Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Beer Glasses: Which to use for each type of beer

Image from PersonalCreations
A few years ago I was lucky enough to go on a Riedel wine glass masterclass: the aim being to discover whether the overall design of the glass make a difference to the contents. I have to admit I was slightly sceptical at the start, but an open mind is a wonderful thing and before long the Pinot Noir in my balloon glass was a world away from what I expected.

It's not just wine this applies to though. What you choose to serve your beer in could make all the difference between an average pint and a beer experience.

I want to show you the most common types of glass and what they mean to liquid inside them, so here's my handy beginner's guide to beer glasses:

The American Pint Cone

Originally designed for ease of stacking and shelf space efficiency, the cone glass is the most popular style of glass for most beers. Thick glass walls and a simple cone shape originally used for durability also contribute to temperature maintenance and do allow for a greater aroma release. You'll find most lagers and American styles of beer are presented in one of these.
£13.99 for a 6 pack from Drinkstuff

The Nonic, or 'English' Pint glass

Identifiable by the bulge that protrudes from just under the rim of the glass, this is the innovation of the English glass industry. The rim of the glass is far more durable thanks to the bulge. This glass can be seen in pretty much any English pub and can be used to serve anything bar a few speciality beers. What's more, the bulge actually makes it a little bit easier to hold!

£6.25 for a 4 pack from Amazon

The Stemmed Thistle

Mainly used for much more hoppy styles of beer such as IPAs, many Belgian styles and strong ales, this is so called for its resemblance to the Dutch flower. With a bulbous bottom and a flared top, it aids in massive amounts of aroma release, shows off the colour and maintains the head of the beer. The stem also keeps it away from surfaces to keep it cool.
£14.99 for a pack of 6 from DrinkStuff. I actually have a set of these and they are fantastic!

The Chalice or Goblet

Generally used to serve Belgian beers, German Doppelbocks and most high strength 'sipping beer', the difference between the two is minimal. Goblets are generally thinner and chalices sometimes have a widget at the bottom to allow the flow of carbon dioxide, but both are stemmed glasses with large bowls.

£24.99 for a 6 pack from Amazon

The Stein

The hallmark of the German beer festival (and often forgotten by some that it holds a litre and not a pint), this glass is easily identified by its large handle and sometimes by a lid operated by the thumb. The thick walls keep the beer cold while the handle stops heat transfer from the hand. Typically used for most lagers, these can made from glass, porcelain or even wood.
£6.99 per glass from Drinkstuff

So does it actually make a difference? There is no hard and fast rule for what beer should be consumed from what vessel, but there are certain benefits to different glasses. Imagine drinking red wine from a champagne flute... you wouldn't do it right? 

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

What does "ageing" mean when it comes to wine?

One of the concepts that is talked a lot about when it comes to wine, is the effect of "ageing". If you ask the average person in the street they will most likely tell you that an "old" wine is better than a "young" wine. Is this true? Is this always true? What happens to a wine as it ages that makes it get better? How do different approaches to ageing wines affect the wine itself? These are the some of the questions that I was hoping to get into when I organised a wine tasting with my friends at Theatre of Wine recently.

Our tasting session was guided by Ruby who started us off with a 2017 Nerleux Saumur Blanc (Loire, France) which is a classic example of a wine that is supposed to be drunk when it is young; it had a slightly tropical, pineapple nose and a crunchy green apple bite to the taste. This was simple and pleasant and leaving it to age wouldn't improve this wine. From this wine we went on to something completely different - 2016 "Pheasant's Tears" (Georgia) made from the Tsolikauri grapes and aged in the traditional Georgian way in a Kvevri, which is a large earthenware egg-shaped pot used to age the wine. This is probably the oldest wine-making method in the world and gives a very interesting result; the wine is an orange wine, which means that it has had some skin contact as it was in the kvevri giving it more colour and more tannic bite. The result is remarkable, a rich, buttery nose with a surprisingly bright and acidic taste to it with a broad spectrum of flavours.

Our next wine was a thing of beauty, but also in true Theatre of Wine-style somewhat of a curve-ball; a 2006 Chateau La Louviere Blanc (Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux). This wine is a blend made predominantly from Sauvignon Blanc, but what makes it most interesting is that it is a screw-cap wine - something that is very rarely done in this renowned part of the wine-making world. The nose to this wine was almost enough to put you off drinking it, extremely reductive - like someone had let-off in your glass! However, once you get past this it had a really broad flavour profile with notes of Amalfi lemons (juicy and delicious) and an incredibly long and balanced finish. The concept of ageing this in a screw-capped bottle was a timely reminder that it is not as simple as "wines age better with a cork". As a contrast to this wine we went to one of my favourites, a 2006 Schloss Saarstein Riesling Spätlese (Mosel, Germany) which was a traditionally aged German Riesling, where the grapes had been left on the vines for a little longer to allow the sugar content to rise and produce a sweeter wine. The nose was full of Seville oranges, but I also noticed a touch of eucalyptus to it as well which gave the wine more complexity. On tasting it was like biting in to a sweet, juicy orange with a finish that went on for minutes. Oh my...!

