Monday, 30 November 2015

Super Fine Fizz For The Festive Season

CCL: Sam Howzit

We all love fizz. Whether you're celebrating or simply sipping, it adds a bit of sparkle to any occasion, and there's no better need for popping the cork than the festive season. Christmas and New Year are prime time for cracking out the fancy flutes, so after attending a Champagne event at Cheltenham's Tivoli Wines earlier this month, I've got a quick round up of the best bottles to be stocking up with.

If it's English fizz you're after, then check out my previous post from the English Wine Trade Tasting; this one is all about the French! And whilst Champagne can reach ridiculous prices, if you're going to splash out, Christmas is the time to do it. Here's a selection of my faves from the night:

Pierre Gimonnet 

Gimmonet, a growers Champagne, is the only house in Champagne to preserve all reserve wines in bottle. Instead of the usual stainless-steel tanks, the reserve wines are aged in bottle and then several vintages are chosen to be blended with a young wine. Characteristics of each, small vineyard parcel are preserved, resulting in something that has great complexity and mellowness, yet also the freshness and vitality of young Champagne. Dosage is deliberately kept to a minimum in order to maintain purity of fruit, maximum acidity and freshness, and this no-oak 'house style' runs like a vein throughout their entire range.

Pierre Gimonnet NV Cuis 1er Cru is their entry level wine, but with 100% Chardonnay, it sure doesn't taste it. A pure, floral nose, its palate has a racy citrus energy, with stonefruit, acacia, and a faint nutty finish. At £23.70 from The Drink Shop, this is incredibly good value for money.

The 2008 Special Club, rated by many critics as one of the best in Champagne, is their top end offering, and at £53.95 from Plus de bulles, it's still not very pricey for fancy fizz. This is the winemaker's favourite vintage, and with more lees ageing, its much rounder. You pick up the same floral citrus notes as the NV, but there's a finer mousse, nuttier taste, and a bigger mouth feel. Delicious.

Ayala

Based in Aÿ, right at the heart of the Champagne region, Ayala's roots date back over 150 years. Edmond de Ayala, established the house in 1860, and during the 1920's over a million bottles of Ayala were produced. As the Second World War began, Ayala took a step back and produced much smaller batches of quality champagne, then in 2005 Bollinger purchased the estate with the aim to restore it to it's former glory.

For the price, Ayala's Brut Majeur NV is excellent. Pale gold in colour, it has an expressive nose with citrus, flowers and fleshy fruits. It's clean and has a slick mousse, but there are toasty, caramelised biscuity flavours in there too, giving it a classic Champagne style complexity. At £24.95 from Champagne Direct, it's ideal as an aperitif on Christmas morning.

Billecart-Salmon

Billecart-Salmon, a medium-size Champagne House in Mareuil-sur-Ay, was founded in 1818 by the original owners Nicolas Francois Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon who combined their names on marriage to create the brand. Renowned for their quality and meticulous production techniques, they're one of the few remaining Champagne houses to remain family owned, and they consistently produce top-notch wines.

If the snow white label of the Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV isn't enough to make you want it over the festive season, then the taste of it sure will. It has been elaborated from the five grand cru vineyards of the Cðte des Blancs and is a blend of two different years, ensuring the Chardonnay grapes are giving their all. Mineral lemony notes, along with peach and pink lady apples are both quenching and moreish, then the delicate bubbles and glimmering gold, match the slight buttery characteristics and elegant almond finish. Available from Amazon for £54.99.

Stepping up in the price point, Cuvée Nicolas-Francois Billecart 1999 has received high points from all the wine critics since it was released. There's a richer, creamier feel about this Champagne, which is 60-40 Pinot - Chardonnay, and a doughy plushness makes you want to keep diving in. It's balanced by lemon curd freshness and saline minerality, giving it a unique character and therefore making it worth the £74.99 it costs (from Amazon).

Thiénot  

Over the past 25 years, owner Alain Thienot has remained faithful to the key values which have built this producer’s world renowned reputation – quality, modernity and luxury. His motto reads; “A single passion: wine. A single obsession: quality”, and this attention to detail is key in him producing some of the region’s finest vintages.

