Thursday, 28 January 2016

Playing with my new CORAVIN!


So there I was unwrapping my presents from my wife at Christmas. I had made my way through all but one of my presents and was looking eagerly at the last one. I think we probably all know that people usually save the best present until last, so I had high expectations. I remember thinking that my wife seemed particularly pleased with herself as she passed me the last one, "I think you'll like this one", she said. Cue a gasp of amazement when I opened it and found a Coravin inside! AMAZING!!

Now, I'm guessing that some of you will probably be aware of Coravins, whereas others will be wondering what all the fuss is about. A few years ago I visited a wine shop on behalf of Vinspire called The Sampler, which has made famous the Oenomatic wine vending machines where you can buy wine in small samples as the wine is kept in an inert atmosphere, allowing the wine to be enjoyed gradually without worrying about prolonged exposure to air. Well, the Coravin is a mobile form of the Oenomatic machine, applying the same principle on a much smaller scale. AMAZING!!

Why use Coravin?

So, what are the benefits of the Coravin? There are plenty really. One of my resolutions this year has been to drink less, but drink better. There can be that worry when you open that bottle of wine that you've been looking forward to and think, "hmmm... I fancy a glass (or two) tonight, but then I'm not in again for the next couple of evenings. If I leave the wine bottle half empty for that long it will spoil, I really better finish that wine then..." Coravin can sort out exactly that scenario for you.

The other use that I have found from it has been in restaurants. Coravins are such small and convenient units that it has allowed restaurants to serve very expensive bottles of wine by the glass without worrying about them spoiling, which allows a wine lover like me to sample a glass of wine from a bottle that would normally cost several hundred pounds. I recently tried this out in The Glasshouse in Kew where I tried a glass of 2002 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru, Domaine Bonneau du Martray (Burgundy, France) which was simply sublime. You can read about this experience on my personal blog here.

So, how does it work?

It's a very neat system really. The Coravin unit contains a cannister of Argon gas in it, which is the inert gas that it uses. You affix it to the neck of your bottle of wine and then it pushes a very thin needle through the wine's cork (note: this only works with a natural cork; screw caps and plastic corks do not work - nor do bottles of sparkling wine!). 

As you pour the wine into your glass, the Coravin device replaces the wine with the Argon gas, which prevents any air getting into the bottle and reacting with the wine. As the needle draws out of the cork, the cork naturally seals back up stopping any air getting in, allowing you to enjoy your glass of wine without worrying about the rest of the bottle!

I should point out that the people at Coravin also give you a sleeve to put your wine bottle in as you use it. The reason being that in some of the early versions there were a few reports of exploding bottles(!). The tell you that they have sorted that slight issue out now, but the sleeve is there, you know, just in case...  

Putting the Coravin through its paces...

I thought it only fair that I put the Coravin through its paces so that I could report back to you, dear readers. So, on New Year's Eve I cooked a nice meal for my wife and I, which featured a rather magnificent (if I do say so myself) salt-baked Arctic Char. To go with this I had picked a bottle of 2013 Domaine Poulleau Père et Fils "La Grande Châtelaine (Côte de Beaune, Burgundy). We only really wanted to have a glass each of the wine as we were going to move onto Champagne after dinner to see in the New Year; it seemed the perfect opportunity to try out the Coravin. The Coravin itself worked fine, it wasn't particularly hard to use - but the effectiveness of the system was really going to be tested when we tried the wine again...

Fast forward to Wednesday this week. About four weeks have passed since New Year's Eve and I fancied a nice glass of wine for #winewednesday. I had put the wine in the 'fridge in the morning (after use on New Year's I had put the wine back on the wine rack) and by evening I was really looking forward to a nice glass. Once again the wine poured well, but would it have suffered any ill effects over the intervening four weeks? A quick sniff was very encouraging, vigorous fruit and a hint of buttery oak to it. As I tasted the wine I was amazed - lively, crisp acidity balanced with an oaky depth were apparent; it really was as if this wine had been opened for the very first time. 

I can safely say that I am very impressed with this gadget and am very thankful to my lovely wife for an excellent present. 

So, what do you make of it readers? Does this look like something that you'd be interested in? Could you see a use for it? Let me know your thoughts below or on Twitter (@timmilford).  
  