After these delicious wines Ruby threw us another Theatre of Wine curve-ball, a 2016 Niepoort Nat Cool Baga (Bairrade, Portugal), which is part of a project being undertaken by Niepoort's Dirk Niepoort aiming to create low-intervention, low-alcohol content, easy-drinking wines. This particular wine was made from the Baga grape and is served from a 1L bottle. The wine is best served chilled and had a slightly funky nose, on tasting it reminded me of a young, fresh Beaujolais. A pleasant, if slightly unremarkable wine. Classic summer's afternoon, BBQ wine.

Next up we could have some fun! We were given two wines from the same vineyard (Chateau Barbe Blanche Cuvee Henri IV, Lussac St Emilion) but two different vintages. The first was a 2012, which had a nice, forward-facing fruit drive to it. The second vintage was older, but we were told to guess the vintage. It had some more tertiary notes to it, so I thought it would potentially be the 2005 due to some wines that I had tasted when I was in St Emilion a couple of years ago; it was in fact a 2006. But it was a really interesting experience to be able to taste the two wines side by side and compare and contrast to see what effect the same wine has by both vintage variation and the ageing process itself.

Now we moved on to some real blockbusters! We started with a 1999 Valpiculata (Toro, Spain) made from Tempranillo grapes which are known be a grape variety that ages particularly well. This had a really interesting nose to it, full of coffee, tarmac and beef stock notes; with tasting notes of licorice, black cherry and treacle. Amazingly, this wine only retails at £15/bottle; I bought two! After this we moved on to a wine legend, a 2004 Oikonomoy Sitia (Crete, Greece) which has developed a bit of a cult following. Made from a blend of Liatiko and Mandilari, this was their attempt to show that the wines of Greece can be made to be as classical and elegant as those of the finest wine regions in the world. The nose to this wine was heady and enticing featuring notes of red cherry, damson and a touch of rose. On the palate it was silky smooth and elegant, really classy and absolutely delicious. If you had told me this was a £100+ bottle of Burgundy, I would have easily believed you. We finished our tasting with a 1985 Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon (Loire, France), in the glass it sat proud and orange giving a real hint of the 30+ years that it has aged. On smelling, it had a bright nose with a little hint of something that reminded me of sherry. The mouth to this wine was beautifully rounded and deliciously balanced, sweet with juicy oranges and ripe apricots. The finish went on for minutes and minutes and when we tried this wine with a goose mousse it was basically heavenly. What a set of wines to finish this fascinating (and extremely enjoyable) tasting!

So, what did we learn over the course of this tasting? Firstly, not all wines are made with the idea that they should be aged; secondly, different ageing techniques give different results; and thirdly, ageing, when done right, can really add some interesting textural complexity to wines and develop them into something magical. 

Thank you to Ruby and the Theatre of Wine crew for a great job on a wonderful tasting. I look forward to the next one already!               

Monday, 12 February 2018

Boozy Pancake Day: Ricotta Pancakes with Cherry Cassis Sauce

Although we're all probably panicking, because somehow we've got to February, and somehow we haven't managed to stick to our resolutions... FEAR NOT. It's Pancake Day tomorrow!

I know we can technically have pancakes any time of year - trust me, they're a staple weekend brunch in my house - but there is just something a little special about having them on Shrove Tuesday. There's a national-insert-your-food-name-here-day practically every day at the moment (who makes these up?), but Pancake day is a tradition that is never ignored. And rightly so. 

We've had rum butter crepes and savoury galettes on Vinspire in previous years - both equally delicious - but this year we're doing something a little more decadent; Ricotta Pancakes with Cherry Cassis Sauce... *drool*

If you've not had them before, you might think that using ricotta would make a heavier pancake, but it's quite the opposite. A step up from the fat American ones, they're light, cheesecake-y, and would work just as well for dessert as they would for breakfast. 

Of course, you could add whatever topping you flippin' well like, but as we love cooking with booze, it had to be something alcoholic didn't it? Juicy cherries cooked in crème de cassis, sweetened with date syrup and given a bit of zing from a squeeze of lemon juice. 

Cassis is such a strong flavoured liqueur, so in order for it to not taste like you've doused your pancakes in Ribena, you really need to jazz it up. Cherries aren't quite enough on their own, so date syrup, which is used a lot in Middle Eastern cookery, adds a wonderful depth. If you don't have it, any sort of syrup will do - maple/honey/agave/golden - it's personal preference.

I'll definitely be whipping up another batch of these tomorrow, so let me know if you're going to join me! Pancake parties all round...

