Saturday, 17 December 2016

Salted Chocolate Brownies with Smoky Caramel

Before we start, I apologise for what I'm about to reveal. You might have been trying REALLY hard to banish those hefty Christmas eating habits, and here I am about to ruin it.

There's chocolate... Yep, we all love chocolate... Salted caramel... Yep, that too... And the addition of booze... Now we're talking! Smoky booze at that; hell yeah!

Here we go then; Salted Chocolate Brownies with Smoky Caramel.

Like a magpie, I was drawn towards this diamond of a recipe from Thomasina Miers’ Guardian column just before Christmas (she’s the lady that won 2005’s Masterchef and has since gone on to open up the Mexican street food chain Wahaca). I vowed to make the brownies as soon as I had the chance and, to be honest, I couldn’t wait any longer. I was incredibly good last week; I snubbed the scraps of various cheeses and meats in the fridge, avoided the mountain of Miniature Heroes, and didn’t even touch a drop of alcohol. But, after all that virtuous eating, something had to give, and these luxurious umber squares were it.

The recipe calls for the caramel to be made with mezcal; it’s that pungent smoky spirit from Mexico, made from agave plants. It’s not easy to find in the shops - I’m pretty sure no supermarkets stock it yet - but it’s a good thing to have, especially if you dabble in cocktails at home. Master of Malt stock a number of mezcals, but this entry-level priced bottle seems like a good place to start, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida (70cl, 42%) is £41.83 from Master of Malt. The tasting notes of “smoked almond, a little light peach juice, hints of potpourri and mixed spices with tobacco and cinnamon on the finish” sounds like it’d work a treat for these brownies!

Alternatively, if you don’t want to fork out on a bottle (or simply cannot wait for postage like me) a peaty whisky would work too. The salt, cinnamon and cayenne pepper still gives it that Mexican-Aztec feel, just you might have to shake your maracas with a kilt on instead.

Nowhere does peat better than Islay, and you can get the Laphroaig 10YO for £28.00 in Sainsburys, though Tesco have the Isle of Skye’s Talisker Storm on offer for £30.00 (down from £40.00). I sneaked 2tbsp of my other half’s Kilchoman 5YO 2009 Original Cask Strength, but you might have to go for something else as it's been discontinued.

These salted chocolate brownies are perfect as they are, but to spruce them up for a dessert, simply serve them with softly whipped cream. Oh, and if your will power is as low as mine, and you’re concerned you might scoff the lot, you could always freeze some to save for a rainy day.

Let’s do this... Sorry. Not Sorry.

Salted Chocolate Brownies with Smoky Caramel
Makes 20 brownies

For the brownies
  • 240g unsalted butter
  • 240g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), chopped
  • 240g caster sugar
  • 1 large pinch sea salt
  • 1 small pinch ground cinnamon
  • 130g plain flour
  • 4 medium eggs, beaten
For the caramel
  • 4 tbsp whole milk
  • 25g butter
  • 2 tbsp mezcal (or whisky)
  • 1 large pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 large pinch salt
  • 100g caster sugar
  1. Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Grease and line a 20cm x 26cm rectangular cake tin. 
  2. For the caramel, put the milk, butter, mezcal, cayenne and salt in a small bowl. Put the sugar and two tablespoons of water in a saucepan over a medium-high heat and simmer rapidly until the sugar melts and the resulting syrup starts to darken in patches. Turn down the heat a little, and swirl the pan around (don’t stir with a spoon) to amalgamate. Once the sugar has turned a very dark reddish-brown (if you overcook the caramel, it will turn black and bitter, but do try to take it far enough to develop some lovely dark complexity), add the contents of the milk bowl and quickly stir in. Whisk over a medium heat until all the ingredients are well combined, pour out on to a baking sheet lined with baking paper (or a silicone sheet), and refrigerate or freeze to thicken.
  3. Now for the brownies. Melt the butter in a medium pan over a low heat. Once melted, stir in the chocolate, being careful not to burn it. Once the mixture goes smooth and velvety, add the sugar, salt and cinnamon, stir until the sugar melts, then gradually sift in the flour, stirring to combine. Beat the eggs bit by bit into the chocolate mixture, until fully incorporated, then pour the lot into the prepared tin.
  4. Remove the caramel from the fridge or freezer, and sink spoonfuls of it deep into the cake mix, until you’ve used up two-thirds of it; dribble the rest on top of the brownies. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the cake is firm on top but still slightly gooey inside. Leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares.

