Monday, 24 September 2018

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

£11.99 at Majestic (mixed price £9.99)

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. 
£11.79, 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 £7.99, Majestic (mixed price £6.29)


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 kick some leaves, 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...

Monday, 17 September 2018

Cooking with booze: Stout-battered smoked haddock and chips recipe

It's officially autumn and the nights are starting to draw in. And what's synonymous with colder evenings? Traditional comfort food, that's what! And it doesn't get better than this.

Earlier this year I ended up in Dublin; and had what can only be described as the most incredible Fish & Chips at the renowned Burdocks in the heart of Temple Bar. It may have been that I'd had a few too many pints of Guinness by 5pm, but I'm pretty sure the fish was still awesome.

So, to tie in with the release of two 'Craft' style, old recipe Porters from Guinness, I've decided to combine the two.

I'm always on the look out for exceptional 'pub food' ideas, and the secret to the most amazing fish & chips was the substitution of plain, ordinary haddock for tasty, smoked haddock. Now, as everybody knows, smoked food is better than normal food (e.g. BACON), and so, here is my recipe for stout-battered smoked haddock and chips. 


1 teaspoon of bicarb, for light, fluffy batter
1/2 bottle Dublin Porter, or any other stout
250g plain flour
Black pepper
2 fillets of smoked haddock
King Edward potatoes
Vegetable oil

1. Cut your potatoes into 1cm thick chips, leaving the skin on. Leave them to soak for ten minutes in warm water to remove excess starch. This will make sure you have nice crispy chips.

2. Pop them on the hob in clean, salted water and bring them to the boil. Remove them just before the skins start to come away from the potato. Drain off and transfer the chips onto paper towel to dry.

3. Make your batter by mixing the flour with the bicarb, whisk in half the beer, and stir in the rest (you want it to be nice and bubbly so you have a fluffy batter). Add a pinch of salt and some pepper.

4. Pop the chips in the fryer at 180 degrees C for ten minutes. Drain off on paper towel and sprinkle with sea salt.

5. If, like me, you like your fish battered in goujons, slice each fillet into two or three lengthways and dust them all over in flour. Dip each in the batter and deep fry at 180 degrees C for six-seven minutes, or until a rich brown colour. Drain on paper towel and serve with a bottle of Sarsons.

What I loved about using the porter is that the batter has a distinct bitterness to it, which complements the smoky flavour of the fish brilliantly. I used Dublin Porter for the batter as it didn't have enough to offer on the palate, and had quite a strong carbonation (perfect for the batter). The West Indies Porter was a much better match to eat with, as it offered a nice sweetness to balance with the batter, complex flavour to cut through the oil and a decent strength at 6%.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Cappuccini Resort hotel review – history in the hills of Franciacorta, Italy

Where is Cappuccini Resort?

Cappuccini Resort is perched on a hill on the slopes of Mount Orphan in the heart of the Franciacorta region, in the province of Brescia, Italy. It’s closest to the little village of Cologne (not the German one). It’s a great base from which to explore the region’s many vineyards and wineries, as well as the beautiful Lake Iseo, which is quite a bit smaller than Lake Como, but just as beautiful and a lot quieter.

There’s quite a big hill to get up to get into the resort. You’ll be fine in most cars, but if you’ve hired a little Fiat 500 like we had, you will have to give it some welly to get up the hill. It took us two attempts!

We drove from Lecco in Lake Como which was around a 90-minute drive. If you want to fly, it’s a 30-minute drive from Bergamo-Orio al Serio airport, 55 minutes from Milan-Linate airport, and 90 minutes from Milan Malpensa and Verona-Villafranca-Catullo airports.

What’s Cappuccini Resort like?

The original monastery was built in 1569. In 1805, the Kingdom of Italy suppressed all convents and monasteries, and the place fell into disrepair. But in 1987, Rossalba Tonelli and her family decided to bring Cappuccini back to life and open it as a hotel and resort, and things are still run by the Tonelli-Pellizzari family today.

Staying there feels like a mix of staying in someone’s home, an actual monastery, and a wellness retreat. It’s quiet, and you do feel like you’re sneaking around at times, but mostly it just feels very peaceful. Strolling from your room to the dining room, through the cloisters lit up with fairy lights is all very, very lovely.

What are the rooms like?

Cappuccini is a renovated monastery, and the 14 rooms – with names such as ‘The Tenderness of Brother Ottavio’, ‘Aurora Fra Angelo’, and ‘The Joy of Brother Augustine’ – are former monks’ cells which still keep a lot of hints to the past.