Thiénot Cuvée Garance Blanc de Rouges 2007 is 100% Pinot Noir, but instead of 'Blanc de Noirs' they've chosen to call it 'Blanc de Rouges' because of the effort that they put into keeping the wine feminine (whatever that means). A large proportion of the fruit comes from the grand cru Ay that the family purchased from Krug, as well as from Garance's own personal vines in the village of Tauxieres, on the border with Bouzy. A red-fruit and floral nose leads to a long soft palate of sweet fruits, and subtle yeastiness, finishing beautifully balanced and delicately dry. Available for £61.99 from The Wine Library.

At basically the same price, Cuvée Alain Thiénot 2002 exemplifies the trademark faire and exacting standards that are synonymous with the Thiénot Champagne house. A stunning blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which is only crafted in outstanding years, this has a great balance between tropical fruits and figs, toasty hints of brioche maturity and a lemon curd finish. The fine bubbles ensure an impressive length. For £62.00 from Drink Finder, I'd find it hard to pick between the two Thiénot's.

Charles Heidsieck 

Charles Heidsieck is generally considered the 'badass' Champagne house, thanks to Charles' do-what-I-want winemaking legacy.Being titled 'Sparkling Winemaker of the Year' at the International Wine Challenge fifteen times proves that they create great, hand-crafted wines, with heritage and high quality.

I personally found the Rosé Réserve NV more attractive than the current '06 vintage. Coral-like in appearance, it has a just-ripe strawberry scent that gradually leads to more of a buttery french toast aroma. Not too sweet and not too fruity, I'd say that this is a rosé that even rosé haters would like, and the silky-rich texture is divine. Get it for £45.00 from The Fine Wine Company.

If you're feeling flush, then you should try the Blanc des Milénaires 1995; a blend of Chardonnay from five crus - Cramant for complexity and ageability, Avize for verve and minerality, Oger for creaminess and weight, Mesnil-sur-Oger for balance and Vertus for floral freshness. With a slightly green tinged golden hue, its perfumed bouquet is instantly balanced with biscuity aromas; rich, buttery, vanilla spice, with sweet apricots and hazelnuts; it tastes as good as it sounds. It is super smooth, it looks swish, it's perfect for drinking now, and it has great potential for ageing; get it for £135.95 from The Whisky Exchange.

Moet Hennessy

The clear 18th-century style bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV is a reminder that this is a Champagne that is meant to be drank now. The pale yellow nectar gives off gorgeous stone fruits and white flower aromas, which evolve into a fresh, lime-citrus and salty-sweet palate. This is a very user-friendly Blanc de Blancs; its seductive mousse will charm anyone at the dinner table this Christmas, and it's currently £47.98 from Majestic when you buy any six bottles of wine.

If you want to make a statement, these last two Champagnes are the way to do it. Firstly, Krug Grand Cuvée. Krug's uncompromising and single-minded determination to produce the best Champagne is legendary. It's continually classed as being one of the finest Champagnes in the world. A blend of more than 120 wines from at least 10 different harvests, has historically been sold as Krug Grande Cuvée, although since 2011, the label has featured an ID number, which can be entered into Krug’s website to tell consumers information about each bottle, including the vintages employed and the date when the wine was disgorged. This means that if you're a Krug snob, you can check the ID before you buy, just to check to see if it's they blend that you like!

Light toasted brioche, dried fruits and marzipan lead you in, with a peachy sherbet tang that's exceptionally fresh. It's rich and winey, as you'd expect for the price, but it retains some subtlety with fine and elegant bubbles. £126 in a mix six case from Majestic

The big boy; Dom Pérignon 1998 Plenitude P2 is probably only achievable if you've been given a huge bonus this year. This is the second release of the 1998 Plenitude (P2), being said to be in a new quality level where it will plateau for many years in terms of improvement; P3 is expected to be released 20-30 years after the vintage. Honeysuckle, lemony notes and smoky undertones are enticing, but it's the rich and creamy, chewy flapjack flavours that make it so exciting. It's edgy, embracing and has a persistent finish; I'm just not sure I'd want to pay £229 for it - from The Wine Press...