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

New Year, No Alcohol - Alcohol Free Drinks (Part 2)


Welcome to the second part of my guide to staying dry(ish) during the lean month of January. 2 weeks in and its been tough....So tough that I fell to pieces 1 week and 6 days ago, so rather than this being a 'Lets get through this together' piece, this is now a 'I feel your pain, but will not join you in your suffering' piece. That has not stopped me from searching out some other non-alcoholic alternatives to your Wednesday night tipple in front of the big match.

I enjoy a good beer on a special occasion (Birthdays, Weddings, Tuesdays,..), so the hardest part for me was missing out on a nice tasting brew without the big percentage to go with it. With it being the season for abstention, there are so many low and non-alcoholic beers on the marketplace to choose from, finding one wasn't going to be a problem. Finding one with flavour, bite and refreshment within the liquid could have been.

Exactly like alcohol-free wine, non-alcoholic beer starts off as the real deal. The grain is steeped in hot water, sugars extracted creating the wort (sugary liquid). The hops are added with other spices to balance out the sweetness of the liquid with the bitterness of the hops. Yeast added, this starts converting the sugars to alcohol. The difference is that rather than alcoholic brews being bottled/canned/kegged, the newly created beer is heated (to boil the alcohol away) through 'vacuum distilling' so as not to alter the beautiful beery flavour too much.

Alcohol free beer is not really a new phenomenon. It was first produced on a large scale during the Prohibition period in the US during 1920s, where brewers needed something to keep their 'regular' drinking, whilst also keeping on the right side of the law. 'Near Beers' (as they were called) were so popular that near 1 billion litres were being produced by 1921, with all the major beer producers of the day (Miller, Pabst, Schlitz) getting in on the act. Nowadays, alcohol free beer is booming, largely thanks to changing drinking cultures and a considerable boom in the Middle East. In this country, a survey conducted by AB Inbev (owner of the non-alcoholic Becks Blue brand) showed that of people looking to cut back the drink, 34% will turn to alcohol-free beer, a 20% increase on the previous year and that 19% of the people surveyed admitted that they couldn't taste the difference between 'fake' beer and 'real' beer. Now, that either shows that the tastebuds of the people who were surveyed had either been obliterated by booze to the point they couldn't detect an ABV if it smacked them in the face, or that producers had started to create an amber nectar that had all of the taste of the real thing, with none of the headache-inducing side effects. Time for me to find out...


First up to face the bottle opener was the Erdinger Alkoholfrei 'beer' (available at beersofeurope.co.uk for £1.59 a bottle). I put the beer word in inverted commas as its technically not a beer at all, but an isotonic drink that looks and pours like a beer. The problem I've always had with alcohol free beer is that it is too sweet, and this also has a tinge of sweetness, but not overly so. It really does have elements of Weissbier, that slight grainy and wheaty taste and a very full and creamy texture. I would go as far to say that you could slip one of these into a Wheat Beer drinking fest and not notice that you had a 'ringer' in the midst.

Next was the San Miguel 0,0% Limon (available at Asda for £2.50 for 4). The Lass persuaded me to grab this one, as she is fervently following the Dry January concept. San Miguel isn't really my tipple, but I have tried the 'added Lemon' fad with beer before and not found it too bad (Fosters Radler isn't a bad summery drop). This wasn't really my drop. Tasting slightly like cooled down Lemsip, you get bashed with a smack of sweetness and, although it is refreshing, it's just too artificial for me and you may as well be downing a pint of Lemonade.

Last in line was Sainsbury's own Czech Low Alcohol Pilsner Lager (£1.20 a bottle from Sainsburys). Now I know this isn't an alcohol-free beer, but I had heard really good stuff about this and at 0.5%, its still considered low alcohol, so I shall include it (na, na, naa, naaa, na...). I wasn't disappointed. Made by the Staropramen brewery, I like their own brew and this one is just as good. Clean, crisp, it has the sharpness you want from a lager and still has the slight bitter kick of a fully hopped version.

So, having tried both alcohol free wines and beers, I have to say that I am impressed with how similar some of the examples I have tried are to the real thing (or at least have crammed in some flavours that stop you from wishing they were). Is it enough to get me to quit the drink permanently? Evidently not from my statement at the start of this article. I am coming from a slightly biased point of view (as I obviously work in the industry), but my mantra has always been 'Drink less and Drink Better'. Binge drinking is always a bad idea, but if people feel they have to give up having a drop of the good stuff for a whole month to 'give their liver a breather', then they are really telling themselves that they are drinking too much in the previous 11 and feeling guilty about it.

