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. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Awesome autumn drinks: beer, ale, cider

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

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

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

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

Currently £2.40 at Ocado

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

Currently £4.09 at Beer Hawk

Brewdog, Pumpkin Beer
Pumpkin ales have long been popular in the States and now they’re on the rise in the UK. This year the clever chaps at Brewdog have released Pumpkin King: bright and zesty with notes of cinnamon spice and sweet pumpkin. The USA pumpkin beers can be a tad too sweet at times but there’s no danger of that here – Brewdog have crafted a more savoury, dry style. Sophisticated and seasonal.

Currently £2.49 at Beer Hawk

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

Currently £2.09 at

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

Currently £3.30 at Forest Wine

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

Currently £5.19 from Beer Hawk

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

Currently £25.00 for 5 litres at

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

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Your guide to awesome autumn drinking: Wine and spirits

best autumn wines
Photo: Kevin K (CCL)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

£9.99 at Majestic (mixed price £8.99)

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

£9.99, Waitrose

For whites, look for texture, body and depth as well as intensity of flavour. The benefit is that these wines can be served a touch less chilled, meaning there’s no need to shiver over your Sauvignon.
Flavours of stone fruit, minerality and a touch of vanilla spice from oak will work nicely so look out for oily Viognier, aromatic Pinot Gris, luscious Chenin Blanc and creamy Chardonnay. White Rhône blends and white Burgundy will steal the show, as will Vouvray (Loire) and white Rioja.

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

This classic Loire Vouvray Chenin Blanc has expressive almond and honey, and the off-dry style adds texture and further richness.  Pair this with a bold, salted dish like pork or a white bean cassoulet and watch it sing.
Currently £8.99, Majestic (mixed price £7.99)


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

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

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

Question: what’s better than scoffing toffee apples as a kid at Halloween? 
Answer: drinking alcoholic toffee apples as an adult! 

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


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


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

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

Sloe Gin

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

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