Sunday, 26 June 2016

CIVB L'Ecole du Vin- Bordeaux

Me, second from right. Hugo, third from
 left at Chateau Margaux
Last week, myself and fellow Vinspire blogger Hugo Fountain were lucky enough to go on a three day trade trip to Bordeaux thanks to the Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (a.k.a CIVB) and the L'ecole du Vin. With this, we were treated to three days of fabulous vineyard tours, incredible meals and almost as much wine as you could shake a vine at. It was a chance to experience the region first hand and visit some of the top wine making talents that the region has to offer. As well as this, we travelled extensively throughout Bordeaux most famous (and most expensive) areas and caught a glimpse at some of the most well renowned and jaw-droppingly stunning Chateau including Margaux, Palmer, Petrus and Pichon-Longueville.

Having sampled close to a hundred wines and feasted on some of the finest French cuisine (sounds shit I know) there is far too much to put into a solitary blog post. So I have rounded  up some of my personal highlights for you.

Chateau Magence
On our final evening in Bordeaux we arrived for a tour, tasting and dinner at the (unknown to me) Chateau Magence. A relatively unassuming winery and vineyard in the Medoc they, of course, specialised in Cabernet Sauvignon based reds and a few Sauvignon/Semillion whites. We were greeted by the owner who didn't speak a word of English but did however support a rather fetching elephant tie. Already, we were a bit worried. Having wandered to the front of the vineyard the owner's son arrived (fresh out of the shower but suited and booted none the less) to give us a full tour. Although his English was fantastic he was possibly the most nervous and awkward person I have ever met. Things were getting worse. After has of the tour, whilst looking out over his vineyard (around 30 hectares) he mentioned that they play music to the vines to help them go to sleep in the evenings. To be honest, I was close to dying after this.
View from Chateau Magence

However, once a corkscrew, bottle and a glass was put in front of him he blossomed into the most interesting, charming and friendliest man we had encountered. He took us through a tasting of eight different wines (four from his own winery)  and they were, almost without question, they best wines we tried throughout our trip. Special mention has to go to their 2005 Bordeaux blend of approximately 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Beautifully balanced, fresh and full of Bordeaux charm. It was also the wine he served at his own wedding and (having sat opposite him at dinner) you could see on his face how proud he was of it. Perfect match for the duck served at dinner. Truly stunning and only around 15 Euro Cellar Door price.

Chateau La Clide- St. Emillion
I have to say, when I found out that I was going to be being wined and dined at wineries throughout Bordeaux, I was expecting a bunch of hired waiters in a cut off room with a stuck up, poncy winemaker that would rather pour his wine down the sink than serve it to some tweed-clad Englishman. Chateau La Clide was therefore the ultimate opposite.

The perfect BBQ
Greeted by Eduoard, a six-foot-something, shaved head, rugby playing, polo-shirt wearing Frenchman at his small but perfect formed vineyard was a surprise. Follow this up by declaring one part of his vineyard as 'shit' and 'worth f*** all'. I knew I was in for a fun lunch. After the customary tour of the vines and the winery we 'got into some barrels'. Pre-blend, we tried some beautifully rich and plummy 100% Merlot and some classy, perfumed and refined 100% Cab Franc. I was instantly impressed with the depth and flavour of his wine so I couldn't wait to explore further. Stood around the lunch table (in the middle of the winery) we were greeted with ten more wines to try (including a number of St. Emillion Premier Cru).

After a few glasses, we were confronted with two huge (and I mean, huge) plates of duck hearts. As we stood chatting and tucking into the hearts two more huge bowls of mussels arrived (possibly the best I have ever tried). Thinking this was our lunch we all dived in to the horror of the vegetarian guest with us. However, we then sat down and were treated to a SEVEN course meal including: Barbecued steak, apple tarte-tatin and cheese. All washed down with yet more wine and all before 3pm. Safe to say, we were a bit sleepy once we got back on the bus but my word was it worth it! Special mention to their '98 Merlot & Cab Franc blend.

The Haut-Medoc
Having only been in the wine industry for approximately 18 months I have had little chance to sample the splendor and extravagance of Bordeaux. It was therefore a huge treat to be driven through some of the most famous vineyards and past the most impressive Chateau the world has to offer. I was honestly like a child in a candy store.