It did feel a little like entering a prison cell going through the first metal-barred door off the cloisters, but the comedically-sized tassel key to open the room door was a bit more plush, and a little less penal. Our room was large and relatively sparsely decorated, with a large fireplace in the corner. It’s very much in an ‘old’ style, but fitting and in keeping with the resort’s history.

The bathroom is similarly large, with a decent power shower and views out over the gardens. Just be careful you don’t end up flashing someone.

What is there to do?

You’ll want to get out and about in the Franciacorta region, but the temptation to stay perched away from everything on the hill is strong. It’s a great place to relax, eat, drink, bathe, and explore. There’s a lovely outdoor saltwater swimming pool with loungers and views out over the region, and garden paths with olive groves and vegetable patches to wander around.

About 300 metres down the hill from the main building, there’s a spa with indoor pool. If you’re staying at the hotel, you can book 30minutes of private use of the hydrotherapy pool, which is a great space to relax in – although 30minutes is not a lot of time to do it in. The only problem is getting in and out of the spa – there’s an electronic gate which I guess people are meant to be monitoring, but it took a good ten minutes on both ends of our visit to get the doors to open. Not particularly relaxing when you need to hot foot it back to the airport.

Always important, what’s the food and drink like?

There’s a large wine menu featuring loads of Franciacorta at reasonable prices. Many of the bottles are between the 25-35euro mark – which is what they’ll cost you to buy direct from a shop/website in the UK.

Breakfast consists of super fresh croissants, homemade jams and preserves, bread, fruit, pastries, mini cookies, fresh orange juice, and double espressos all round, enjoyed on the patio overlooking the herb patch with a happy little bunny hopping about.

Dinner is seriously good, and was my favourite meal of the entire trip. We were one of four or so tables in the restaurant, but there was still a quietly relaxed atmosphere and we didn’t feel awkward. The menu is full of traditional Italian flavours, but with a modern, creative twist, and a definite focus on local produce. Most of the herbs and vegetables come from the hotel garden. Highlights included a veal ragu, and the steak tartare amuse bouche.

So overall…?

If you want to simultaneously be able to get away from it all, and be in the middle of an exciting and still relatively undiscovered region full of delicious food and wine, Cappuccini Resort is the place to be.

For more information, you can book Cappuccini Resort through, or through their website.

And if you have no idea about Franciacorta, how it's made, what it is and more, check out our guide to Italy's fanciest fizz. 

I stayed at Cappuccini Resort on a trip to Franciacorta organised by Clementine Communications and hosted by the Franciacorta region. Although the stay was complimentary, all my opinions are my own and not in any way influenced by delicious Franciacorta wine. 

Saturday, 1 September 2018

A trip to Surrey's gold - Denbies

As someone who has come to know a little bit about the wine world, I am well aware of the excitement around the progress that English Sparkling Wine has made over the last fifteen years. However, I am constantly surprised by how little this message has spread both around the world, but also (and perhaps more alarmingly) amongst people who live in the UK itself. Those of you who have been following my posts for a while will know that I periodically pressgang (not that they need much encouraging!) a ragtag ensemble of musicians from my amateur orchestra into doing a wine tasting event around London. Over previous years this has even extended to taking a tour around one of the many fantastic English vineyards that one can get to within an hour’s travel from London (our last trip was to the magnificent Hush Heath, where I learned the delights of their sublime Balfour Brut - see post here). This year I sought to organise another event and was thrilled to find us romping our way through the not-quite-so-lush (owing to recent dry weather) Surrey countryside and heading towards Dorking. On the train I was still being caught off-guard how many people were only discovering now for the first time that the UK even has vineyards, let alone that it was some award-winning sparkling wine!

We arrived at Dorking and made our way over to the Denbies winery, which is about a 15 minute walk from the station. One of the first things that you notice is that the area is teeming with cyclists - particularly over the summer. Box Hill is not far away at all, a notorious climb that featured in the London 2012 road cycling event (as a new cyclist myself, it is something that I am hoping to be attempting in the not-too-distant future). We arrived into the extremely impressive Visitors’ Centre at Denbies and were greeted by Anne who was going to be our guide for the day. There is a rather impressive looking “Wine Train” that takes visitors through the winery’s vineyards, but we opted for a slightly different tour - a walking tour through the vineyards themselves, where we would try some of the wines as we wended our way through them.