Ricotta Pancakes with Cherry Cassis Sauce(serves 2)

For the pancakes:
  • 250g ricotta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 tbsp plain flour
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp oil, for frying
For the cherry sauce:
  • 1 punnet of cherries (approx 15), pitted and halved 
  • 75ml crème de cassis 
  • 1 tbsp date syrup
  • Juice of 1/4 lemon
  1. To make the sauce, heat the cassis, syrup and lemon juice in a small pan, then add in the cherries. Cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes, or until the cherries are tender. Put to one side whilst you make the pancakes and reheat just before serving. 
  2. To make the pancakes, beat the ricotta in a large mixing bowl until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, then beat in the flour, sugar, baking powder and vanilla extract to form a batter. 
  3. Heat a frying pan over a medium-high heat, drizzle in a bit of oil, and smear across the pan using a piece of kitchen paper. Drop generous tablespoons of the batter into the pan. 
  4. Cook for a couple of minutes, flip them over and cook for another minute or so, until lightly browned and cooked through. 
  5. Keep the cooked pancakes warm in the oven, and repeat until all the batter is used up. 
  6. Serve hot with the warm cherry cassis sauce poured on top. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Celebrating 200 years of Calvet wine: a whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux

While the name ‘Grand Chais de France’ may not immediately mean anything to you, if you’ve bought wine from a supermarket before, you’ll probably have picked up a bottle of one of its brands before, which includes Grand Sud, JP Chenet, and Calvet.

The Calvet brand has been part of Grand Chais de France – the world’s biggest exporters of French wine – since 2006. I struggle to wrap my head around the numbers, but its global turnover in 2016 stood at 990m euros, which is pretty staggering.

The UK was Calvet’s first market, and now Calvet is the top French brand in the UK. In 2016, it sold more than 7m bottles (more than 14m worldwide over 110 countries). Although, if you think that figure is big, France produces between 7-8 billion bottles of wine a year.

And the figures just keep on coming. One in three bottles from the Bordeaux region sold in the UK is a bottle of Calvet, and it’s the English market leader for wines from Alsace and the Loire.

Wine from the Loire region in particular is on the up. In 2016, Calvet sales were up by 389,000 bottles. Perhaps no surprise is that Rose d’Anjou saw one of the biggest increases, along with Cahors Malbec. I’ve certainly noticed people drinking more Rose and Malbec over the past couple of years…

Calvet’s 200th anniversary

GCF may only have been founded in 1979, but Calvet is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. Along with a programme of events throughout the year, the company has released a new range of wines exclusively for the on-trade market (hotels, bars and restaurants). The wines are in three tiers: C de Calvet – a Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and rose (what else do you hear people order in pub chains and restaurants?); Heritage for AOP wines (Appellation d'Origine Protégée which has replaced the old AOC category); and Cuvée 1818, a Bordeaux ‘icon wine’ to celebrate its anniversary.

Its Cuvée 1818 is a new blend developed by a winemaker who has been with Calvet for 20 years. It’s a relatively new concept to develop Calvet into the on-trade. While French wines have been the number one seller in retail in the UK, there has hardly been any on-trade sales.

On top of a new wine to mark the anniversary, Calvet is planning lots of promotional activities, adding gold ‘200’ medals to its wines in the UK, and creating some special edition labels.

Calvet and Grand Chais

Grand Chais has continued to develop as a company since it was founded by Joseph Helfrich in 1979. It started out as a negociant – very briefly: people who buy wine in various stages (grapes, juice or finished) before bottling it and selling it to market – bottler and distributor, but has started to acquire more estates too, especially in the Bordeaux region.

The Grand Chais portfolio now consists of more than 150 different wines… in the bottling plant we learnt that this means it has more than 14,000 different Stock Keeping Units (SKUs – an ID code for a product), different blends for different markets, different bottles and labels for different markets, and in some cases, the same wines bottled under both screwcap and cork, depending on where they are going. There was so much research into what works in which market. For example, why medals on bottles work in some countries, but other places actively turn away from them.

On a whistle-stop tour, we visited a few of Calvet’s properties in Bordeaux, along with Grand Chais’ bottling plant outside Saint Emillion, and the Cru et Domaines de France vinification centre in Saint Savin.

Grand Chais bottling plant – outside Saint Emillion

Just outside St Emillion in Bordeaux is Grand Chais’ largest bottling plant. The scale is incredible. I used to work in automotive logistics and Grand Chais’ bottling plant was bigger than some car factories I’ve visited.

No vinification takes place here. The wine arrives in trucks from vineyards far and wide, with 90 trucks arriving a week. Each truck holds 20,000-24,000 litres of wine, and the plant can work through up to 700,000 bottles a day, or 150m bottles a year!

