perfect pints for cosy nights at the pub.

Here’s part two of your two-part guide to the best booze for autumn; a handpicked selection that will help you slurp through the season.

Craft beer Hiver is owned and run by Hannah Rhodes, who specialises in producing a small but perfectly formed range of beer and ale using 100% British ingredients, including honey from both urban and rural bees. The Honey Ale is fermented with raw blossom and heather honeys that complement and add depth to darker roasted malts – this attractive ale has a rich chocolatey nose, a honey aroma and roasted malt flavours.

Currently £2.40 at Ocado

Wild Beer Co, Modus Operandi
Wild Beer Company are advocates of alternative style beers made with wild yeasts, wild hops and a whole lot of wild attitude. They have a whole range of weird and wonderful blends, but their Modus Operandi is just made for autumn. This barrel aged beer has a smooth, rich, full body and bags of flavour of vanilla, berries, cherries, leather and tannins. Complex and sexy, it’s the perfect match to red meat and game dishes such as duck or venison. The bottle looks great, too!

Currently £4.09 at Beer Hawk

Brewdog, Pumpkin Beer

While there are a few full-on pumpkin ales around, we wanted a hint, rather than an entire pumpkin to the face. So we've gone for Bird Brewery's Miss Scarecrow. It's an amber beer which is the perfect colour for autumnal evenings. The beer has caramel tones, with herby and pumpkin notes. It's relatively sweet, with a long, pleasant spicy aftertaste. Yum.

Currently £2.89 at Beer Wulf

Bedlam Brewery, Benchmark
This amber coloured ale is the natural next step up from the pale ales of the summer months. Crisp and refreshing at first, with a finish of rich malted flavours and a hint of chocolate.

Around £2 a bottle, with information of all the stockist on the Bedlam Brewery site.

Gosnells Mead
Mead, one of the oldest alcoholic drinks on the world, may have been at its peak in medieval times, but it’s making a hipster comeback. Made from sugar and honey, Tom Gosnell uses a Spanish orange blossom honey for a more citrusy flavour, and the end result is light, semi-sweet and slightly bubbly.

Currently £3.50 at Master of Malt.

Harviestoun, Ola Dubh 18
If there’s one drink that goes well with the darker nights, it’s a darker beer, and Ola Dubh 18 is a great example. It starts out as the rich, dark 'Engine Oil' beer, which is then aged in old whisky casks, taking on a fruity, whisky character. With sticky toffee sweetness, wood and smokey notes all tied in with vanilla and dried fruits, this is a beer to be sipped on by the bonfire.

Currently £5.19 from Beer Hawk

Henderson’s Spiced Cider
Autumn is apple season and so of course we have to celebrate that by drinking some stonking cider. Henderson’s Spiced Cider is sweet and has a touch of warming spice to help blast away the chill of the autumn evenings. Flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, it’s perfect for the season. They also do a toffee apple cider for those with a sweet tooth.

Currently £25.00 for 5 litres at

What are you drinking this autumn? Let us know on our Facebook or Twitter page.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Your guide to awesome autumn drinking: Wine and spirits

best autumn wines
Photo: Kevin K (CCL)

It’s that time of year when the leaves are turning and the nights are drawing in, we pull our knitwear from the back of the wardrobe and swap alfresco picnics for crisp autumnal walks and Sundays in the pub. 

Welcome the season of comfort food – of glorious game, hotpots and pies, sausage and mash and slow cooked delights. You’ll need some serious seasonal sips too, and we’ve got you covered. 

Here’s part one of your two-part guide to the best booze for autumn; a hand-picked selection of wine, spirits and cocktails that will help you slurp through the season.


The chillier temperature and hearty food means embracing those wonderfully rich, robust and textured wines. 

For reds, look for more medium bodied styles with darker fruit flavours of blackberry, plum and damson, along with sweet spice and indulgences like chocolate. Grape varieties Merlot, Malbec and Grenache are classics that are just made for these months.

Choose from Old World regions such as Puglia (Italy), Rhône, and Douro (Portugal) for rustic styles, and from the New World look no further than California and South Africa for wines with power and body.

This Merlot based wine from Italy oozes red and dark fruits and is layered with chocolate, sweet spice and toasty, earthy notes

£11.99 at Majestic (mixed price £9.99)

Réserve des Hospitaliers Cairanne, Côtes du Rhône Villages
Rich and satisfying, this Côtes du Rhône has everything you need to pair with hearty dishes on a cosy night in - ripe fruit flavours, structure, poise and a touch of oak. 
£11.79, Waitrose

For whites, look for texture, body and depth as well as intensity of flavour. The benefit is that these wines can be served a touch less chilled, meaning there’s no need to shiver over your Sauvignon.

Flavours of stone fruit, minerality and a touch of vanilla spice from oak will work nicely, so look out for oily Viognier, aromatic Pinot Gris, luscious Chenin Blanc and creamy Chardonnay. White Rhône blends and white Burgundy will steal the show, as will Vouvray (Loire) and white Rioja.

Millton Riverpoint Viognier, Gisborne
This biodynamic beauty from New Zealand has bags of brilliance. With an array of flavours from poached pear and spiced apple, it’s rich in mouth feel yet has refreshing minerality. A personal favourite, I promise this will blow you away. 

This classic Loire Vouvray Chenin Blanc has expressive almond and honey, and the off-dry style adds texture and further richness.  Pair this with a bold, salted dish like pork or a white bean cassoulet and watch it sing.
Currently £7.99, Majestic (mixed price £6.29)


Having so many beautiful autumnal fruits in season provide a perfect excuse to get creative with cocktails, and the drop in temperature means that extra little kick of alcohol is perfectly acceptable– we’ve got to keep warm somehow! These Vinspire favourites are your seasonal secret weapons.

This warming cocktail is guaranteed to take the edge off the chilly weather with fab autumnal flavours: gloriously crisp apple, rich maple syrup, smokey bourbon and refreshing, lifting cider. 

The result is a delicious medium-sweet cocktail the same colour as the golden leaves.

Question: what’s better than scoffing toffee apples as a kid at Halloween? 

Answer: drinking alcoholic toffee apples as an adult! 

This martini style cocktail is ghoulishly good, with toffee liqueur, apple juice and real toffee sauce, plus a splash of vodka. 


Not just for Christmas! While traditional ruby ports may be rich and sweet, an aged style Tawny offers a lighter, more approachable style. Find a good 20 or 30 years aged one for typical flavours of caramel, hazelnut, cinnamon and fig, often with toasted notes.


Nothing warms the cockles like a wee dram of whisky, and with the darker evenings and richer food, now is the time to indulge. 

A delicate style with notes of honey, coffee and sherry along with richer smokey, spiced complexities.  Great for sipping in front of the fire.

Sloe Gin

A true English favourite. Sloe berries come into season from October, so take the opportunity to get back to nature, go kick some leaves, and forage for sloes and damsons. Making your own sloe gin is easy: simply soak the sloes in good quality gin along with some caster sugar, shaking gently every few days until all the flavour and colour has been extracted. Do this for one to two months for best results – so technically not an autumn drink, but when Christmas rolls around you’ll be able to relive your autumn fun! 

Stay tuned for Part Two: The best beers, ales, stouts and ciders...