Monday, 9 December 2019

Wines to be thankful for with the Theatre of Wine

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that over the last eight years (!) I have been taking a small group of people from my amateur orchestra (the Camden Symphony Orchestra - we're pretty good, you should check us out...) who form the Camden Symphony Orchestra Wine Society and we make a pilgrimage our favourite wine store - the Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park. Over the last few years we have had some very interesting tasting themes and for our latest tasting, I tried my best to stump the folk at Theatre of Wine by selecting our most esoteric theme yet: wines that celebrate Thanksgiving. Given our tasting was taking place the day after Thanksgiving, I thought it was possible, but I was intrigued to see what they were going to pull out of the hat. Annoyingly (but also thankfully), they put together a really wonderful line-up and somehow managed to give us a thought-provoking series of wines.

The line-up!
We started with a 2017 Marof White (Prekmurje, Slovenia) which had a pretty nose full of peaches and apricots, accompanied by a pleasant lick of butter. On the mouth it was surprisingly weighty without being heavy, as it was offset by bags of acidity. At £15.90/bottle, this represented great value. 
Thanksgiving link: Jason's take here was that this wine was made of a combination of indigenous grape varieties as well as some internationally imported varietals in the blend, which was what Thanksgiving was all about when it was established. Nice!

Next up was one of the wine's of the evening, a 2014 Cornin Pouilly-Fuisse (Burgundy, France) which had a surprisingly quiet nose, but one that danced around a little with life. On the palate though it was decadent and delicious, with tremendous balance between the fresher, fruitier notes and some more buttery, sweet notes. The price tag on this reflected the increased quality, at £34.20/bottle.
Thanksgiving link: Jason stunned us here with the fact that Turkeys take on different shapes depending on where they are reared, which he equated to the properties of Chardonnay which he claimed was the most versatile of all the grapes varieties (I contend that this is Riesling, but I still like the analogy).

We shot across next from France to South Africa next where we had a 2018 Wolf and Woman Chenin Blanc (SA). This bottle featured a rather beautiful label (you can just see it poking out in the image on the left) and is the debut wine from an exciting new producer called Jolandie Fouché. This had a rather delicate nose, featuring pretty stone fruit, with the taste being clean and fresh with a nice, acidic bite to it. At £26/bottle, for me it was a little expensive, but that's probably because this is super small-batch production (only 600 bottles produced). 
Thanksgiving link: This was where we saw the creativity of the team coming to the full fore. Did you know that a version of Thanksgiving was actually a European tradition that was revived by the Americans? Jason explained that this is an example of the "New World" taking an "Old World" tradition and making it their own, just like the South Africans have done with Chenin Blanc! Mind blown...!       

Time to move on to the reds and we started with a classic: 2017 Cline Lodi Zinfandel (California, USA). Had that familiar cherry-cola front to the nose, but with some nice brambly notes to it too. On the palate it was juicy, vibrant and a live, with an interesting herbal twist to it. Brilliant value at £13.50/bottle. 
Thanksgiving link: The facts kept coming here, did you know that whilst people think of Turkeys as being native to the US, they actually aren't? This is exactly the same as Zinfandel, it was thought to be a native wine to the US, but over the last few years vine experts have traced back the origins of Zinfandel through Italy (where it is called Primitivo), to Croatia (where it is called Tribidrag). 

The fine folk at Theatre of Wine like to throw in curve-balls to their tastings and the next wine was a good example of this. A 2016 Castello di Verduno Barbaresco (Piedmont, Italy). Jason contends that this kind of wine benefits from a long decant (c. six hours is ideal) but this had only had an hour. It had a pretty nose with violets, blackcurrants and red cherries coming through. On the mouth it was quite savoury with plenty of acidity, I think it would have been interesting to have seen this wine after a couple more hours in the decanter as it needed to soften up.
Thanksgiving link: Jason explained that for the Piedmontese, their wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are an obsession and that many people outside of this do not "get" what they're trying to do, as the winemakers are rigid in producing what they like. This, according to Jason, can be likened to Thanksgiving in the sense that people outside of the United States are a little confused as to what it is about, but to the people of the US it is incredibly important. Interesting!