But it’s not all on such a huge scale, and the plant can manage smaller blends too, of around 5,000 litres or so. The plant has 50 tanks in total, and the wine is kept in tank for between three and nine months, depending on the quality.

While we were there the whole place smelled like sweets, as they were currently in the process of bottling Tesco’s Bucks Fizz for Christmas.

The facility also has a considerable grand cru storage area, with capacity for one million bottles worth 38m euros… that’s a lot of very, very tasty wine.

Cru et Domaines de France (CDF) vinification centre in Saint Savin

On a slightly smaller scale, but still a large operation, is the CDF vinification centre in Saint Savin. CDF is the Bordeaux specialist for GCF. It’s a New World-style facility that was built in 2000.

Frederick, who is in charge of winemaking at the facility explained that they don’t own any vines, but have a pool of 70 grape growers working over 700 hectares who they buy from. And because of what they pay the growers, they don’t have too many competitors.

Being fussy in the UK, Frederick said the UK market now demands traceability all the way back to the vineyard, and considers tradition to be really important. The market also dictates what wines are going to sell. CDF wanted to sell Bordeaux Blanc in the UK, but changed it to Sauvignon Blanc because of the huge demand. The wine they created is a mix of the Loire and New Zealand style, and comes with a screw cap. They made their first bottle of it in 2000, and it now sells more than 1m bottles a year…

Frederick says that due to changes in consumer taste, politics, the environment, and economics, it’s impossible to carry on winemaking in the same way. Usually, growers pick grapes around 15 days before the classic harvesting date, but for the same maturity of grape, the date changes by around 15 days +/- every year.

For the 2017 harvest, the final grape maturity was 10-12 days early, and without the frost – where they lost 60% of grapes in the Cotes de Blaye area – it could have been a great year. However, in total, the facility still processed 4000 tonnes of grapes in 2017.

Five wines to try

Over our two day trip, we tried 49 different wines, ranging from everyday mass-market crowd-pleasers, to some top quality tipples. From across the range, here are five of my favourites.

Calvet Réserve du Ciron Sauternes 2016
80% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon, 10% Muscadelle
£14.99 Taste & Choose vintage

I’m a sucker for a Sauternes anyway, but this is delicious. It’s got a sweet citrusy nose, with honeysuckle, tropical fruit and red apples. In the mouth it’s full bodied with a medium plus acidity, and those fruits coming back in. And it’s got a long morish finish.

Chateau Laroque 2010, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe
90% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon
£32.00, Berry Bros & Rudd, Waitrose

This might have been my favourite wine of the whole trip. The nose is big and deep with black fruit and a touch of minerality. It opens up in the mouth to silky soft tannins, and a subtle fruitiness which doesn’t overpower. While I enjoyed it now, it’s going to keep getting better over the next two decades. 

Calvet Alsace Pinot Blanc
100% Pinot Blanc
£7.97 Asda

Bursts of freshness on the nose, with white fruit and citrus blossoms. In the mouth it’s got a lovely softness and freshness. Nicely balanced.

Château la Fortune, Cru Bourgeois, Margaux
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot
£32.99 Jean Juvinere, Oxford Wine co.

I enjoyed this wine with duck confit and it was fabulous. It’s very fruity and complex on the nose, balanced with dark fruit jam in the mouth, and has a really long finish. 

Calvet Cuvee 1818
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc

This is Calvet’s 200th anniversary wine. It’s got bags of red berry fruit on the nose, with a bit of cinnamon and caramel. In the mouth it’s full-bodied, but with smooth tannins, and a spicy, gingery note, with a long finish.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Exploring Waipara

This is the second of my posts focussing on my wine experiences when I spent a month Down Under in December / January (you can catch up with my first post about the Hunter Valley HERE).

Towards the end of our trip we spent a few days in Waipara, which is a wine region about an hour's drive north of Christchurch. We had spent the last couple of weeks touring around New Zealand's South Island and had earmarked having a couple of relaxing days at the end of the trip to do a bit of relaxing and a lot of wine sampling! Now the South Island (and, indeed, New Zealand wine in general) is mostly known for the wine region of Marlborough and its ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc; I will state straight away that I am not a particular fan of these wines and hence we avoided the area altogether. I selected visiting Waipara because I wanted to go somewhere a little more interesting and also it fitted our itinerary a little better as we were looping back to Christchurch.

The Waipara wine region is a cool climate wine producing area, hence its main grapes are Rieslings, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blancs, Gewürztraminers and Chardonnays - what's not to like about that?! The topography of the region gives it a number of different reliefs with the south-facing hill-side faces being the premium sites. The soil types that you tend to find are limestone and clays with some gravel soils too.

Dunnolly's Wine Cottage 

What better way to get to know the wine making region then to stay in a cottage on a vineyard itself? We found accommodation at Dunnolly's Wine Cottage which is situated with view over the Dunnolly's own vineyard - Dunnolly Estate. The cottage was extremely beautiful with a lovely, spacious kitchen / diner / living area that had views across the vineyard.