However, will I turn my nose up at the offer of an alcohol free beer in the pub, in favour of over-sweetened carbonated brown fizzy slop? Not anymore...

What is your opinion of the alcohol-free drinks market? Have you tried any that would recommend to Vinspire readers? Comment on our twitter page or on our facebook page!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Virgin Wine's Winter Collection


(Photo taken from Conti di San Bonifacio under the CCL)

Welcome to 2016, dear readers!

If, like me, your Christmas and New Year fun seems like a rather distant memory and you're looking for something to brighten those long, cold Winter nights then you'll know that the answer is...WINE! 

Some of you may well be doing "dry January", but I believe that in the dreariest month of the year we should be looking to reward ourselves for making our way through another tough week with a glass or two of something delicious. That is why I was really pleased to be contacted by Virgin Wines regarding their collection of much-loved winter reds. After all, what could be more tempting at the end of another day when you haven't seen any sunlight than a glass of a big, bold, full-bodied red whilst reclining in front of your log fire (not that I have a fireplace in my flat...!)?

Scanning through their list I was pleased to see all of the classics that fall into this category: Chilean Cabernet (always good value in my opinion), GSM blends from the Languedoc, as examples. I was sent a few bottles to sample and have spent the last couple of weeks tasting my through them - it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it...!

I started with a 2013 "Retromarcia" Chianti Classico from Monte Bernardi (Chianti, Italy), which Virgin Wines sell for £17.99/bottle. In the glass it sat a moody-looking medium/deep purple, with a slightly inky quality to it. On the nose it had strong primary aromas of juicy strawberries, which were complimented by some sweet red cherry notes. On tasting however, the sweetness evaporated and the dominant profile was of a bright and acidic cranberry, with little secondary presence. I had this wine without food and think that it was crying out for a plump steak or a mighty Bolognese to let the wines acidity be counter-balanced. I have a slightly mixed relationship with Chianti, in that I love it when I am in Italy, but find that the experience does not quite translate when you're in cold, dank England. This wine hasn't changed my opinion about that. Quality: 6.0; Value: 4.5

Next up was a 2004 Gran Villa Gran Reserva (Navarra, Spain), which Virgin Wines are selling for £11.99/bottle (2005 vintage). Spain is one of the few countries where you can get quality aged wine for less than £20 a bottle. Most of you will be very familiar with this in the form of Rioja, but its often-overlooked neighbour Navarra also makes very approachable, surprisingly inexpensive wine too. It doesn't belie its age when you look at it in the glass - it is a very deep and full-bodied purple. On the nose it has a fragrant and heady aroma of black cherry and strawberry compote with that tell-tale oak-aged profile of cinnamon. On tasting the wine starts with a juicy black cherry flavour, before a sour cherry note takes over for the finish - which tells of the wine's decent level of acidity. The finish wasn't quite as long as I was hoping for and the complexity wasn't really there, however for an £11.99/bottle of wine, I thought this was pretty decent. Quality: 6.5; Value: 7.0

Lastly I tasted one of their more "premium" wines, the 2012 "The Prize" Black Pig Shiraz (Clare Valley, Australia), on sale with Virgin Wines for £19.99/bottle. In the glass this wine sat resplendent with a regal purple shimmer to it. On the nose it was full of ripe black fruit, blackberries and blueberries; followed by secondary notes of an herbaceous element (aniseed and menthol) and a sweet spice aroma with cinnamon and star anise. When tasted it was big and bold with blackcurrants and ripe red cherries. It was a little one dimensional and lacked a secondary profile on tasting, which may come with further ageing (but I doubt it), however this was a very good wine - a perfect winter warmer. Quality: 7.5; Value: 7.0

I recommend checking out Virgin Wines for their winter reds collection. They do some pre-selected mixed cases for the indecisive amongst you, or alternatively they have a choice of over 500 different bottles to choose from.

So, what are you reaching for to warm the cockles of your heart on these long, cold winter nights??

Disclaimer: I was sent these wines as samples by Virgin Wines and did not pay for them. All opinions contained within this post are my own.      