You can find the recipe, along with a couple of other alternative dessert ideas HERE.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The best drinking events in Liverpool in 2017

We may focus a bit too much on the south here at Vinspire, but fortunately we've got guest blogger Laura Bowery on hand to tell us all the best drinking events in Liverpool.

After a long week in work, everybody looks forward to a drink or two. Make a weekend of your well-deserved tipple and head into Liverpool for one, or all, of these brilliant boozy events. 

This is the perfect family foodie day out, with some fabulous beverages too. Liverpool food and Drink Festival takes place in spring and welcomes vendors from across the UK to beautiful Sefton Park.

There’s both big brands and smaller independent producers, for those who love the finer things in life. And there’s a variety of craft beers, ciders and spirits.

Over the past few years the drinks focus has been on Liverpool’s speciality spirit production with an emphasis on gin, rum, vodka and bourbon.

As well as a spectacular assortment of bars, there are also plenty of events taking place over the weekend, including cocktail competitions and workshops – if you’re not quite a pro with your shaker just yet.

Over the past few years, bars across Liverpool have been upping their gin game.

The humble gin and tonic has had many a makeover at the likes of Arthouse, Jenever and the Botanical Gin Gardens.

So it probably comes as no surprise that Liverpool welcomes the Liverpool Gin Festival twice a year: in winter and summer.

The 2016 winter gin festival will be held next weekend, beneath one of Liverpool’s most iconic landmarks, the Metropolitan Cathedral (or Paddy’s Wigwam as it’s locally known).

Stalls will be set up in the atmospheric Lutyens Crypt and offer eager tasters 100s of different gins.

With live music, ‘Gin Talks’ given by industry experts, and a selection of nibbles, make sure you’ve got 2017’s dates in the diary, if you can't get there next weekend.

If gin isn’t your thing, how about the annual knees-up that is Oktoberfest, held at Liverpool’s Pier Head?

Don your Lederhosen and Dirndl, sit among many a merry man and woman, and enjoy a stein or three of beer, before dancing on the table to the best Oom-pah music outside of Germany.

And if Bavarian beer isn’t your tipple of choice (maybe don't go to Oktoberfest?), there’s some wine and cider on hand too.

You’re going to need to line your stomach for this one, so fill up on Brezel, Bratwurst and Schnitzel. Mmmm schmackhaften!

The end of the weekend is topped off with a family-friendly day including a hearty Sunday roast and live music. 

For more information and ticket details for 2017, check out the official website

Taking place in the sunnier months, Liverpool Craft Beer Expo is a beer drinkers’ heaven.

Nearly all the bars and pubs across Liverpool are now serving much more than your average Fosters, Carling and Stella.

Whatever your tastes, you can be sure to find something you like among 100 tapped kegs spread across the venue, or from any of the ten bars.

Just – so – much – beer.

An ever-growing list of breweries and vendors are invited to serve punters with interesting and unique beers. And as more vendors turn up, so do more people.

Held in a spectacular venue in Liverpool’s creative district, Camp and Furnace, Liverpool Craft Beer Expo also provides great food and entertainment for the duration of the weekend.

Go for a day or try to take on the full weekend.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Party season is here: Easy cocktail mixers and bases

Photo by Edson Hong

Party season is nearly upon us. It may be too early for most to start mentioning my favourite 'C' word, but I feel it's acceptable once the winter coat goes on – and that has definitely already happened.

With the parties comes the big decision of what to drink. You might want a few options aside from the usual fizz, beer, and wine, but cocktails for more than a few people can be annoyingly time consuming.

You'll usually find me in the kitchen at parties, either getting roped in to rescuing the punch that has seen a few too many spirits thrown in, or attempting to recreate some obscure cocktail someone had in a bar that one time, with a limited selection of whatever's in the house.

But this year has been the year of the pre-mixed and ready-made cocktail. Marks and Spencer have reported that sales of their cocktails in a can have been up a massive 74%. There's been an emergence of many bottle-to-glass drinks (or can-to-mouth), but there are fewer brands of mixers and bases, where you still need to add your booze and do a bit of shaking here and there.

Ice in, spirit in, Funkin – Cocktail mixers

The nice folks at Funkin sent over a few of their mixers to try. Having never used a cocktail mixer like this before, I was intrigued, but perhaps slightly sceptical.