As you would expect you can also try their wines whilst you are there and get to speak to members of the Parish family (who run the vineyard) themselves about the wine-making experience in the area. The head wine-maker for Dunnolly is Nicky Parish who has spent time working in wine all around the world and can be very pleased with the work that she is doing at Dunnolly. 

I tried their 2016 Pinot Gris which had a warm and lively nose featuring crisp pear and juicy red apple notes, augmented by warm honey aromas. On the mouth there was bags of acidity on this well-balanced wine, with lemon-lime flavours coming through accompanied by ripe pear. This was a nice wine that we sipped as we sat in the sun in our garden looking over the vineyard - bliss! 

We took a bottle home of their 2016 Reserve Chardonnay, which I opened recently in order to give us a little reminder of our holiday. This was a beautifully expressive wine with all sorts of buttery, briochey aromas on the nose, off-set with ripe pear and a little bit of lemon rind. The tasting notes were full of juicy, fresh flavours, crisp red apple with baked pie-crust. This was a very poised and pleasing wine to drink. It went fantastically with the fish pie that we had for dinner!

I'd heartily recommend staying in Dunnolly's Wine Cottage - you can find them on booking.com and other websites.

Source: http://www.waiparavalleynz.com/

Waipara Wine Trail

One of the other attractions of visiting the Waipara region is that you can do a walking tour of the vineyards, which is very handy as it means the debate about who should be the designated driver are not required! 

When our trip started the weather was a little overcast, but as we made our way through the vineyards the grey skies gave way to glorious sunshine, meaning that towards the end of the trip we were turning up to vineyards somewhat hot and sweaty as the walk did require schlepping up and down a few hills.

Waipara Springs

We set off from our cottage and headed first of all to the nearby Waipara Springs winery which had a charming little Cellar Door on site for us to do a tasting. We tried our way through their 2016 range, sampling their Riesling, Sauvingnon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. As with a number of the vineyards they also have their premium range of wines which features wines from their best sites; they do this under their "Premo" label. I particularly enjoyed their Rieslings and Pinot Gris, which featured ripe, tropical fruit notes. Their Premo Chardonnay was probably their best wine; it had spent some time in oak, giving it a very pleasing breadth and presence. Their entry level Chardonnay was also a pleasant wine at a very reasonable price. 

Muddy Water / Greystone  

Next up on our trail was the adjoining vineyards of Greystone and Muddy Water, which have a number of very different soil types across their holdings with a similarly large numbers of perspectives and reliefs for the wines, giving them a tremendous amount to choose from when selecting where and what they should be planting. The soils of Muddy Water in general tend to be more clay-based, whereas the soils of Greystone are more limestone-based.

We tasted a number (actually quite a large number!) of wines at this Cellar Door as we really get on with the charming lady who was serving us. Very interestingly, they have been experimenting with some Pinotage and Syrah plantings on some of their sites, which is something that I hadn't come across before. However, it was their more Germanic wines that really interested me ("shock, horror" I hear regular readers exclaiming!). I absolutely adored their 2015 Greystone Gewürztraminer which was quite simply the best NZ Gewürztraminer that I have tried; it is made much more in a Alsatian style then many of the others that I had tried on my trip and really had that those beautiful spicy notes on the nose and those voluptuous fruit notes on the mouth. I was also really taken by their 2013 Basket Star Riesling which is made in a spätlese style, i.e. the grapes are left on the vines to get extra concentration of sugars in them, resulting in a delicious dessert wine full of fruit and honey notes that get the mouth salivating! I liked both of these so much that I bought bottles of them and have taken them home with me.

Black Estate


We finished our trail at one of the most famous vineyards in Waipara - Black Estate Winery. As well being known for producing excellent wine, this vineyard is particularly renowned for having a fantastic restaurant perched on the hilltop amongst its vines giving the visitor the opportunity to eat excellent food and drink their wines, overlooking the vineyards from which the grapes come. We took in a lateish lunch, which I must say really was very good; I had the Organic Lamb served with Spring Greens, Bulgur Wheat and Salsa Verde. 

To go with the food, we opted to take three wines available ex-Coravin, which allowed us to taste some of the estate's premium and somewhat older wines. We tried their 2012 Black Estate Riesling which had that characteristic Riesling whiff of petroleum, alongside notes of warm tropical fruit (lychee and passion fruit), with flavours of tart pear and zingy sherbert; the 2010 Black Estate Home Pinot Noir had a quite quiet nose which was pretty and delicate featuring smatterings of red cherry, strawberries and rose petals and a supple and rounded palate with loads of red fruit flavour, but surprisingly little secondary or tertiary flavours; and their 2010 Black Estate Omihi Series Pinot Noir which had a deeper nose expressing secondary profiles of forest floor and leather alongside the red fruit, and a mouth that was broader and more developed than the Home with dominant strawberry and black cherry notes. 