Next up was a wine that narrowly was awarded best of the night, a 2014 Dureil-Janthial Rully 1er Cru Vauvry (Burgundy, France). As a more mature Pinot it had those lovely notes of kernel and cherry, whilst on the palate it was soft, luscious and opulent. Frankly a steal at £16.90/bottle, I bought two bottles and only didn't buy more out of politeness to the rest of the group!
Thanksgiving link: Controversially Jason said here that Burgundy and Turkey are both over-priced for what you get - although he did that by showing us that there is good value to be found in Burgundy if you stay outside the most vaunted of communes (e.g. Vosne Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet).

We did try next a 2016 Piombaia Rosso di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy) which was nice and inky on the nose with a rich, robust and forthright palate to it. Jason put this one on the list for no better reason than he wanted to open it - we were very happy that he did! £22.50/bottle. 

Time to move to the sweets and Jason went for a 2007 Barbeito Single Harvest Tinta Negra (Madeira, Portugal). Now I have been REALLY loving Madeira ever since I visited there a couple of years ago (check out this LINK to see what I got upto), so I was delighted to see this on the list - particularly as I visited Barbeito and they were lovely. This had a lovely, delicious orange nose to it with a slightly oxidative element to it. I describe Madeira as kind of a half-way house between Port and Sherry, and this was the perfect example for this. £30.40/bottle. 
Thanksgiving link: Apparently Madeira was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was a favourite of the founding fathers!

To finish we had a 2008 Signatory Linkwood Scotch (Scotland, UK). This was a rather pleasant scotch to finish, but lacked a little weight / power for me. £47/bottle.
Thanksgiving link: Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a licenced bartender before he became a politician?!

So there you have it. From the most obtuse theme that we have had, Jason and the team not only managed to show us some excellent wine, they managed to tie them to the Thanksgiving theme and help us all to learn a thing or two. What am I thankful for the this year? The continued existence of fine, independent wine shops and the wonderful friendships that wine can bring people together for.          

Friday, 25 October 2019

Introducing Nc’Nean Distillery

In my day job I find myself working in a rather traditional, male-dominated industry that is trying to figure out how it can become more sustainable and reduce its carbon draw on the environment. I was intrigued then to be invited to the launch event of a new spirit which was spearheaded by a woman who left her job in the city with a dream of making her mark in a traditional, male-dominated industry and launch a product that would be both sustainable and carbon neutral.

Step forward, Annabel Thomas of Nc’Nean Distillery.


It is at this point that I probably need to explain about the name of the distillery: Nc'Nean. This was truly fascinating to learn about. Annabel was keen to find a name that summed up the figurative spirit that she wanted her literal spirit to exhibit. In doing her research she came upon the Celtic goddess Neachneohain, who was a fierce protector of nature who focussed now on what we would term “sustainability”. What greater exemplar for the new brand, a strong, rebellious Pictish goddess, who defended nature whilst standing up to the patriarchy?! In order to make it somewhat easier to pronounce (and thus market), the team decided to shorten Neachneohain’s name to Nc'Nean. I like it - there’s a kind of symmetry to it - which accords with the sustainability message.

The Nc'Nean team (taken from their website)
The challenges that Annabel faced in getting her distillery of the ground were extreme. In order to get the distillery off the ground she had to raise significant sums of money, but how can you sell this to investors when you can't show them any product? Yes, she had a vision for the distillery - the spirit she wanted to make and the spirit she wanted it to invoke - but she couldn’t offer any of the product to sample and could only rely on the strength of this vision. Annabel told us that in her lobbying she encountered a very traditional (albeit friendly), rather patriarchal industry, but undeterred she set about raising the funds and pulling together an impressive team, including their master distiller, Jim Swan, who worked with them between 2012 and his untimely death in 2017.

Photo taken from the Nc'Nean website of the distillery in its beautiful surroundings


What to do when you have a distillery and are waiting for the whisky to be ready?