What are your favourite fizzes for the festive season? Let us know!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Get Your Apres-Ski Fix Without Leaving London: The Lodge Review



Missing out on ski season this year? Too long to wait for an annual ski trip? Can't actually ski but love the thought of boozy hot chocolate and fondue with your mates? Then The Lodge, the recently opened pop-up apres-ski venue in Clapham, is for you.



Situated above the Clapham North Pub, The Lodge is a restaurant serving up traditional Alpine fare. The menu comprises delicious meals and sharing platters, as well as its signature fondue with cheese from Neal's Yard (trust us, it's amazing).






But more than good food, The Lodge does drinks. Really, really good drinks. From Alpine beer to their signature hot cocktails, they've got this down. I visited with a group of friends, and we started the night trying Hot Toddies, classic cocktails and the signature Buttered Rum. 


The drinks menu features classics mixed with signature serves - and most can be ordered hot or cold; perfect for those chilly winter nights. There are warming, boozy, heady punches, creamy, rich hot chocolates, and festive mulled wine and cider.



Le Grande Bosses Butter Rum was a big hit - warming, rich, slightly spiced and topped with meringue, it hits the spot.



The Earl Grey Martini, developed by head bartender, Lachie, is strong, sharp and aromatic. We had it served hot, which really brought out the citrus flavour. Like many of the drinks at The Lodge, it can be ordered by the cup or by the teapot (or, in the case of the hot chocolate with orange liqueur, by the Thermos) - great for sharing, or if you're really thirsty.

Credit: @mandylaws


We ended our night with a Shotski - The Lodge's own ski with shots of Werther's Original Vodka.


I'm not one for toffee, or even vodka, but man this stuff's good... or maybe I'd had too much mulled wine by that point. Plus, ten points for novelty and a great photo opp.










Can't quite afford a trip to the slopes this year? Make your way to The Lodge instead - all the fun of apres-ski, without the expense (or the cold).


Follow The Lodge on Twitter or Instagram for pictures of hella good food and drink, or get in touch to book a table.

The top 20 brilliant and unique gifts for tea lovers

Let's get right down to business, as all good tea lovers do: we all know someone who is crazy about tea. And tea fans make the best friends - fact.

So grab yourself a cup of tea and read my guide to the best and most unique gifts for people who love tea:


1. "You are my cup of tea" Stamped tea spoon, £10 from PersonalisedSpoons on Etsy

So every day when they make a cuppa they can be reminded. <3


2. Pug in a mug tea infuser, £4.95 from Lakeland

For the combined tea and pug lover in your life?


3. Teacup temporary tattoo, £3.07 (plus £3.28 shipping) from Siideways in Canada, on Etsy

YES THAT'S RIGHT. A TEA TATTOO. I... I can't even cope with how perfect this is.


4. Tea club tea towel, £7.50 from Little Mashers on Not on the High Street

The first rule of tea club is... buy me all of the tea club tea cloths. Now, please.


5. Jones teapot tea clock, £12 from George at ASDA

It says 'drink tea and eat toast', and I will never argue with it.



6. Teacup necklace, £9 from Lovehearttrinkets on Etsy

HOW. ADORABLE.


7. Tea plant gift, £49 from The Present Tree on NOTHS

Grow your own tea leaves! Amazing!


8. Tea and cake gift set, £15 from The Contemporary Home

A mug for your tea nestled into a special plate for your cake. Now there's no excuse not to eat cake EVERY DAY.


9. Teapot mirror, £32 from OneTenZeroSeven on Etsy

Isn't it gorgeous? And the perfect size mirror to hang in the hallway by the front door to check your face on the way out every day.


10. 'Ring for tea' desk bell, £2.49 from FindMeAGift

I was given this for Christmas two years ago. It gets used SO SO MUCH. And somehow it always works? I've got my other half trained better than Pavlov's cat.



11. Book and tea lover print, £16 from Old English Company on NOTHS

This is true of so many of my friends I fear I might bankrupt myself buying them all one of these prints...



