Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Getting to know the Hunter Valley

I have just returned from a wonderful month Down Under on a trip around Australia and New Zealand, which as you can imagine was an incredible experience (check out my pictures on Instagram if you want to see what I got up to: WARNING! may cause you to book a holiday to New Zealand!).

As you can imagine, as well as exploring these beautiful countries for their incredible landscapes and wildlife, their delicious food and basking in their summer sun; I took the opportunity to get to know a little bit more about their wine scene. I mean, everyone knows that Australia and New Zealand produce delicious wine, but I wanted to get to know these wines better. I feel that you always understand and appreciate a wine region more when you have stood on their soils, looked at the lay of the land and met some of the people who devote their lives to making these delicious wines that we are fortunate to enjoy.

My first post will focus on a day that I spent touring around the Hunter Valley region of Australia, which lies around 120km north of Sydney. Hunter Valley is one of Australia's premier wine producing areas, known for producing excellent examples of those quintessential Aussie wines: Semillon and Shiraz. It features a number of different soil types, including clay, sandstone, volcanic ash and limestone. We did our tour with a company called Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours, who collected us from Sydney's Central Business District at the ungodly hour of 7am and ferried us in a comfortable mini-bus to Hunter Valley (via a cafe where we could pick up some breakfast and a coffee, thank goodness). Our tour was led by our amiable and rather amusing tour guide, Bill.

We visited four vineyards or cellar doors on our trip. A word on cellar doors before I move onto the details - on my time Down Under I became rather well acquainted with Cellar Doors, which are essentially the retail offering of a winery or vineyard that offers wine tastings and sells wines to punters as they drive around the wine regions (obviously with spittoons provided for drivers to employ so that they don't run the risk of drink driving). "Cellar Door" has also been noted for how beautiful the phrase sounds when you say it, with none other than J. R. R. Tolkien waxing lyrical about it (read more here if you are interested...)

So, with that said now, on to the wine...!


Our first stop was to visit Lambloch, who were very forthright in their views when presenting their wines; they said that they don't enter their wines into exhibitions and wine award competitions - instead they focus purely on selling wines to those people who come through their doors. Why do they do this? Interestingly, their winemaker feels that some winemakers get caught up in making wines that will impress wine judges, rather than making wines that are enjoyable to drink. After all, what is the point of wine, if not to be drunk by people? 

I found that they certainly had some interesting and very pleasing wines. The wines that stood out for me were their 2015 Sparkling Semillon, which was made in a Charmat method (ie: not the Champange method) and is one of only two sparkling Semillons currently produced in the Hunter Valley, it had a nose of lightly tropical fruit (pineapple) with a nice mouth-feel. It wasn't particularly complex, but was certainly very pleasant and would make for a nice, summer sipping wine. Interestingly, their other wine that grabbed me was their 2016 Moscato Sparkling, which was again made in a Charmat method using Black Moscatel grapes this time. It had a lovely, light peach nose, but on the mouth featured a surprisingly complex and layered taste of rose, strawberry and Turkish Delight. This was an excellent wine and with a low ABV (7% I think), it would make for a great afternoon wine whilst getting the BBQ ready!

Hermitage Wine Cellars

Next stop for us was Hermitage Wine Cellars. This time we weren't visiting a producer per se, but instead we were visiting someone who distributes wine and as such has many different producers' wines on their lists and available to purchase/taste. We tasted six different wines, which were served with matching cheeses (I must say that the cheeses were really very good too, they did a great job matching them!).

My favourite wine that they served was a 2015 Stormy Ridge Shiraz that had a really pervasive red cherry nose, which was followed by a taste that featured similarly red cherry notes, bright and vibrant. It was served with a marinated feta that really worked well against the bold Shiraz. I also enjoyed trying the 2016 (?) Lisa McGuigan Chardonnay which had benefited from a little time in oak giving it beautiful, warm notes of tropical fruit and a smattering of buttery-goodness. This was served with a ripe brie - what could be better??

Leogate Wines

After this we moved on to Leogate Wines, which is set in an absolutely beautiful estate - I could absolutely understand it when they said that they do weddings on their vineyard, it would make a stunning place to get married. Leogate are currently riding high (literally) as their wines have been selected to be served by Qantas airlines on their First and Business Class flights - the competition to win this accolade is intense, so they are justifiably proud.

We tried a number of their wines, my highlights were: the 2015 Brokenback Late Harvest Semillon which had some nice tropical fruit notes (mango and pineapple), the palate featured a really nice splash of acidity that gave the wine a vibrancy and a nice balance to it. I'd been looking forward to tasting a nice Semillon and this one hit the spot. I was pleasantly surprised by their 2017 Rose Shiraz which had a quiet nose, but a thoroughly pleasant strawberry taste, with quite a bit of weight to it. Of the reds, I really liked their 2015 Brokenback Shiraz, a heavy-duty wine that had already developed some interesting secondary notes of leather and a grind of black pepper; on tasting it was rather tannic still, suggesting that it could do with a couple more years to settle, but that this would be a serious wine.