Mojito – I have paid a decent amount of money for many mojitos in bars, made by supposedly professional bartenders, that don’t taste as good as the Funkin option. The mixer is sharp and tangy, bursting with limes, with just an edge of sweetness, and a decent hit of mint. It’s definitely my favourite of the three (but I do prefer mojitos anyway). Throw in a few slices of lime and some mint leaves with lots of crushed ice, and I think you’d struggle to find a mojito lover that doesn’t enjoy this.

Strawberry Daiquiri – This tastes like real strawberry, which is a good start. This is sweet (as you would expect), but it has a zesty lime note so it’s not sickly. Over summer this is the perfect one to enjoy in the garden on a warm evening, and in the colder months it’s perfect for remembering those warm evenings in the garden while you’re getting the party started in front of the fire. 

Pina Colada – If you like Pina Coladas, and easy cocktails you can drink in the rain (or sun), then this is the one for you. I haven't had a Pina Colada for years, and while it won't be jumping to the top of my order list, this mixer was creamy, sweet, and not too heavy. You can define the individual flavours, and I was more than happy drinking this and pretending I was sat on beach somewhere warm, rather than wearing two jumpers and a scarf in my flat. 

One thing I would say is that I don’t feel like the packaging matches the product. Funkin markets its products as the first and only 100% natural fresh fruit cocktail mixers. They have sourced the best fruit from around the world, there’s nothing nasty added, and there’s a ban on artificial colours, preservatives and additives. All that is great, and the mixers taste great and fresh, but the packaging doesn’t convey the ‘natural image, and is instead a bit busy. I think toning the packaging down, and going for a more minimalist design would do wonders to convey the premium-tasting product inside. 

Packaging aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the Funkin mixers. And if I wanted a night off from being found in the kitchen at parties, wielding a jigger in one hand and cocktail shaker in the other, I would definitely pick up a few cartons of Funkin.

Funkin mixers, 750ml, £2.99, Waitrose or their online shop

While there aren’t too many cocktail mixers on the market, especially ones that taste good, there are a few varieties, varying from cheap and cheerful, to small batch and handcrafted. 

Owl's Brew – Tea for cocktails

If you want to jump on all the hipster trends at once (well two of them) – owls and tea cocktails – then Owl’s Brew is the one for you. It’s the first ever tea crafted for cocktails, is ready-to-pour, and can be served on the rocks or shaken. There are a few tasty sounding flavours – the Classic (English breakfast with a tart twist), White and Vine (white tea with watermelon and pomegranate), and Pink and Black (darjeeling with a hint of hibiscus – that can be paired with most types of booze. The tea is brewed in Vermont in large kettles, where it’s handcrafted in small batches, before being sweetened, packed, and bottled.

Owl’s brew, Earl Grey tea mixer, £5.49, Amazon

Little Devil – Bloody Mary spice

This one may be cheating a bit as you need to add vodka and tomato juice, but if you want to add a bit of spice to your life when you’re on the move, or if you desperately need to rustle up a Bloody Mary after a heavy night, Little Devil is the way to go. 

The spice is handmade in small batches with natural ingredients, and combines all the aspects of a classic Bloody Mary, with a few added extras. These make a very tasty Bloody Mary that certainly helped my hangover – very savoury, not too spicy, but with a decent kick. I want to take some on my next flight for all my mile high Bloody Mary needs.

Little Devil spice, 24 servings, £7.99, Little Devil Spices 

White Whale – Bold mixers

These dinky tonic bottles look like they could cure a cough as much as they could help you get a little tipsy. The White Whale mixers are on the premium end of the market – the company only uses herbs and all-natural juices, and organic where possible. They currently come in six flavours – the Filthy Liar (add gin), Day Dreamer (add rum), Skinny Dipper (add tequila), Your Older Brother (add vodka), Aunties Old Fashion (add bourbon), and the Mob Man (add rye) – so you just need your booze and your garnish and you’re good to go. 

White Whale bold mixers, $10.00, Drink White Whale

The Modern Cocktail – Champagne mixers

If I had a nice bottle of champagne, I wouldn’t want to add anything to it, but if I had an ok bottle of fizz then I’d be a bit more tempted by these ‘champagne mixers’. They come in five flavours: raspberry, mandarin, mango, grapefruit, and blood orange, with three servings per bottle. I do feel that with the simple flavours, it would taste better to just add a small amount of fresh juice or puree, rather than a ‘syrup’, but they would make a nice stocking filler.