The Denbies estate was originally a large pig farm, but it was acquired by the White family in 1984. A nearby Professor of Geology and wine enthusiast, Richard Selley, spoke with the owners and told him that his knowledge of geology and local climactic conditions suggested that the site had excellent potential for winemaking. It possesses those familiar chalky soils that link the south-east of England to the Champagne region of France, and make it perfect for growing the traditional champagne varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Furthermore, the relief of the Denbies estate offered those much sought-after southerly facing slopes that create the best growing conditions for those noble grapes.

As we started our trip with Anne we were given a map of the estate and the first thing that you noticed was that the estate carries a lot more varieties than the three that make the traditional champagne blend. There were varietals that I was well aware and expecting to see such as Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Sylvaner - all Germanic grapes that tend to grow well in English conditions; but there were also some rather surprising varietals too, including some that were completely new for me such as Reichensteiner, Solaris, Seyval Blanc and Auxerrois. Anne explained that given winemaking is still in its relative infancy in the UK a lot of experimentation is taking place; additionally due to climate change factors varietals that were previously discounted are now showing as having a real potential. We are starting to see more and more reds being experimented with; how long before we see good quality English Cabernet Franc to rival that of the Loire, or even start to see some luscious Merlot or some racy Syrah?

The vineyards themselves were extremely well looked after and Anne was on hand to give us many useful bits of information that helped us to understand the challenges of wine production, but also its rewards. What was also impressive was the volume of people who were visiting - admittedly this was a relatively sunny Saturday in August which is the peakiest of peak times, but we saw a number of people exploring the vineyard and making use of the public rights of way that run through the estate giving glorious views over the surrounding countryside and across to the aforementioned Box Hill. The Visitors’ Centre is a large and rather lovely looking building with plenty of information about the estate and its history, with an attractive café on site and a slightly fancier restaurant for nicer meals. They have the ability to host and cater weddings on site as well. After our tour we made our way to the wine shop and tasting room to try a few more wines and make our purchases and they were exceedingly accommodating with our seemingly-insatiable curiosity!

The Wines

So, with all this being said; “what wines did you try?” I hear you cry! (OK, I don’t, but I’m allowing myself some writer’s licence…) We tried four different wines on our tour around, plus a couple of notable wines in the shop.

NV Denbies Cellermaster’s Choice Whitedowns Brut (Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner). Wonderfully fresh and vibrant; crisp, red apple notes with a zesty lemon flavour to it too. Although this is a NV wine, all the grapes were from 2014 and I think this slight bit of age gave the wine a little bit of a bready aroma. A very pleasant mid-afternoon sparkler to sip whilst watching the cricket (other sports are available, but not as good...).

NV Denbies Rose Hill (Dornfelder and Rondo). Nice and light with some subtle peach flavours. A nice, salmon-pink in the glass; this is a bargain alternative to a more-pricey Provence-style rosé.

NV Denbies Surrey Gold (Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus). Slightly too sweet for me, in between an off-dry and a sweet wine. Perhaps at a demi-sec level. Pleasant green apple flavours to the wine nonetheless. Interestingly, Anne told it that this was one of the vineyards first wines and is a firm favourite (and indeed, bestseller) amongst their regular, local visitors.

2015 Denbies Redlands (Dornfelder and Pinot Noir). Low tannins, but with very pleasing red fruit notes of cherries and strawberries. We all concluded that serving this wine chilled with a summer’s BBQ would be rather splendid.

2016 Noble Harvest (Ortega). A wine that has been allowed to develop a botrytis note to it, giving it that glorious marmalade-profile, whilst still in great balance from the grapes’ naturally-high acidity. This wine would make for a wonderful accompaniment to any dessert course.

NV Denbies Greenfields (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay). Has those classic hallmarks of good Champagne on the nose with a sort of bready, apple-compote note. The wine itself is very balanced and elegant with dominant flavours being of citrus fruits (in particular, some rather lush lemons). A great aperitif wine or a toasting wine at a wedding.

2013 Cubitt Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay). Somewhat steelier and more precise nose than the Greenfields, with citrus and green apple notes coming through very clearly. Here the mouth of the wine is where it reveals its structure and class, with a broad spectrum of flavours starting with insistent citrus fruit notes, before more complex, richer and deeper notes take over. Evolves nicely through the finish. A thinker of a wine.

Almost all of these wines are available at Waitrose for purchase and many other outlets.