From Jose Carlos Babo under the CCA
 (I couldn't get a decent picture!)
One thing that took my by surprise was just how close each of the (top) vineyards are from each other. Also,
how flat Bordeaux is as a whole. I was expecting rolling hills and multiple aspects but in reality, there wasn't much more than a 3-4% gradient at any of the 1st Growth Vineyards. This allowed the respective Chateau to stand out like giants among midgets (couldn't think of a better analogy). Of special mention are Margaux ( which we couldn't get very close to) and the simply incredible Pichon-Longueville (shown in picture).

All in all it was a brilliant trip around what many regard as the finest wine region in the world. I would encourage all to go there and certainly pay a visit to my new friends at Chateau Magence and La Clide.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Right on Q: Qcumber Sparkling Drink

Okay, so the UK has decided to do a pretty crumby thing, but it is Friday and I think we could all do with a drink.

A couple of months back, in the run up to RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I received an email about The Monty Don Mocktail... A) I'm not overly into gardening (I live in a top floor flat), and B) Mocktails? Seriously? Give me booze. Especially now.

Anyway, this one was slightly different. They kicked off with a pun; "vibrant summer flavours to get your taste buds into a blooming frenzy." Then they went all innuendo; "think juicy strawberry coulis swirled into Qcumber water (dubbed the most fun you can have with a cucumber" - you what?! - "a swipe of torn mint leaves, and a sprinkle of Womersley Strawberry and Mint vinegar for zing."

I was sold. Though, whilst I wasn't too bothered about making the mocktail, I was interested in this Qcumber sparkling drink.

We've briefly mentioned Qcumber on Vinspire before, way back in 2013 when it first launched, later being named the most innovative new product at one of the country’s largest industry events. Who'd have thunk it? Still, we only previously touched the surface; there's much more to this summertime sip!

Qcumber was born out of one of those rare ‘eureka’ moments (aided by alcohol no less). One evening the makers were out in the garden, enjoying a delicious G&T that was garnished with slices of crisp cucumber... DING! "This could be the next flavour!" So after a lot of hard work, Qcumber - a cucumber flavoured sparkling drink - saw the light of day.

Using only a natural, pure cucumber distillate and zero artificial nasties (no sweeteners, colours, preservatives and flavourings), this is a soft drink that you shouldn't feel ashamed to drink. Simply carbonated spring water, cucumber extract, beet sugar and citric acid, coming in at just 26 calories per 100ml; barely anything in comparison to it's rival products!

The makers of Qcumber gone to extra effort to make sure that the water they use is the best quality too. The source of the spring water lies in the old county of Radnorshire in Mid Wales; "in this unspoilt rural area, the water is able to filter naturally through layers of rock to achieve its exceptional taste and purity." I'm no water connoisseur, but I'll gladly accept that.

Qcumber brands itself as being a versatile drink - great on its own but also perfect as a mixer - so having been sent a sample, I thought I'd test out this versatility.

On it's own, it has a fresh and clean taste. Cucumber-y, obvs, but not too "green", and it has a really lovely citrusy tang, which I wasn't expecting. I think that's where similar drinks go wrong; they always make things overly sweet, and your mouth gets bored of that after a while. But lets get to the good stuff… Cocktails!

Qcumber has a number of cocktail recipes listed on their website (I've included some at the bottom of this post),  but it's always nice to experiment, so I've concocted a couple for you… Firstly, Ps & Qs; Poitin (the infamous Irish moonshine) mixed with a splash of lemon juice, sugar syrup and topped with Qcumber. Poitin is punchy (the Teeling one I used is 61.5%!) but it's an interesting, non-dominating flavour. Whilst still being a strong drink, the cucumber seemed to cool down the spirit, making it a good contender for an aperitif.

Secondly, I went straight down the summer route with gin and elderflower. There was no doubt that this wouldn't be heavenly. Summer Retox: a good measure of Dodd's Gin, with it's honey notes, a slug of floral Chase Elderflower Liqueur, a squeeze of lemon and a pour of Qcumber… All that's missing is the sun.

Be cool as a Qcumber and try these out. You can pick up a bottle from selected Tesco stores!