The Modern Cocktail champagne mixers, pack of five, £10.00, John Lewis

Finest Call – Cocktail mixer

Finest Call have got a large range of products ranging from Appletinis to Old Fashioneds, and are marketed to make a busy bartender’s job easier. They’re made with juice concentrate so aren’t as fresh as some of the other offerings. I can’t say I’m a fan of the packaging: they remind me of the lurid alcopops I unfortunately drank as a teenager... 

Finest Call, 1-litre bottle £6.39, The Drink Shop

Jose Cuervo – Margarita mix

If you like your margarita by the litre, then Jose’s got you covered. While Jose and I had a bit of a falling out at a party when I was 18, I won’t judge if you need a quick and easy way to make an industrial amount of margarita for a party.

Jose Cuervo margarita mix, 1-litre, £9.95, Amazon  

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Pairing wine with charcuterie: KWV and Cannon&Cannon

I’ve covered pairing wine with vegetarian food, and pairing wine with Indian food, now comes the time to pair wine with charcuterie (well, British cured meats). Christmas is on the way, which means party season. What better way to spend the evening, than with friends, a plate full of delicious meat, and bottles of perfectly-matched wine?

Cannon&Cannon are based in Borough Market. They've been going since 2010 and are leading the British charcuterie revolution (they've also ruined supermarket chorizo and salami for me, forever). They sell produce at a variety of markets in London, through their online shop, and to restaurants and delis, as well as running tastings and their famous Meat School (learn to bone out a pig's head, make bacon, or pair wine and meats, like I did).

KWV is one of South Africa's leading wine co-operatives. It was founded back in 1918 by winemakers in the Western Cape in South Africa. While some of them might be a bit tricky to get your hands on in the UK, they're worth searching out. I was genuinely impressed by the quality of the wines I tried, especially when you consider the price. 

The ever-enthusiastic Sean Cannon, founder of Cannon&Cannon, chose eight British cured meats, and Wim Truter, KWV head winemaker, chose the wines. Let the heated meat match commence.

Round one
Wild fennel salami with Vinecrafter Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (rrp £6.99)

The salami is made in Sussex using Old Spot pork, foraged wild fennel, and plenty of garlic. All that leads to quite a strong aniseed flavour. This was paired with quite a light, herby and tropically fruity Sauvignon Blanc. Off to a good start.

Round two
Veal, lemon and thyme salami with KWV Classic Collection Grenache Blanc 2015 (rrp £7.55)

I'd never tried veal before, but Sean assured me that this veal is as ethical as it comes. The salami is made in Monmouthshire from pork and rose veal, which comes from Bocaddon Farm in Cornwall. The lemon and thyme complements the delicate taste of the veal. 

This paired really well with the KWV Classic Collection Grenache Blanc, which matched the salami on the citrus front. 

Round three
Original longhorn biltong with KWV Classic Collection Petit Verdot 2015 (rrp £7.55)

This was SO far away from the horrible biltong you might pick up in a pub. It's made in Worcestershire from local Longhorn cattle. The full-bodied Petit Verdot Wim chose stood up well to the punchy, spicy biltong, with plenty of dark fruit and dried herb flavour.

Round four
Butchers’ choice biltong with Big Bill Red 2015 (£7.99, Drinks Direct)

More delicious biltong, this one made in west London by a South African butcher. This was one of my favourite pairings of the night. The wine had to stand up to the seriously punchy flavours of the 'party biltong' (as Sean called it), and managed to with ease. Big Bill is full of red berries, a bit of dark chocolate, and peppery spice.

Round five
Beef bresaola with Laborie Shiraz 2015 (£7.99 or 8.95euros, Capreo) and Laborie MCC Sparkling 2010 (£12.95)

Oh my, this beef was incredible. Although bresaola is a classic Italian product, this one is made using Devon Red Ruby beef, and matured for five months. I liked the Laborie sparkling, and think it would be a good, something-different-from-prosecco Christmas party fizz, but didn't feel it paired particularly well with the bresaola. The medium-bodied Shiraz however was a better match. It's well-rounded, with plum and dark berry notes, and a lovely finish.

Round six
Venison salami with green peppercorns, with Roodeberg Red 2014, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz blend (£8.95, Drinks Direct)

Another favourite of mine, this salami is made from wild Scottish red deer, which is lifted with green peppercorns. This was paired with Roodeberg red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Petit Verdot. This is an easy drinking red, with oaky spice on the nose, and plenty of fruit and pepper on the palate.