12. Teacup ceramic table lamp, £29.99 from Homebase

I. JUST. LOVE IT! You can put it in your cosiest reading corner.



13. Silver and peach flowery knitted tea cosy, £17.50 (+ £3.90 shipping from South Africa) from Bitty Creations on Etsy

I don't think I've ever seen a prettier tea cosy. I'd want to use my teapot every day if I had this.



14. Knitted snail tea cosy, £16.99 from RupertsHouse on Etsy

OR you could go FULL ON SILLY and get this hilarious snail cosy. The big eyes make me giggle every time I look at them.



15. Penguin tea-boy with timer, £18.23 from Amazon

Speaking of daft things, I just love this little guy. He's got a top hat! However, he actually does have a pretty great purpose too - the timer means you can brew the perfect cup of tea! Just let it steep for three minutes and PING! You're done.



16. Make Your Own Tea Blend gift box, £31 from Silver Lantern Tea on NOTHS

I can think of no greater power to give to a tea lover than letting them blend their OWN tea. This is worth every penny, I reckon.



17. SUCK UK My Cuppa Tea mug, £4.64 from Prezzybox

A colour-matching chart mug so you can brew the perfect strength tea with the right amount of milk every time! Shut up and take my money!



18. 'Busy drinking tea' tea towel, £12 from Busy Being on NOTHS

A perfect little celebration of tea in tea towel form.



19. Slow-brew sloth tea infuser, £10.99 from FindMeAGift

I can't decide if I like this one or the pug one (above) best. But sloths are so trendy right now, aren't they? Everyone loves sloths. And I bet sloths love tea.


20. Teapot necklace, £14 from OneTenZeroSeven on NOTHS

If the mirror above is just a bit too pricey for you, you can give your tea fanatic friend this gorgeous little wooden teapot necklace instead. And get one for me while you're at it.


Right, that's the end of my tea gift guide for you all. I'm off to put the kettle on... In the mean time, tell me your favourite or share your own brilliant tea presents in the comments!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Vinspire #winesecretsanta is back!




Right ladies and gentlemen, there's no getting away from it - I've seen the Coca-Cola advert, I've seen the John Lewis advert; Christmas is well and truly coming! This means one thing for us here at Vinspire... it's time to get the award-winning* Vinspire #winesecretsanta going again!

What is #winesecretsanta?
 

For those who didn't participate last year and are wondering what this is all about: think of Secret Santa, only instead of presents you give and get bottles of wine. That's it really! 

Last year was the first year that we tried this out and it worked a treat. It was amazing to see all the photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with everyone enjoying their wines, pleased with what they've received and seeing with satisfaction the pleasure of those that we gave our wine to (see this post with some highlights). 

The rules are going to be the same as last year, so here's a recap of how it all works...


1. Want to join in? 
Email us
 (vinspireUK AT gmail DOT com) by November 21st, confirming:
  • Your name 
  • Your home address
  • The UK address to which your wine should be delivered (if different from your home address - e.g a work address if you'd rather we didn't share your home address with the person sending your gift.)
Please also indicate if you have any very strong taste preferences (e.g "I can't drink red wine!"); although the general idea is to receive something unexpected, so please don't be too proscriptive. And tempting as it may be, please don't specify that you only drink First Growth Bordeaux...

2. What happens next? 
We will then secretly set each of you up with another participant to whom you can anonymously send a bottle of wine.
Obviously, everyone that participates in the secret santa will also be receiving a bottle from someone else. You'll receive your assignee on November 22nd or November 23rd.
Photo: Star Athena

3. What should I send?
We have decided to set a minimum spend of £10 for the bottle. This is supposed to be the season of good will and all that jazz, so please don't go down the route of sending something awful. 
There is no maximum limit on what you can send... Perhaps your Secret Santa will be feeling generous and send you that Château d'Yquem that you've been hankering after? We would also like to recommend that wherever possible people buy their wine from independent wine merchants and wine shops. The supermarkets make enough money over Christmas from all the food they sell - support your local wine shop if you can!