Very much enjoyed the tasting here, the only thing that irked me was that their tasting portions were very small - barely enough for two decent sips, which isn't great as you can't really form an opinion on a wine solely on the first sip (in my opinion).

Mount View Estate

For our last tasting we headed to Mount View Estate, who gave us the opportunity to try 12 of their wines (they certainly weren't stingy!). It was a very interesting tasting as they served the wines in pairs to show us variety between what we were tasting, for example a Semillon in a dry style versus one in a slightly richer style. 

Of the wines that we tried, again a few stood out for me. Firstly, their 2016 Reserve Chardonnay which again featured a bit of time in French Oak casks, giving the nose a nice and open profile with ripe pear coming through as well as some subtle buttery notes. On tasting, I found it to be a really classy wine with plenty of poise. I also very much enjoyed their 2015 Reserve Shiraz (which featured a nice little splash (8%) of Vioginer in it); this was another very elegant wine with the fruit being very well integrated to the tannins at this point in its development and the Viognier just providing a little softness to take the edge off the Shiraz. The last wine that I wanted to write about was a bit of a curve-ball, their NV Flagship Liquer Shiraz (which apparently has spent an average of 28 years in barrel), this is a fortified wine and was frankly delicious: on the nose it has all the Christmassy smells going on, chocolate, sweet spices (cloves, nutmeg), dark black cherries; it coats the mouth nicely and has flavours of dark chocolate and warm spices. An excellent wine! 


I titled this post "getting to know the Hunter Valley" and I feel that this tour did a good job of giving me a better understanding of the wines and winemakers in this much-vaunted wine-producing area. I expected to enjoy the Shiraz and the Semillons, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that there was experimentation and innovation going on too, with the sparkling wines and roses unexpectedly good. Also, the people that we met were evidently proud of their products and their region - as they should be. The tour was well run and enjoyable and it was nice to meet wine enthusiasts from all around the world. Thanks to Bill for being a great host for the day and providing some enjoyable Aussie wit as part of his tour guide patter. I'd highly recommend a trip to Hunter Valley if you make your way to Australia and think that Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours do a good job (particularly as they do all the driving so you can focus on the tasting!).   

Friday, 19 January 2018

Perfect Burns Night wines

Photo: Happy Wanderer (CCL)

Burns night is upon us and you know what that means? Another excuse to drink. And of course celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns and all that he has done for the great nation of Scotland.

Burns Supper is always associated with that classic of Scottish delicacies, haggis. For those who don't know what haggis is, it's a pudding made with sheep offal minced together with onion, herbs, oats and suet, encased in a sheep's stomach. Don't let the sound of it put you off, it is delightful.

Now we've covered the food, what about the drink? What Scottish drink could you possibly serve with Scottish food on a Scottish night? If you said whisky then five points to Gryffindor! Haggis is traditionally served with a dram, and the toasts are always accompanied by a dram.

But what if you don't want to go diving into the whisky at 7pm and be flat on your face by 9? Or for some obscure, unknown reason, you don't like whisky? Well, I'm going to take you through a few little numbers to wash down the Haggis, or keep you flinging until morning.

Wines to match haggis

Wine and offal are often difficult to match. In this case you ideally you want something fairly robust, but that goes well with gamey flavours. Pinot Noir matches well with the gamey flavours, but will be too light too deal with everything else.

An alternative would be the Barbera grape. Hailing from Northern Italy in the Piedmont region, this thin skinned grape is low in tannin but can produce high acidity wines. When made well and balanced with the right amount of oak ageing, it can produce beautifully fresh wines with high acidity, and a smooth, sweetly spiced finish.

Sainsbury's TTD Barbera D'Asti 2016.
A classic example, this wine has a beautiful berry freshness about it. Typically low in tannin and high in acidity like all good Barbera wines.
£8.50 from Sainsbury's.

Zinfandel from California will also be a good choice. Heavier and more tannic than Barbera, it produces more powerful wines with flavours of cocoa, coffee and herbaceous characters.

Cline Ancient Vine Zinfandel 2014, California.
Bold, juicy and full of earthy notes, this wonderfully ripe Zinfandel will match the haggis perfectly. The nose has fresh red fruit, coffee and vanilla while the palate follows up with a very smooth texture, firm tannic structure and slightly spicy, vanilla heavy finish.
£13.99 mix six offer at Majestic.