To finish the meal, we took in pudding and a coffee on a table outside of the main restaurant with a splendid view over the vines. This was the life - I think you can probably understand now how hard it was to come back to the UK in the middle of winter!


Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Getting to know the Hunter Valley

I have just returned from a wonderful month Down Under on a trip around Australia and New Zealand, which as you can imagine was an incredible experience (check out my pictures on Instagram if you want to see what I got up to: WARNING! may cause you to book a holiday to New Zealand!).

As you can imagine, as well as exploring these beautiful countries for their incredible landscapes and wildlife, their delicious food and basking in their summer sun; I took the opportunity to get to know a little bit more about their wine scene. I mean, everyone knows that Australia and New Zealand produce delicious wine, but I wanted to get to know these wines better. I feel that you always understand and appreciate a wine region more when you have stood on their soils, looked at the lay of the land and met some of the people who devote their lives to making these delicious wines that we are fortunate to enjoy.

My first post will focus on a day that I spent touring around the Hunter Valley region of Australia, which lies around 120km north of Sydney. Hunter Valley is one of Australia's premier wine producing areas, known for producing excellent examples of those quintessential Aussie wines: Semillon and Shiraz. It features a number of different soil types, including clay, sandstone, volcanic ash and limestone. We did our tour with a company called Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours, who collected us from Sydney's Central Business District at the ungodly hour of 7am and ferried us in a comfortable mini-bus to Hunter Valley (via a cafe where we could pick up some breakfast and a coffee, thank goodness). Our tour was led by our amiable and rather amusing tour guide, Bill.

We visited four vineyards or cellar doors on our trip. A word on cellar doors before I move onto the details - on my time Down Under I became rather well acquainted with Cellar Doors, which are essentially the retail offering of a winery or vineyard that offers wine tastings and sells wines to punters as they drive around the wine regions (obviously with spittoons provided for drivers to employ so that they don't run the risk of drink driving). "Cellar Door" has also been noted for how beautiful the phrase sounds when you say it, with none other than J. R. R. Tolkien waxing lyrical about it (read more here if you are interested...)

So, with that said now, on to the wine...!


Our first stop was to visit Lambloch, who were very forthright in their views when presenting their wines; they said that they don't enter their wines into exhibitions and wine award competitions - instead they focus purely on selling wines to those people who come through their doors. Why do they do this? Interestingly, their winemaker feels that some winemakers get caught up in making wines that will impress wine judges, rather than making wines that are enjoyable to drink. After all, what is the point of wine, if not to be drunk by people? 

I found that they certainly had some interesting and very pleasing wines. The wines that stood out for me were their 2015 Sparkling Semillon, which was made in a Charmat method (ie: not the Champange method) and is one of only two sparkling Semillons currently produced in the Hunter Valley, it had a nose of lightly tropical fruit (pineapple) with a nice mouth-feel. It wasn't particularly complex, but was certainly very pleasant and would make for a nice, summer sipping wine. Interestingly, their other wine that grabbed me was their 2016 Moscato Sparkling, which was again made in a Charmat method using Black Moscatel grapes this time. It had a lovely, light peach nose, but on the mouth featured a surprisingly complex and layered taste of rose, strawberry and Turkish Delight. This was an excellent wine and with a low ABV (7% I think), it would make for a great afternoon wine whilst getting the BBQ ready!

Hermitage Wine Cellars

Next stop for us was Hermitage Wine Cellars. This time we weren't visiting a producer per se, but instead we were visiting someone who distributes wine and as such has many different producers' wines on their lists and available to purchase/taste. We tasted six different wines, which were served with matching cheeses (I must say that the cheeses were really very good too, they did a great job matching them!).

My favourite wine that they served was a 2015 Stormy Ridge Shiraz that had a really pervasive red cherry nose, which was followed by a taste that featured similarly red cherry notes, bright and vibrant. It was served with a marinated feta that really worked well against the bold Shiraz. I also enjoyed trying the 2016 (?) Lisa McGuigan Chardonnay which had benefited from a little time in oak giving it beautiful, warm notes of tropical fruit and a smattering of buttery-goodness. This was served with a ripe brie - what could be better??

Leogate Wines

After this we moved on to Leogate Wines, which is set in an absolutely beautiful estate - I could absolutely understand it when they said that they do weddings on their vineyard, it would make a stunning place to get married. Leogate are currently riding high (literally) as their wines have been selected to be served by Qantas airlines on their First and Business Class flights - the competition to win this accolade is intense, so they are justifiably proud.