4. When should I send it?
The deadline for sending the wine to your recipient is 1st December. This is so that it is received before people start making their trips to see family/friends. Once you have sent your wine, please email us to confirm you have done so (and if there's a specific delivery date, let us know) and we will let the recipient know it is on its way.

5. Then what?
Whether you wait until Christmas Day or rip the packaging off straight away, when you decide to open your present and discover which wine you've been sent, it would be great if you could take a wine selfie of you with your bottle and tag us on our Twitter, Instagram (@LaRainbowine and @tjmilford) or Facebook pages - or just using the hashtag #VinspireSecretSanta.
We'll be sharing as many as possible to spread the Wine Secret Santa love!

6. Enjoy your Christmas wine (responsibly, of course)!

Please note - this is limited to people who reside within the United Kingdom, apologies to those who live outside that wanted to join in.
- See more at: http://www.vinspireuk.com/2014/11/the-vinspire-wine-secret-santa.html#sthash.mBu9QVaa.dpuf
1. Want to join in? 
 
Email us (vinspireUK AT gmail DOT com) by Friday 4 December, confirming:
  • Your name 
  • Your home address
  • The UK address to which your wine should be delivered (if different from your home address - e.g a work address if you'd rather we didn't share your home address with the person sending your gift.)
Please also indicate if you have any very strong taste preferences (e.g "I can't drink red wine!"); although the general idea is to receive something unexpected, so please don't be too proscriptive. And tempting as it may be, please don't specify that you only drink First Growth Bordeaux...

2. What happens next? 

We will then secretly set each of you up with another participant to whom you can anonymously send a bottle of wine. Obviously, everyone that participates in the Secret Santa will also be receiving a bottle from someone else. You'll receive your assignee on Sunday 6 December.

3. What should I send?
 

My lovely #vinspiresecretsanta from last year
We have decided to set a minimum spend of £10 for the bottle. This is supposed to be the season of good will and all that jazz, so please don't go down the route of sending something awful. There is no maximum limit on what you can send... Perhaps your Secret Santa will be feeling generous and send you that Château d'Yquem that you've been hankering after? 

We would also like to recommend that wherever possible people buy their wine from independent wine merchants and wine shops. The supermarkets make enough money over Christmas from all the food they sell - support your local wine shop if you can!

4. When should I send it?
 

The deadline for sending the wine to your recipient is Friday 18 December. This is so that it is received before people start making their trips to see family/friends. Once you have sent your wine, please email us to confirm you have done so (and if there's a specific delivery date, let us know) and we will let the recipient know it is on its way.  

5. Then what?
 

Whether you wait until Christmas Day or rip the packaging off straight away, when you decide to open your present and discover which wine you've been sent, it would be great if you could take a wine selfie of you with your bottle and tag us on our Twitter, Instagram (@LaRainbowine and @tjmilford) or Facebook pages - or just using the hashtag #WineSecretSanta.

We'll be sharing as many as possible to spread the Wine Secret Santa love!

6. Enjoy your Christmas wine!

Responsibly, of course - no operating heavy machinery after enjoying your Christmas wine!

Please note - this is limited to people who reside within the United Kingdom, apologies to those who live outside that wanted to join in - you have our blessing to organise your own event.

So, there you have it. If you're interested please drop us an email with your details and we will start compiling the list - after checking first who's been naughty and who's been nice, of course...
Quick recap of dates and essentials:
1. Sign up to the Vinspire Wine Secret Santa between 26 November - 4 December. UK entrants only - email us your name, address and delivery address.
2. You will receive an email on 6 December giving you your gift recipient and delivery address.
3. You have until 18 December to send your wine (£10 and over please). Then email us and we will let the recipient know to expect it.
4. Take a selfie of you and the wine your Secret Santa sends you and share it using the hashtag #WineSecretSanta
In the words of Tiny Tim, "Merry Christmas one and all!"

* not true

Wine for Beginners: Born to do it - is a good palate in your genes?


What is so difficult about tasting wine? You pour it, slurp it, give it the thumbs up or thumbs down and either cast it into wine oblivion, never to be bought again or put it on the 'must get again' list. 

Not brain surgery, you would say.