If you really don't like red and want to go for a white, make sure to go for something rich and full of flavour. Dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc just won't do the job. Even the oakier Chardonnays will struggle.

Try Pinot Gris from Alsace. While it is the same grape as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris is harvested much later allowing the sugars within the grape to develop further and produce more exotic flavours. An excellent example of this is:

Tokay-Pinot Gris, Rolly Gassmann 1996, Alsace.
Wonderfully rich and full bodied, it has flavours of lychee, mango and slight citrusy character, this bold wine will stand up more than most other whites.
£34.25 from The Vinorium.

Wines with a Burns Night theme

If you're happy with whisky for dinner, but want something with a little bit of a Scottish twist without being too gimmicky, why not try either of these.

Jim Barry McRae Wood Shiraz 2012, Clare Valley.

There's nothing like an Aussie Shiraz, and this is a prime example of what it's all about. Beautifully perfumed on the nose, the palate is packed with black fruit with rich, powerful and savoury spice. An absolutely stunning wine... and it's got tartan on the label!
£24.99 from Waitrose Cellar.

Bobbie Burns, Rutherglen Durif 2015.

Do you really need an explanation as to why I've chosen this? Aside from being an astounding wine, the name says it all. Durif, otherwise known as Petite Syrah, produces highly concentrated wines with robust characteristics of cassis, blackcurrant, peppery spice and smokiness. An absolute powerhouse.
£14.99 from The Wine Reserve.

Are you celebrating Burns Night? Let us know what you plan on drinking!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Smoothie Craze: Ten epic but easy smoothie recipes

As Vinspire's chief 'pinner' (and proud!), I find myself gleefully adding lots of tasty treats to our Vinspire Pinterest page.

I pin everything from cocktails to boozy bakes, incredible bars and amazing wine travel destinations, but the amount of smoothie recipe pins I've seen just keeps on growing. This healthy and filling breakfast trend has taken over on both sides of the pond.

Naturally, I started a Smoothies board, and I've become increasingly excited about the recipes I've found.

Of course, Pinterest being Pinterest, not all of the recipes are focussed on being healthy  some are decadent in the extreme, replacing fruit with ingredients like peanut butter, chocolate and whipped cream  so there really is something for everyone.

Here are ten of the best (but easiest) smoothie recipes I've found, all using easy to find ingredients:

1. Avocado chocolate peanut butter smoothie

YES. You heard right. All the world's best things (aside from booze, obviously) in a glass. This recipe is from the wonderful A Cookie Named Desire blog: she cleverly blends naughty ingredients like peanut butter and cocoa powder with filling, healthy things like banana, avocado and almond milk. Winner.

2. Skinny strawberry shortcake smoothie

A brilliant, three-ingredient smoothie that is thick and creamy but doesn't contain anything unhealthy. MAGIC. This recipe is from Amy's Healthy Baking Blog. The post is worth reading to see how excited she gets as she'd just made an appearance on a big American daytime TV show.

3. Gingerbread Smoothie

I think this one definitely wins on cuteness. There are a few more ingredients to the gingerbread smoothie recipe (which comes from the fabulous Peanut Butter and Peppers blog) but they're all readily available and you probably have most of them in your cupboards already.

4. Thin mint smoothie

This brilliant and simple PopSugar recipe is based on the popular US Girl Scout cookies (like the ones Monica got addicted to on Friends...) and is a suuuuper refreshing way to start the day. It's got some sneaky spinach in as well.

5. Pina colada oat breakfast smoothie

All the fun without the booze. Plus you get two of your five-a-day and plenty of energy-boosting yoghurt and oats. This recipe is from the Cooking Classy blog. Jaclyn (the blog's owner) is pretty good at smoothie recipes so it's worth browsing the rest of her collection...

6. Carrot cake smoothie

Another one of those smoothies where you're surprised to already have all the ingredients handy. This recipe sounds a bit naughty but actually has carrot, banana AND almond milk in it - POW! From Gimme Some Oven.

7. Raspberry and coconut smoothie

Another three-ingredient triumph of a recipe from the A Beautiful Mess blog. What a lovely combination of flavours.

8. Banana and almond smoothie

From British-based My Recipe Book, this super-satisfying four-ingredient recipe is perfect for busy, on-the-go types.

9. Healthy red velvet smoothie

Another cake-inspired smoothie recipe, this is surprisingly chocka with fruit and veg: beetroot, strawberries, banana AND dates. That may sound an odd combination, but it so works. From the Chocolate and Carrots blog.

 10. Espresso banana smoothie

If, like me, you can't quite let go of your morning coffee, this is the smoothie recipe for you. It also has a little dash of sneaky maple syrup. From Move Nourish Believe.