Round seven
Chilli biltong x2: Limpopo chilli biltong from Yorkshire, and Big Horn chilli biltong from Worcestershire, paired with Mentors Orchestra 2011 (£14.95, SA Wines Online)

Thought all biltong was the same? Oh no. The Limpopo biltong has a slow chilli burn, and the Big Horn biltong was a lot more fiery. The wine had to match up to a serious chilli punch. Mentors Orchestra is a five-blend wine, made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. It's a very elegant and complex wine, with a smooth finish, and was a little lost to the Big Horn.

Round eight
Air dried Dorset mutton with Mentors Cabernet Franc 2013 (£14.95, Ocado)

Mutton has never really taken off in the UK, but this could change your mind. It's made from 30-month old sheep that graze on a hillside looking out on the Jurassic coast in Dorset, munching on wildflowers. How idyllic. The mutton legs are then aged in port and juniper berries. The bold Cabernet Franc combines dark fruits, with chalky tannins, and a long finish, and paired perfectly with the mutton.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Dark brews for dark nights: Top 5 bonfire weekend beers

"Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble; 
Fillet of a fenny snake; in the caldron boil and bake; 
Eye of Newt and toe of Frog; Wool of bat and tongue of Dog; 
Adder's fork and Blind-worms sting; Lizards Leg and Howlet's Wing; 
For a charm of powerful trouble; like a hell broth boil and bubble..."

Now, I'm no literature buff (as a bloke, we all know that men respond better to pictures than words, which was the basis of my continued subscription to The Beano until age 22), but the Witches in Macbeth had the beginnings there of what could be the next batch of craft beer mysticism from Brewdog. It seems beer and a big stack of fire go together like a toffee apple addiction and the end of my diet, even as far back as when good old Billy Shakespeare was penning his masterpieces. As we move from the dazzling sunshine of Summer, to the dampness of Autumn, we similarly move from the crisp, refreshing lagers and golden ales to the denser, richer, hoppier red ales and dark beers. 

Along with many of the countries population, I am heading out this weekend to a Bonfire Party of my own, where I am tasked with bringing along a few carefully chosen bottles to compliment the scene that is being set at the party. So, although I'm not being tasked to find a beer to match a massive bag of candy floss or spiced apple donut (beer matching to sweet treats needs expert advice, trust me!), but I've got to try and find a few different beer styles to try and cater for a fair amount of different tastes in the crowd.

After loads of 'umming and aaahhing', a whole lot of cap-popping and (thankfully) a trusted sidekick in The Lass, who helped me in my quest, I have come up with my top 5 choices of Bonfire Night Beer for everyone heading out to catch some fireworks this weekend!

1. Unfiltered Dark Lager, Brewers & Union, 5% (£1.50 a 500ml bottle from Cotteridge Wines, Birmingham or available from selected bars)
Something for the lovers of German dark beers and the maltier Belgian styles. My brother saw this and recommended I try it, as I like this richer, coffee bean style of beer. He wasn't wrong in the slightest. A venture from 2 South African brewmasters who were bored with the fare on offer in their home country, they went to Europe and started making many different delights, with the intention of taking them back to SA and share it with passionate beer people back there. Thankfully, some of their beers have made it over here and I for one am over-the-moon about it! A lovely silky texture as you pour it, its a malty delight. Sweet, roasted flavours is the name of the game here and lashings of it. Lighter than first thought, it has a lager-ish crispness which means it won't alienate the people who are struggling to come to terms with the end of Beer Garden weather. A long lasting taste on the finish shows this is a serious bit of beer craftmanship.

2. Estrella Damm Inedit, 4.8% (£10.99 for a 6 x 330ml pack at Majestic)
For lovers of the wheat beer style and one of my stand out beers of the year so far. Estrella Damm is a collaboration between the master brewers of the Damm brewery and the head chef and sommeliers of the the Best Restaurant in the World for many years until its closure, El Bulli in Spain. This has the magic combination of being a brilliant food beer and a drink to have on its owen. A cross between a bolder craft lager style and a wheat beer, it has a fantasic array of spices and peel notes within the beer, giving it a complexity that I only found in beers during a break in Bruges. A light acidity, which adds to the smoothness, I cannot recommend this beer enough.

3. Red Rye, Hook Norton Brewery 4.7% (£21 for 12 x 330ml bottles at
Rye is a grain that is used an awful lot in alcohol making, specifically so in whisky and vodka, but it is now coming back into fashion for beer too, after an awful long time in the shadows. This effort, from a growing brewery in North Oxfordshire, is a super example to get yourself re-aquainted with the style. A spicy, bready effort, with a serious boot up the backside from the orange and baked apple notes, this is a smashing seasonal tipple to get into and a brewery to keep an eye on too.