We tried a number of their wines, my highlights were: the 2015 Brokenback Late Harvest Semillon which had some nice tropical fruit notes (mango and pineapple), the palate featured a really nice splash of acidity that gave the wine a vibrancy and a nice balance to it. I'd been looking forward to tasting a nice Semillon and this one hit the spot. I was pleasantly surprised by their 2017 Rose Shiraz which had a quiet nose, but a thoroughly pleasant strawberry taste, with quite a bit of weight to it. Of the reds, I really liked their 2015 Brokenback Shiraz, a heavy-duty wine that had already developed some interesting secondary notes of leather and a grind of black pepper; on tasting it was rather tannic still, suggesting that it could do with a couple more years to settle, but that this would be a serious wine.

Very much enjoyed the tasting here, the only thing that irked me was that their tasting portions were very small - barely enough for two decent sips, which isn't great as you can't really form an opinion on a wine solely on the first sip (in my opinion).

Mount View Estate

For our last tasting we headed to Mount View Estate, who gave us the opportunity to try 12 of their wines (they certainly weren't stingy!). It was a very interesting tasting as they served the wines in pairs to show us variety between what we were tasting, for example a Semillon in a dry style versus one in a slightly richer style. 

Of the wines that we tried, again a few stood out for me. Firstly, their 2016 Reserve Chardonnay which again featured a bit of time in French Oak casks, giving the nose a nice and open profile with ripe pear coming through as well as some subtle buttery notes. On tasting, I found it to be a really classy wine with plenty of poise. I also very much enjoyed their 2015 Reserve Shiraz (which featured a nice little splash (8%) of Vioginer in it); this was another very elegant wine with the fruit being very well integrated to the tannins at this point in its development and the Viognier just providing a little softness to take the edge off the Shiraz. The last wine that I wanted to write about was a bit of a curve-ball, their NV Flagship Liquer Shiraz (which apparently has spent an average of 28 years in barrel), this is a fortified wine and was frankly delicious: on the nose it has all the Christmassy smells going on, chocolate, sweet spices (cloves, nutmeg), dark black cherries; it coats the mouth nicely and has flavours of dark chocolate and warm spices. An excellent wine! 


I titled this post "getting to know the Hunter Valley" and I feel that this tour did a good job of giving me a better understanding of the wines and winemakers in this much-vaunted wine-producing area. I expected to enjoy the Shiraz and the Semillons, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that there was experimentation and innovation going on too, with the sparkling wines and roses unexpectedly good. Also, the people that we met were evidently proud of their products and their region - as they should be. The tour was well run and enjoyable and it was nice to meet wine enthusiasts from all around the world. Thanks to Bill for being a great host for the day and providing some enjoyable Aussie wit as part of his tour guide patter. I'd highly recommend a trip to Hunter Valley if you make your way to Australia and think that Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours do a good job (particularly as they do all the driving so you can focus on the tasting!).   

Friday, 19 January 2018

Perfect Burns Night wines

Photo: Happy Wanderer (CCL)

Burns night is upon us and you know what that means? Another excuse to drink. And of course celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns and all that he has done for the great nation of Scotland.

Burns Supper is always associated with that classic of Scottish delicacies, haggis. For those who don't know what haggis is, it's a pudding made with sheep offal minced together with onion, herbs, oats and suet, encased in a sheep's stomach. Don't let the sound of it put you off, it is delightful.

Now we've covered the food, what about the drink? What Scottish drink could you possibly serve with Scottish food on a Scottish night? If you said whisky then five points to Gryffindor! Haggis is traditionally served with a dram, and the toasts are always accompanied by a dram.

But what if you don't want to go diving into the whisky at 7pm and be flat on your face by 9? Or for some obscure, unknown reason, you don't like whisky? Well, I'm going to take you through a few little numbers to wash down the Haggis, or keep you flinging until morning.

Wines to match haggis

Wine and offal are often difficult to match. In this case you ideally you want something fairly robust, but that goes well with gamey flavours. Pinot Noir matches well with the gamey flavours, but will be too light too deal with everything else.

An alternative would be the Barbera grape. Hailing from Northern Italy in the Piedmont region, this thin skinned grape is low in tannin but can produce high acidity wines. When made well and balanced with the right amount of oak ageing, it can produce beautifully fresh wines with high acidity, and a smooth, sweetly spiced finish.

Sainsbury's TTD Barbera D'Asti 2016.
A classic example, this wine has a beautiful berry freshness about it. Typically low in tannin and high in acidity like all good Barbera wines.
£8.50 from Sainsbury's.

Zinfandel from California will also be a good choice. Heavier and more tannic than Barbera, it produces more powerful wines with flavours of cocoa, coffee and herbaceous characters.

Cline Ancient Vine Zinfandel 2014, California.
Bold, juicy and full of earthy notes, this wonderfully ripe Zinfandel will match the haggis perfectly. The nose has fresh red fruit, coffee and vanilla while the palate follows up with a very smooth texture, firm tannic structure and slightly spicy, vanilla heavy finish.
£13.99 mix six offer at Majestic.