Ps & Qs 

35ml Poitin
Juice of half a lemon
15ml sugar syrup
Qcumber to top

Fill a tumbler with ice. Add the Poitin, lemon juice and sugar syrup. Stir, then top with Qcumber. 

Summer Retox

50ml Gin
20ml Elderflower Liqueur (or cordial)
Juice of half a lemon
Qcumber to top

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add gin,elderflower and lemon. Stir and top with Qcumber. Preferably drink with a stripy straw!

Qcumber Mojito

1 lime, quartered
2 sprigs fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon white sugar
2 slices cucumber 6 cubes ice, or as needed
2 ounces white rum (such as Bacardi)
4 fluid ounces chilled Qcumber

Squeeze the lime quarters into a highball glass, and drop the limes into the glass. Add the mint leaves and sugar. Muddle well with the back of a spoon or with a muddler. Place the cucumber slices into the glass, and fill with ice cubes. Pour in the rum, then top off with Qcumber.


60ml Qcumber Sparkling water
60ml Tanqueray Gin
30ml sake
1/4 cup mint leaves
15ml lime juice

Add mint and lime leaves to a cocktail shaker, and muddle well to release mint flavor. Fill shaker with ice, followed by gin and sake. Shake vigorously. Fill mug with crushed ice. Finely strain liquid from shaker into mug and over the crushed ice. Top with Qcumber Sparking Water.

The Monty Don 

50ml Strawberry Coulis
1 tsp of Womersley Strawberry & mint 
25ml sugar syrup 
6 large mint leaves 
100ml of Qcumber water 

Gently jostle your mint leaves in a tumbler glass then drizzle the strawberry coulis, vinegar and sugar syrup over crushed ice. Stir and serve under a clear blue sky.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Beating the French at their own game? France Vs The Rest of the World

(courtesy of

There is nothing us brash Brits love doing more than taking on our Gallic friends from over the water in whatever contest we can conjure up. We've got Euro 2016 coming up in France, where a cornucopia of nations will be trying to steal the trophy from under the noses of the host nation; we are throwing out the classic 'French' style of cooking and embracing the modern British cuisine pathway in our Michelin starred restaurants. Hell, our doctors are trying to 'out-strike' the very country who seem to strike every other week about something or other.

Yes, we all like to get 'one up' on the French once in a while.

This pursuit of victory has quite recently been glorified in the English press, when Matthew Jukes, wine critic extraordinaire, organised a one-off tasting of English sparkling wines pitted against French Champagnes. When major tasters in the Paris restaurant and bar scene say that our fizz beats the beret off of the best sparkles that their country has to offer, you have to take it seriously.

You may think that I am on a serious 'anti-French' stomp (and if you take a look at my last article, I would say that maybe, subconsciously, I do), but its quite startling to see how quickly the so-called 'New World', with (in some cases, but not all) a relatively young wine industry, are catching up the 'old guard' of France. So I thought I'd take this as a great opportunity to not only dig out a few lost gems in my wine rack of French origin, but also dig deep into my pockets and buy a few pretenders to the styles which France have pioneered in centuries gone by. I knew when I thought of this idea it would be much more of a relay race than a lone sprint, so I enrolled the help of partner in drink, The Lass, in my efforts.

The first cork to be popped was Chateau Caronne St Gemme 2007, Haut Medoc (available in half bottles at Rosin Fine Wines, priced at £137 for 24). Your atypical Claret with a really gamey and slightly mulled fruit nose, but really hitting you with a developed fruitcake taste, mixed with smoke and leather. Not bad at all, from a relatively shaky vintage. To compare, I saw fit to buy a bottle of Capaia 2008 (priced at £13.99 a bottle from Majestic Wines), made by a guy called Count Stephan von Niepperg. He may sound like a Batman-style bad guy, but he owns 2 massively expensive properties in St Emillion, that make critically applauded wines, so he knows what he's doing when it comes to grapes. This is a completely evolved amalgamation of French know-how and New World sheen. Brilliantly brick coloured and with scents of wet leaves, smoke and baked black fruits, the texture of the wine is awesome. Soft and full, the nose matches the taste, but the experience is much more long lasting, as the length is longer than an EU Referendum campaign. I can't recommend this wine highly enough. 1-0 to the Others.