4. Kriek 1882, Girardin, 5% (£2.30 for a 250ml bottle at Cotteridge Wines, Birmingham, or 6.99 Euro for a 750ml bottle from
Something a bit different for the season, and something that my wine-loving and non-beer drinking fiancee doesn't mind drinking. This style of beer is the bane of 'proper' beer drinkers' lives, as it doesn't really taste of beer, as it is brewed to taste quite tart and weirdly 'sour'. I won't go into the ins-and-outs of lambic brewing, but it well worth getting out of your comfort zone and trying some. This 'Kriek' or cherry effort, again, does the job of combining what is overall a sour beer with the sweetness of the cherries that the brewing beer was steeped in. A slight yeastiness gives the beer a real complex edge too, so its a brilliant beer to match with any sugary titbits you are offered around the campfire.

5. Late Red Ale, Shepherd Neame, 4.5% (£15.39 for 8 at Drink Supermarket)
One for the traditional ale drinkers this one and a favourite seasonal beer of mine. With a colour that looks like Shepherd Neame have collected all the fallen leaves from the front of the brewery and just blended it up with the beer, the rich copper look of it gets you feeling all autumnal inside. The smell is all about this time of year too, with a nutty scent, as well as a slight cooked red fruit character. Not too hoppy, but just enough to keep you interested, the taste is like you'd expect a good bitter style to be. A bit of malt on the approach and earthy tastes compliment the soft bubbles. It can become a bit 'metallic' if you drink too many of them, in my humble opinion, but for a few bottles, you may have just found all the best bits of October and November whipped up into this fantastic drop.

To all of you who are heading out, be safe, keep warm and keep topping yourselves up with some fine drink. But if it does taste of fillet of fenny snake, I hope you kept the receipt...

Have you any recommendations for your 'Perfect Pour' during the Bonfire Night celebrations? Tell us in the comments below, or on our Facebook page or on our Twitter feed!

Monday, 31 October 2016

I "heart" Sangiovese

I'll admit it, I was pretty snobby when it came to Sangiovese up until very recently. When I thought of it, I thought of those cheap Chianti in the raffia containers that seem so drinkable when you're on holiday in Florence, but don't seem to translate well to a rainy, autumnal evening in south London (or wherever else you choose to imbibe your wine).

Like all intrepid wine geeks though, I was determined to find out what all the fuss was about when it came to this famous grape. After all, there must be a reason that people rave about it; surely? A recent trip to Tuscany was the perfect opportunity for me to broaden my horizons and look to see whether I needed to reconsider my opinions.

Now that I'm back from my trip I can confirm that I am very much a convert to Sangiovese. For me, it ranks up there with Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo as one of the finest red grapes. So what made me change my mind?

Wonderful Montepulciano

Montepulciano the town is an achingly beautiful hilltop town that lies to the south east of Florence (see left). All around it are nestled hundreds of vineyards that form part of the Commune of Montepulciano. The vineyards produce a number of products from basic table wines, to their entry level red "Rosso di Montepulciano" (which is aged for a minimum of one year in barrel and has at least 70% Sangiovese), and the very best produce the rather fantastically named "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano", which has to have at least 80% Sangiovese in it but can contain up to 20% of other local red grapes such as Canaiolo Nero and is aged for at least three years in barrel.

Interestingly, and rather confusingly, there is actually a grape variety called Montepulciano, although it has nothing to do with the wines of Montepulciano!

The town itself is a wonderful spot to be a wine lover, there are little Enotecas all around town offering you the opportunity to sample their wares, along with olive oils, local salamis and cheeses. A particular highlight was visiting the old Etruscan wine cellars of the Palazzo Ricci, where the stone caves have been used by the vineyards associated with the Palazzo to age their wines in huge barrels (as evidenced by this photo of a rather moody looking me in amongst the barrels).

Most of the wines that I sampled around the town were retailing in the €10 - €20/bottle price range, they were pleasant enough, nice fruit notes, decent acidity; but I hadn't found one that I could really write home (or indeed a blog) about until my last evening when I went to the rather fabulous La Bottega del Nobile for a meal on my birthday. I told the sommelier that I had yet to have a bottle of Vin Nobile that really got me excited and that it was his challenge to find me one. He was pretty excited about the opportunity to show off his wine range!