Well, it seems that the power of wine critics in the world and the fact that the overlord of all critics, Robert Parker, has insured his taste buds for a cool $1 million means that having a pinpoint sense of taste and sensory skill can make you a lot of money in a world obsessed with immediate gratification.

With such power (quite literally) at the tip of their tongue, it makes you wonder how they got such talented tonsils in the first place. Was this something that they achieved through serious commitment to their chosen profession, slurping and spitting delectable vino on a daily basis? Or were chromosomes that made them up just geared towards having a Superman-esque palate?

Firstly, you have to know what the word 'palate' actually means.

There is no muscle, bone or ligament that is called the palate, it really is a combination of all the senses that a human being possesses to evaluate food or drink (smell & taste in tandem), and also the ability to actually verbalise the tastes you are getting.

The creation of the Wine Aroma Wheel back in the 80's (remember them?) helped people who probably had a fantastic palate, but who had no idea how to actually describe the flavours, into the demi-gods of wine tasting with a simple turn of a paper wheel.

So, lets have a look at the biology aspect of it.

You pick up many different aspects of a wine from the sensors within your laughing tackle. The sides of your mouth and tongue pick up the acidity of the wine (the more your mouth waters after drinking it, the more acidity the wine has), the tannins (or the structure/grip) of a wine is picked up on the gums (if they go furry or dry, the higher the tannins in the wine), the alcohol level you feel on the back of the throat (and the pounding in your head the morning after), but most importantly the sweetness of a wine is felt on the tip of the tongue (where the majority of your taste sensors are).

These amount of these 'sensors' (called Papillae) apparent on a tasters tongue is directly representative to how good the taster is. A study was conducted back in 2003 showed that 25% of the people tested were considered 'non-tasters' (or had very few papillae on the tip of their tongue), 50% were average tasters and the other 25% classed as bona-fide 'super-tasters'.

The same can be said of the nasal receptors (nostrils to you and me). The more 'sensors' you have there, the more you will be able to pick up and therefore the better your overall palate will be.

But what of us mere mortals, who are lacking in the papillae department and have nostrils the size of a petit pois? Well, as the old adage goes, its not the size that matters, its what you damn well do with it...



Experience seems to be key when it comes to developing a palate that would make a wine merchant swoon in longing. The more liquid that passes your lips, the more your senses pick up on what they like and what they don't, thus meaning you can start to pick up what the hallmarks of a bad/good wine are.

Palates evolve. What you taste first time round, may not be what you taste second time round, 2 months later, 6 months later, 1 year later, etc, etc... By trying different wines from different climates, countries, altitudes, your senses tune themselves to spot oddities and nuances that were not apparent in other wines you may have tried from other spots in the world.

The bite at the end of the tail and the story that will make all of us budding wine maniacs live in hope of our day in the spotlight is that it doesn't matter how much of an 'expert' someone proclaims to be, there is a massive slip up just around the corner. Back in 2002, a researcher from Bordeaux invited 54 eminent tasters to a 'grand' tasting of some Bordeaux wines. However, he used this opportunity to conduct a few cheeky cons on them and prove the saying of 'do not judge a book its cover'.

In one of them, he poured some wine in the glasses of the judges and labelled it a prestige, grand cru, top dollar wine. Reactions such as 'woody', 'refined' and 'complex' were spouted. Cue the same wine being poured into the glasses, but labelled as a cheap, run-of-the-mill, plonk. Reactions here were 'weak', 'flat' and 'had a sting'.

The statement trying to be made here? You taste what you think you should be tasting. If you think you are tasting the pinnacle of winemaking, you will go overboard in your praise. However, if you think you are tasting an ordinary drop, you'll not exactly explode in your enjoyment.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that its easy to get caught up in the thinking that someone has that 'thing' in them for high class tasting. Its in their bones, its in their DNA.

However, if you kick a football against a wall all your life, you'll end up being good at football; if you sing into the mirror every morning, you'll be able to hold a tune and if you enjoy a glass or two every know and again, not only will you get tipsy, you may just become a dab hand in this game we call wine.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Taste of Italy: An Italian Wine Tasting at The Grape Escape

Italian wines are a tricky one. I'm down with my pizzas, pastas and gelatos, but it seems that with the wines, you either know them or you don't - I don't - and I'm finding that the more I learn about wine, the less I feel I know... Stop me from banging my head on the table and tell me this isn't just me, please!