In the next round, Burgundy stepped up to the plate (or glass, as it should be), where I pulled out a bottle I'd been keeping for a bit, a St Aubin 1er Cru 'Chamois' 2012 from Olivier Leflaive (available for £23.99 a bottle at Majestic Wine). Lean, but creamy nose with a bit of floralness and peachiness to boot. On the palate, I did expect it to be a bit fuller bodied than it actually was, but it still ticked all the boxes for Puligny Montrachet's smaller neighbour. Citrus, mineral and a bit of nuttiness, this is what Chardonnay should be. Classy. For comparison, we had a Wolf Blass 'Presidents Selection' Chardonnay (available from Drinks Direct for £13.79 a bottle). Made by one of the biggest and well-known wine producers in the world, Wolf Blass' Presidents Selection is a step above their normal Yellow Label range and it does take a step away from the over-sweetened Australian Chardonnay of the olden days. Much fruitier and intense than the St Aubin, it has a real tropical fruit and even banana flavour to it. A bit buttery on the taste, shows that it has been beaten with a fair bit of oak and no mistake. No where near as much finesse as the French number, but a decent drop none-the-less. Regardless of that, France has pulled this back to 1-1.

For the deciding round, I've pulled out the big guns. You know a wine geek means business when he de-corks a fine red Burgundy, like Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru 'Les Damodes' 2005, Bouchard Pere et Fils (n/a in the UK). I'd manage to keep my eye of this for a long old while, having first bought it back in 2009, but the need to sacrifice something like this for VinspireUK is greater than my need to keep looking at it and saying "Not yet, young man, not yet..." It has a really light cherry colour, with a distinct tawny rim. However, its the perfume of this which gets you from the outset. Wild strawberry, meat juices, wet wood and farmyard, this is this the wine equivalent of algebra; unbelievably complex, but unbelievably satisfying come the end. To stand toe-to-toe with this giant of a wine is the Primarius Pinot Noir 2011 (available in Tesco for £9 a bottle). Plucked from 'The New Burgundy' of Oregan in the US, I was intrigued to see what it was like for such a reasonable price when compared with other Pinots from across the pond. Much zippier in terms of acidity in comparison to the behemoth of the Burgundy, with real fresh cranberry and raspberry fruit. Slightly tart for my liking, but a good summer slurper, none-the-less. Still, no match for the King of Pinot Noir though.

So, the result has come to pass, and I have discovered that even though these young pretenders are running a strong bend when it comes to the race towards wine perfection, the old masters still win by a nose at the end of the day.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

A trip to the cellars at Sandemans

Last year I was fortunate enough to get an invite to the 225th birthday of Sandeman Port house in the cellar of 'The Sign of the Don' restaurant in London which used to be where they stored their barrels of ports and sherries up until the 20th century. It proved to be an extremely entertaining evening with some memorable wines - in particular trying their special edition 2000 vintage port from magnum (you can read more about this event by following this link).

You can imagine then that when I travelled to Porto last weekend (whose name lends itself to the famous Port wine) for a trip with some friends of mine who are very keen on their wine, that I was very keen for us to visit Sandeman's legendary Visitors' Centre. We were determined to use the opportunity to learn more about this wonderful wine and, of course, try a glass or two!

The Tour

The Visitors' Centre is perched resplendently on the banks of the river Douro and features a picturesque terrace area on the river front where you can sample their finest wares along side some delicious food (something we would do later). We were greeted by our host for the evening, the extremely amiable Inês, who would take us on our tour through the museum. The museum is situated in the building that the original George Sandeman bought in 1811 in order to allow him to store and age barrels of Port wine that had come down from his winery in the Duoro Valley and needed a waterfront location so that they could be easily loaded, once ready, to be shipped off to Sandeman's customers; at first England, later, the world. Nowadays the building does not have sufficient size to hold all of Sandeman's barrels of port and a lot are stored in a location in the hinterland (where presumably land prices are a lot cheaper!)