He selected for me the 2011 Il Nocio Boscarelli (Montepulciano, Italy), which was a 100% Sangiovese wine. After five minutes in the glass it really started to express itself, intense notes of red fruits with some vibrant sweet spice (cloves and nutmeg) aromas. On tasting what was immediately noticeable was its plentiful acidity, but this was coupled with a generousness - this was certainly no tight or austere wine. The flavours were predominantly of small, juicy red and black berries. There were hints of tannins there, but these had certainly softened to leave a very approachable and elegant wine. Naturally this wine was pricier than the others I had tried (the shop attached to the restaurant retailed the wine at €77), but it was nice to find confirmation that the Vin Nobile could live up to its name!

Majestic Brunello

If Montepulciano got me interested in Sangiovese it was the wines of Montalcino that got me hooked. Another beautiful hill-top town, of which Tuscany has an embarrassing large number of, with a history steeped in wine. The wines of Montalcino are, just like those of Montepulciano, categorised according to how they have been stored and aged; the entry level wines are called "Rosso di Montalcino" and are typically only aged for six months in oak and a further six months in bottle, whereas the top level wines from the estates are called "Brunello di Montalcino" and are aged for at least two years in barrel and further year in bottle (in practice most age it for longer). In some estates they pick the very best of their grapes each year to make an even more special wine called a Reserva.

Casanova di Neri

My wife and I were doing a walking holiday and had to walk one day between Montalcino and a town called Bagno Vignoni - when I saw that our route took us past one of the best regarded Montalcino estates I immediately contacted them and asked if we could do a tour and a tasting, I was thrilled when they said that they would! The estate in question is Casanova di Neri (which means the new house of the family Neri - nothing to do with the (in)famous lover!) We were taken around by Pier Luigi who showed us around the wine making facilities, which had just finished processing the 2016 harvest. The estate has 68 acres of vines sited across three different vineyards and produces an average of 230,000 bottles of wine per year - including a small number of whites. To produce their premium wines, they produce two single vineyard wines that are designed to show the expression of terroir that they believe Sangiovese gives.

I tried a number of their wines and here were my highlights:

We started with their 2014 Rosso di Montalcino had pleasant notes of cherries and violets, on tasting there was a gentle grip of tannins that gave it some structure - a decent entry level wine.

Things got exciting as we moved onto the Brunellos; we started with a 2011 Brunello di Montalcino, which was light in the glass and on the nose, with bright red cherry notes, on tasting I found it rather angular and quite insistent with its acidity suggesting that it will need a bit of time to open up. Next up we moved on to a 2009 Tenuto Nuova Brunello di Montalcino, which was a lot riper and juicier on the nose, it was a really rounded wine featuring plenty of sweet fruit flavours and bags of personality. After this we moved on to the 2008 Cerrealto Brunello di Montalcino which was more floral on the nose with violets coming through quite strongly. On tasting there was more depth to this wine with some savoury notes coming through in the mid-palate which gave the wine a nice balance and complexity.

The vineyard also try out their version of the famous "Super Tuscans", ie: wines which don't accord to the rules to make them Brunellos. In this instance they created their Pietradonice which is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon - we tried the 2005 and were really impressed with it, it had lots of juicy blackcurrant presence, as well as some vibrant red cherry; there were still some tannins there, but these had softened up nicely to give a soft and plush wine - if this were a mid-level left bank Bordeaux you'd be pleased with it.

Pier Luigi was a great host and I would heartily recommend visiting them if you're in the area.

Enoteca La Fortrezza

You can't go around Montalcino without noticing that something special has happened. The 2010 Brunellos are considered to be one of the best vintages in the last fifty years, they are already becoming the stuff of legend - demand is understandably very high leading to some rather eye-watering prices.

We were very excited to see then that one of the Enotecas (Enoteca la Fortrezza), situated in the town's old fortress no less, were offering a special tasting of three 2010 Brunellos that had been awarded 100 points by various wise and sage people who know about these kinds of things (James Suckling, Robert Parker etc.). I made a bee-line straight for it!

We started with a Assunto Riserva of which only 900 bottles were produced in 2010 - hence it is extremely hard to come by. This possessed some red fruit notes (red cherry), but there was a real funk of peppered salami and fennel that gave it a distinct savoury profile. There was a definite tannic profile to the wine, but this was accompanied by acidity aplenty. The flavours were predominantly of juicy and ripe blackcurrants and red cherries, with a long, pronounced finish. A blockbuster.