The thing about Italian wines is that the country really is a vinous nightmare; so many regions, so many indigenous grapes. Firstly, you have to work out what the region is (usually on the label), then it's a game of guess the grape (generally not). To confuse things further, Montepulciano is both a region and a variety, but the grape isn't used in the wine that bears it's name!

THEN, if our puzzled expressions couldn't get much worse, we are given various classifications; "Classico" doesn't necessarily mean it's better, just that the vineyard is in the original defined area. "Riserva"on the label means it's been aged before release, but the time required varies by region, so who bloody knows?!

Confusion aside, Italy's offerings are undeniably good, and November's tasting at The Grape Escape saw us try and get to grips with some of the country's finest.

So, to start off any Italian tasting, there's only one thing for it; Prosecco! We're all used to paying about a fiver on the sweeter, less complex, crowd pleasing fizz - produced for volume not quality, it's the cheap alternative - so how do we feel about spending over a tenner on a bottle?

Carpene Malvolti Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG is from Italy's oldest family-owned Prosecco producer, founded by a chemist who was fascinated by Champagne who then strived to create a similar sparkling wine from the grapes grown in the hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Carpene Malvoti were the first to produce a sparkling wine make from Glera, in the process creating an incomparable wine with its own unique perfume, taste and style. Crisp apples, pear and stone fruit on the nose, it's got a bit of oomph on the palate in comparison to your average plonk, and whilst it's fruity and the bubbles are lively, it still feels like an elegant aperitif. Even our Prosecco hating host said he liked it! You can buy Carpene Malvolti Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore for £13.85 from Wine Poole.

Next, a wine that's had a bit of a bad rep in the past (probably down to the crap stuff you get in a box from the supermarket) but is now on the up; Soave. Ca'Rugate, from the Veneto, takes its name from the volcanic hills on which the vineyard is found. Due to the sunny little microclimate they have, and rich volcanic soil, the gentle sloping hills have always been a cradle for high quality wines. In fact, Ca'Rugate is well known for being one of the top 5 producers of high end Soave. This Soave Classico 'Monte Fiorente' 2013 is single vineyard, made with 100% Garganega grapes. It's rich aromas are flaunt stone fruit, lemon peel and orange blossom, with flinty smoky notes. There's a distinct cleanness on the palate; juicy, smooth, concentrated, with a bright but light acidity. Monte Fiorente 2013 is available to buy for £14.17 (in a case) from Strictly Wine.

Falanghina is a lesser know grape variety that we've discussed in Vinspire blog posts before. The Feudi di San Gregorio has carved out a standard for making world-class wines, and the 'Serrocielo' Falanghina del Sannio 2014, Campania, is one of them. The range of soils in the vineyards, along with the cool micro-climates found in the southwestern region, enable to winemakers to produce beautifully balanced, aromatic wines. The initial smell takes you straight to lemon sorbet - tart, fresh, citrusy - and this continues in the drinking; it's like a mash up of Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc, and it really makes your mouth water. Pair this with a creamy salmon pasta dish and you'll be in heaven. 'Serrocielo' Falanghina del Sannio is £15.50 from Wine Poole.

The last of the whites, Collavini 'Broy' Bianco Collio 2013, Friuli, was the first oaky/yeasty wine we had (thanks to being aged on the lees). Collavini pride themselves on modern style wines that still retain traditions and grape varieties native to the region; 'Broy', which comes from the strip of hills against the Slovenian border, offers a richer, more intense wine than other whites in the area. A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Friulano and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, it has a harmonious balance on the palate with fresh fruit flavours and a long and consistent finish. You can get something from each of the grapes - fleshy peaches (Chardonnay), asparagus ( Sauvignon) and minerality (Friulano) - and it feels a little reminiscent of some Californian Chardonnays; a true beauty. You can pick up Collavini 'Broy' Bianco for £30.07 from Wineman.