As we walked around the museum the knowledgeable Inês gave us a fascinating potted history of the Sandeman Port house. For instance, the legendary "Don" bedecked in his black hat and cloak, who is still used today to advertise their products, was the very first registered trademark. One of our group was even able to try to emulate the Don's legendary look - I'm not sure he looked quite so mysterious, however!

Sandeman produces quite a range of different Ports, something that may be a surprise to the uninitiated; their "classic range" features white ports, tawny ports and ruby ports; they produce two "reserve" ports, their Founders' Reserve and their Imperial Reserve; they have a number of aged Tawny ports (ranging from 10 years' ageing upto 40 years'; and, in the very best of years, the holy grail of Port - the Vintage Ports. It really was interesting to learn about the history of this world famous brand stood in its cellars surrounded by barrels of their products.

The Tasting

You can probably imagine that after all the talking about these delicious wines we were very keen to get into trying them out!

We started with a glass of Mateus Rosé (which is owned by the Portuguese Sogrape wine company, who also own Sandemans). A touch of bubbles sat beside the river was just what we were after. The wine featured light strawberry notes and a subtle pétillance. It is not really the most complex of wines, but was a welcome aperitif.

Next up we tried a glass of 2015 "Planalto" from Casa Ferreirinha (Douro, Portugal), which is another wine from the Sogrape portfolio. The wine features a blend of local grapes such as Malvasia, Viosinho and Codega and had a nicely aromatic nose on it that reminded me of apricot and elderflower. We had this with some local mackerel - which went down a treat.

Time for some Port now, but not how you would expect it! We tried a cocktail of theirs which featured their Founders' Reserve port and lemonade, a drink that I'd actually tried before at the aforementioned birthday party. This was like a slightly deeper and richer Sangria, but light enough that it could be sipped in the sun by a river - which was fortunate because that was exactly what we did!

For our last drink we went to the good stuff, trying a glass of Sandeman's Twenty Years Old Tawny Port. This wine was more complex with a pleasing sweetness to it and notably more tackiness in the mouth from the fortification. A lovey way to finish our tour and tasting.


As I hope you can tell from the write up, this was another lovely wine tasting and learning experience. I must say that it was really helped by Inês who was incredibly amiable and made sure that we had a great time. Thank you to her and her team for all their hospitality!

If you find yourself in Porto, I would heartily recommend arranging a tour with Sandeman - they offer a range starting from 6 Euros, depending on the quality of the wines that you want to try. Details can be found by following this link.

Disclaimer: I did not pay for this tour and visited as a guest of Sogrape. Nonetheless the opinions contained within this article are my own.


Thursday, 2 June 2016

Meaty martini madness with Mr Trotter's

How do you like your martini? Shaken, stirred, with a sausalami on the side?

The martini is arguably the most famous of all cocktails, an emblem of sophistication and style, the tipple of choice for James Bond, a classy drinker’s drink. It is also one of the most fiercely debated… Vodka or gin (…gin), ratios of gin to vermouth, variations on ingredients, and of course, garnishes.

For me it’s usually a twist of lemon peel, but I have been known to dabble with an olive or two. One garnish I’d never considered before however, is a pork scratching salt rim and a sausalami on the side.

Well, the geniuses/crazy cats over at Mr Trotter’s (Matthew Fort, Tom Parker Bowles and Rupert Ponsonby), have considered it for us, and planted one (three) in the hand of every guest attending the launch of Mr Trotter's new sausalamis – a fancy, better tasting, better quality, Peperami – in original, cracked black pepper, and jalapeno chilli.

Amidst the breathable cloud of gin at Bompass & Parr's Alcoholic Architecture, Trottatinis were going down fast.

This definitely isn’t one for the vegetarians/martini purists:

Trottatini recipe

50ml gin
13ml vermouth
Mr Trotter's salt (save a few scratchings from a bag of Mr Trotter's pork scratchings and crush/use the salt from the bottom of the bag)
1/3 Mr Trotter's sausalami (your flavour of choice)

Shake it
1. Wet the rim of a martini glass with gin, and dip into the salt spread out on a small plate
2. Add the gin and vermouth to a cocktail shaker filled with plenty of ice
3. Stir
4. Strain into your martini glass
5. Chop your sausalami into three and delicately place a third on the side

The delightful Rupert Ponsonby, sausalami extraordinaire