Next up was a Val di Cava which had only just become available following six years of ageing. The nose was quite distinct, it had heady aromas of "fruits of the forest style" red and black berries twinned with dashes of smoke and bacon. Our guide though the wines, Iralt, felt that this wine needed a lot more time to age, but I was surprised to see how approachable it was already - although if you had a few bottles you would definitely want to leave a couple for at least 10 more years...!

Lastly was Tenuta Nuova from our friends at Casanova di Neri! This was really elegant on the nose, markedly sweeter than the others with damson and plum notes coming through to accompany the ripe cherries and strawberries. On tasting, the wine was very full-on and fruity with lush red cherry flavours abound. The tannins were noticeable, not in their harshness but in their softness. This was an incredibly poised and finessed wine with an excellent finish.

How could you follow three such delicious wines? How about with a genuine wine legend...? We were delighted that we were able to try a sample of a 2013 Sassicaia, a super-Tuscan made with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc. The aroma was very deep with a really vegetal profile to it (I thought of green peppers), which accompanied the brooding dark fruit (mainly blackcurrant) notes. On tasting, there was a familiar bite of menthol and eucalyptus from the Cab Franc, which provided a beautiful counterpunch to the blackcurrant fruit that emanated magnificently from the Cab Sauv. The trouble with drinking wine this good is that it recalibrates your sense of what excellent is.

I should at this point thank Iralt for his excellent insight into the wines - he really helped us to understand and appreciate them better.


So there you have it. I am well and truly a Sangiovese convert, the two weeks that I spent tasting my way around the beautiful hilltop towns of Tuscany have left me with a love of this noble grape. I will no longer hear of Sangiovese and equate it with those cheap and under-done bottles of Chianti - although with that being said, on my next trip I intend to make a concerted effort to taste some good Chiantis...

Also, if you can find any bottles of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino, let me know...!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The best Halloween cocktails: Upping the ant-e

Sager + Wilde Paradise Row Bethnal Green

The scariest night of the year has come around yet again. Whether you're planning to lock all the doors, turn all the lights out and ignore any knocks on the door, or dressing up as Harley Quinn/a sexy cat, you're going to want some tasty drinks to go with your spooky antics.

Here at Vinspire, we of course still want you to be drinking the good stuff, so while we've gone a bit gruesome, we definitely haven't gone gross.

Heading out for Halloween in London

Upping the ant-e at Sager & Wilde with Hobgoblin:

Beer vermouth is not something that's been attempted before, but the results are delicious. Created using Hobgoblin Gold (available in pretty much every supermarket), it's got a strong, tangy, citrus flavour to it.

The beer vermouth was made in what I was assured was a simple process... but I wouldn't say it's one you'd be able to attempt at home (unless you've got a water bath and a decent amount of time to spare).

It's tasty both paired with soda as an aperitif, or neat as a digestif.

But do you know what really makes this cocktail? It's those ants. Yes, those black bits in the picture... wood ants. Foraged from Kent.

If you don't know a forager who can go out and source you some tasty wood ants, Sager & Wilde Paradise Row (about a minute from Bethnal Green station) have put the drink on their menu. What could be better for Halloween?

I was as reluctant as I can imagine you are reading this, but I'm a convert. Wait for the ice to melt a little, catch a critter floating through your drink, slurp him up your straw, and give him a nice crunch.

Gross, ant flavour (whatever I thought that would be...)? Nope, just a lovely, surprisingly delicate, citrus burst. A bit of a cross between a lemon and grapefruit. Seriously. Try it.

Sleepy Hollow at Skylon

Don't lose your head this Halloween, and get yourself to Skylon at the Royal Festival Hall to sip on a Sleepy Hollow, made with Pink pigeon rum, creme de cassis, apple juice, cucumber juice, half a lime, and elderflower cordial.

Deadcool at Dirty Bones

Get down to Dirty Bones in Kensington, Soho or Shoreditch for this, a blend of Montelobos Mezcal, Belsazar Rose, lemon juice, beetroot plum soda and ebony lime.

Ofrenda de Espolon at Three Six Six

Head to Three Six Six in Battersea or Earlsfield for this incredibly subtle cocktail, made with a whole host of ingredients including Espolon tequila blanco, dried marigold heads, sweet potato and allspice puree, dark chocolate, chipotle syrup, and lime.

Staying in is the new going out

If going out seems a bit too much effort, skip the outside antics, string up a few fairy lights and you've got yourself a Stranger Things party. 

Lovely Laura got shaking and stirring and came up with three deliciously devilish cocktails, guaranteed to give you a hellish head the next day.