Moving onto reds, we began with Cantine San Marzano 'Talo' Primitivo di Manduria 2012, Puglia. In 1962 nineteen vine growers from San Marzano combined their efforts to create 'Cantine San Marzano'. The cooperative has grown significantly over the years, and their great wines have branded them as being one of the most professional, forward-thinking companies in Southern Italy. A punch of Primitivo's spicy warmth with plums and figs are just what's needed in this cold weather. It's a big wine; excellent concentration, rich and well balanced; the ripe fruits flavours ensure a persistent sweetness on the finish. Great for the money, you can get 'Talo' Primitivo for £12.95 from Wine Poole.

Chiarlo is one of Piedmont's stand out winemakers, and Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti 'La Court' 2011, is one to take note of. Maximum pruning and the thinning-out of clusters within the vineyards help create a particular style where the varietal and terroir characteristics are always evident. This is a supercharged Barbera d'Asti, where you get a face full of dark fruits, smoke and spice, which seductively leads you to a tangy acidity and well structured tannins. It has a lot more texture to it than the first, and everyone at the tasting agreed that it would make a fabulous wine to go with Christmas dinner! On that note, you can buy Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti 'La Court' 2011 from Strictly Wine for £36.66.

Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco 'Martinenga' 2006 is another from Piedmont and, as a rule, Barbaresco is the queen of Italian wines (big Barolos are king). With four estates in vineyards situated in the Langhe and Monferrato areas - recognised as the home of the region's greatest wines - grapes are brought to the central winery at Martinenga to be transformed into high quality wines such as this. The Nebbiolo grape gives a fresh, fruity nose, with rose, violet and tea tones, and whilst it's got some drying tannins, its choppy/blocky finish feels unbalanced and a little too young. Buy this one now and keep for a few years if you've got the dollar; £46.99 from Amazon.

Heading to Tuscany for the final two, we first had the Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2006. The prestige of Biondi Santi dates back to the 19th Century when they started making wine using an isolated clone of Sangiovese, and the first bottle of Brunello di Montalcino was bottled in 1888… That's 100 years before I was born - eek! 100% Sangiovese Grosso, this red has the characteristic black plums and sour cherry nose, which is complimented by woodland bark and earth. It's well structured, with smoothness and acidity working harmoniously, however it could probably benefit from a bit more time. I'd say it's still drinking well though - my glass disappeared far too quickly - so it may be worth getting it from Berry Bros & Rudd for £87.50 (in a case of 6).

Lastly, Antinori Guado al Tasso 2008. Until the 1970's, Tuscany was only really famous for the Sangiovese-based vinos, but then came along the Antinori family whose estate was one of the jewels of the Chianti DOC. They included Cabernet Sauvignon in a blend of their wine, aging it in small French barriques, and the scandal was audible all over the wine world, prompting them to sell it under the 'Vino di Tavola' label (aka table wine). It wasn't until 1985, when Robert Parker awarded a super 100 points to a cousin of Antinori, that people started to take notice of the Tuscan revolution wines.

This flagship wine, which was the hands down winner of best wine of the night, contains Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes. It's not as fruit driven on the nose as the other Italian wines we tried; I latched onto the idea of play-doh and pencil shavings, clearly missing those play school days(!). The initial hit gives you all those blackcurrant flavours you yearn for, along with sweet spices, coffee and tobacco; it's so smooth yet so concentrated, and the vein of acidity that runs through is moreish. The thing which dazzled us most was that in every sip the flavours arrived in a different order, making sure you're kept on your toes, not guzzling it without a second thought. Get Antinori Guado al Tasso 2008 in a case of six for £58.34 from Berry Bros & Rudd.

All in all, I think we sampled a good range of Italian wines, and although I think I will always be a little confused by them, being able to taste a range of grape varieties side by side has given me a bit more insight into what I like. I shall certainly be buying more Italian whites!

Out of the twenty people that were there, the best value wine votes went equally to the Ca'Rugate Soave Classico 'Monte Fiorente' and the Cantine San Marzano 'Talo' Primitivo di Manduria; both under 15 bucks. Salute!