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

New Year, No Alcohol - Alcohol Free Drinks (Part 1)

(courtesy of Stuart Miles and www.freedigitalphotos.net)

As the last bong tolled on Big Ben at midnight 31st December, 2015, many of you lovely people would have greedily been tucking into something tasty and boozy to welcome in the New Year. What you may have also been doing is saying goodbye to your beloved companion Alcohol for January; your partner through the good times and bad, the devil (or angel) on your shoulder guiding you through life's tricky decisions such as "I know I'm at work at 6am tomorrow, but should I really leave the bar yet? Nah..." or "Karaoke is definitely my bag, but will one more glass of plonk make me better? Damn right it will!"

'Dry January' has become a phenomenon that is really taking hold. As people shudder at the excesses that come with a bit of time off from work at Christmas and the excuse of over-eating and over-drinking, the charity Alcohol Concern and the Government joined together to push the idea of giving up the booze for 31 days, in order to get the population to think more about their consumption and the effect it can have on them.

Now, not being one to be tight-lipped on questions of drink, I have my reservations with regards to it, which I'll come to later, but rather than give up in its entirety (even smokers have to have something minty to chew on to munch through the cravings), I have decided to see if there is something on the market out there to fill in the gap of 4 weeks where many of you will be abstaining and waiving the hand of 'no thank you'. Over two articles, I'm going to try some of the alcohol-free alternatives that you can get on the market at the moment (and I'm not doing a taste test on different flavours of Fanta, if that's what you think...).

There are 3 main ways in which you can get rid of the alcohol in wine, but it is important to remember that even de-alcoholised wines start off as normal 9%-12% beverages, and the removal of alcohol only happens after the fermentation process has been completed. The main way of doing it is through a process of 'Steam Vacuuming', where the wine is passed through a vacuum and heated to remove the alcohol (alcohol has a lower boiling point than other liquids), allegedly without getting rid of all the flavours of the wine. Other ways it can be done are through 'Reverse Osmosis' (forcing the wine through a membrane to separate the alcohol from the wine) and through centrifugal force (essentially throwing the alcohol out of the wine - this one is rarely done as it takes many attempts to get a finished product). Debate rages about whether these processes alter the flavour compounds of the liquid (one read of The Daily Telegraph critic Victoria Moore's opinions will have you running for the nearest Shiraz), but the best way to test to see is by quite literally 'downing the entire bottle'...



First off, me and The Lass (who is content to push alcohol to one side for January) popped the cork on Echo Falls Sparkling Infusion (available at Asda for £5 a bottle). The USP with this is that even though it technically contains 10% grape juice concentrate, it looks like a proper sparkling wine and even smells faintly of a Cava-like drink. A bit citrussy, and a bit herby on the nose (it is infused with Green Tea, mind, so I'd hope it should do), it looks a faintly like apple juice in the glass. Tasting-wise, it isn't bad. Lively stuff and it has a clean taste. Nothing like the real thing though mind.

The following day, we consumed Eisberg Alcohol Free Rose (available to buy in Morrisons for £3). We'll start with the good point. Marketed at only 33 calories per glass, it seems to be the perfect tipple for the staunch Dry January-er. Unfortunately, the bad points seem to pile high. It has a slightly oxidised pink look to it, like someone has diluted crab paste. It smells of jelly babies and has a real sweetness on the taste. The taste isn't unpleasant, but it has a slightly fishy aftertaste. Not for everyone.

To finish off, we then tucked into Sainsbury's 'Winemakers Selection' Alcohol Free Red (on sale at Sainsburys for £2.50). What I found startling was how sweet the wine was. After having a sly butchers at the label, I saw that it has 7.5g of sugar per 125ml glass! Fine if you are trying to avoid the booze, but not so great if you are trying to keep the calories down. It has a slight undiluted blackcurrant cordial taste to it and quite light in body. Perfectly drinkable if you chill it slightly, but don't treat it as a normal red wine.

There are many different places where you can get 'de-alcoholised wines'. Not only are there specialist websites that you can peruse to see what percentage-less bottles you desire (a couple of the best ones are www.lono.co.uk or www.alcoholfree.co.uk), but you can easily wander into your local supermarket and get a good selection of products for you to choose from.

Next week, I'll give you a run-down on some alcohol free lagers that can hopefully tame the raging beer beast inside you.