If you really don't like red and want to go for a white, make sure to go for something rich and full of flavour. Dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc just won't do the job. Even the oakier Chardonnays will struggle.

Try Pinot Gris from Alsace. While it is the same grape as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris is harvested much later allowing the sugars within the grape to develop further and produce more exotic flavours. An excellent example of this is:

Tokay-Pinot Gris, Rolly Gassmann 1996, Alsace.
Wonderfully rich and full bodied, it has flavours of lychee, mango and slight citrusy character, this bold wine will stand up more than most other whites.
£34.25 from The Vinorium.

Wines with a Burns Night theme

If you're happy with whisky for dinner, but want something with a little bit of a Scottish twist without being too gimmicky, why not try either of these.

Jim Barry McRae Wood Shiraz 2012, Clare Valley.

There's nothing like an Aussie Shiraz, and this is a prime example of what it's all about. Beautifully perfumed on the nose, the palate is packed with black fruit with rich, powerful and savoury spice. An absolutely stunning wine... and it's got tartan on the label!
£24.99 from Waitrose Cellar.

Bobbie Burns, Rutherglen Durif 2015.

Do you really need an explanation as to why I've chosen this? Aside from being an astounding wine, the name says it all. Durif, otherwise known as Petite Syrah, produces highly concentrated wines with robust characteristics of cassis, blackcurrant, peppery spice and smokiness. An absolute powerhouse.
£14.99 from The Wine Reserve.

Are you celebrating Burns Night? Let us know what you plan on drinking!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Smoothie Craze: Ten epic but easy smoothie recipes

As Vinspire's chief 'pinner' (and proud!), I find myself gleefully adding lots of tasty treats to our Vinspire Pinterest page.

I pin everything from cocktails to boozy bakes, incredible bars and amazing wine travel destinations, but the amount of smoothie recipe pins I've seen just keeps on growing. This healthy and filling breakfast trend has taken over on both sides of the pond.

Naturally, I started a Smoothies board, and I've become increasingly excited about the recipes I've found.

Of course, Pinterest being Pinterest, not all of the recipes are focussed on being healthy  some are decadent in the extreme, replacing fruit with ingredients like peanut butter, chocolate and whipped cream  so there really is something for everyone.

Here are ten of the best (but easiest) smoothie recipes I've found, all using easy to find ingredients:

1. Avocado chocolate peanut butter smoothie

YES. You heard right. All the world's best things (aside from booze, obviously) in a glass. This recipe is from the wonderful A Cookie Named Desire blog: she cleverly blends naughty ingredients like peanut butter and cocoa powder with filling, healthy things like banana, avocado and almond milk. Winner.

2. Skinny strawberry shortcake smoothie

A brilliant, three-ingredient smoothie that is thick and creamy but doesn't contain anything unhealthy. MAGIC. This recipe is from Amy's Healthy Baking Blog. The post is worth reading to see how excited she gets as she'd just made an appearance on a big American daytime TV show.

3. Gingerbread Smoothie

I think this one definitely wins on cuteness. There are a few more ingredients to the gingerbread smoothie recipe (which comes from the fabulous Peanut Butter and Peppers blog) but they're all readily available and you probably have most of them in your cupboards already.

4. Thin mint smoothie

This brilliant and simple PopSugar recipe is based on the popular US Girl Scout cookies (like the ones Monica got addicted to on Friends...) and is a suuuuper refreshing way to start the day. It's got some sneaky spinach in as well.

5. Pina colada oat breakfast smoothie

All the fun without the booze. Plus you get two of your five-a-day and plenty of energy-boosting yoghurt and oats. This recipe is from the Cooking Classy blog. Jaclyn (the blog's owner) is pretty good at smoothie recipes so it's worth browsing the rest of her collection...

6. Carrot cake smoothie

Another one of those smoothies where you're surprised to already have all the ingredients handy. This recipe sounds a bit naughty but actually has carrot, banana AND almond milk in it - POW! From Gimme Some Oven.

7. Raspberry and coconut smoothie

Another three-ingredient triumph of a recipe from the A Beautiful Mess blog. What a lovely combination of flavours.

8. Banana and almond smoothie

From British-based My Recipe Book, this super-satisfying four-ingredient recipe is perfect for busy, on-the-go types.

9. Healthy red velvet smoothie

Another cake-inspired smoothie recipe, this is surprisingly chocka with fruit and veg: beetroot, strawberries, banana AND dates. That may sound an odd combination, but it so works. From the Chocolate and Carrots blog.

 10. Espresso banana smoothie

If, like me, you can't quite let go of your morning coffee, this is the smoothie recipe for you. It also has a little dash of sneaky maple syrup. From Move Nourish Believe.