The distillery started distilling for real in March 2017. In order to sell scotch whisky it has to be aged for at least three years and as such the first outputs in terms of scotch will hit the market next year. So, what were Annabel and the Nc'Nean team going to do with themselves between 2017 and 2020? After all they had a lot of distiller’s spirit (unaged whisky) made from barley and they thought perhaps they could make something with this. Perhaps some kind of gin? Rightly, the concluded that this was quite a crowded marketplace at the moment. Instead, they infused the distiller's spirit with some locally-foraged botanicals such as the wonderfully-named Bog Myrtle (as well as heather and sorrel) and established their Botanical Spirit (which you can buy on Master of Malt for £24.95/bottle). This is a very nice drink that works very nicely when served with tonic, or simply on the rocks. It exists as neither a gin, nor a whisky, but something half way in-between and is very fine for it.

With this under their belts the team asked themselves how they could develop this product further. They came up with the idea of taking the spirit and ageing it in a number of different barrels to see what effect this had on the spirit. They settled on experimenting with bourbon, vermouth and Mondino (a type of German-aperol apparently) barrels. At our event I attended we were lucky enough to be served the results of this experiment and they were stunning. 

The Vermouth-aged spirit was served with tonic as an aperitif and was garnished with olive, thyme and orange, which made for an excellent way to start the evening.

After this we tried their Bourbon-aged spirit in the style of a Julep served with mint and grapefruit zest. The sweetness of the bourbon cask really came through and was well balanced with the mint freshness to give a delicious drink.

My favourite was the last of the drinks, the Mondino-aged spirit, which had a real Campari-style bitterness to it that I absolutely loved! This was served with grapefruit juice, honey and soda, which gave a lovely balance of bitter and sweet flavours.

These aged botanical spirits could also be drunk neat over ice but are a lot of fun in cocktails. There are all sorts of recipes on their website for you to check out and they are currently selling a set of their aged botanical spirits (200ml each) for £50. This is a limited edition set of 1,000 - so definitely get your hands on this if you can.

Now that I have tried their aged botanical spirits and understand more of the ethos of the Nc'Nean distillery, I am super-excited to try their whisky next year when they start releasing it!
Disclaimer: I was invited as a guest to this launch event.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

International Coffee Day: How to make barista-style coffee at home

It’s International Coffee Day! Are you someone who needs five cups before you’re out the door in the morning? I’m a one-cup-a-day kinda gal… any more and it sends me properly loopy. But I do very much enjoy that one cup.

In the UK we drink an average of 95 million cups of coffee a day, with 65% of that being drunk at home. We spoke to Irene Ippolito, marketing manager for Illy about how you can get barista-style coffee at home.

1. Get freshly roasted coffee beans

There are two main types of coffee beans – the Arabica (sweeter, softer taste) and Robusta (strong, full-bodied). Finding the right coffee bean for you is essential to prepare the perfect beverage every time.

2. It’s all in the grind

The grind of your coffee will greatly influence the end result, as it impacts the amount of contact time between the hot water and the beans. Grind it too fine and you will have a bitter coffee, while grinding it too coarsely will give you a watery blend. Invest in a quality coffee grinder or machine to ensure every cup tastes like it was made by a professional barista.

3. Storage wars

Many underestimate the importance of proper coffee storage and its effect on taste. It must be stored in a cool, dry place but never in the fridge or freezer, as the defrosting process can damage the coffee beans, making them lose their original flavour. Keep coffee in an airtight container where you’d normally store your other cool dry goods.

4. Use a filter

Water hugely affects the taste of your cup of coffee, as it makes up 90% of the drink. Tap water can contain impurities such as minerals, metals and salts that can alter the taste, so the best thing to do is to use filtered water to give your coffee the best flavour.

5. Keep it fresh

Don’t forget that coffee goes stale. Ideally you want to drink it within a month of being roasted to savour that fresh taste. If you buy your beans whole you can choose to only grind what you need, when you need them.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Everything you need to know about London Restaurant Festival 2019

October is a good month to be in London. Not only is London Cocktail Week on the way, London Restaurant Festival LRF) launches today.

For the whole of October, there are a huge number of events, competitions and exclusive festival menus being served at restaurants across the capital.

This year, there are around 250 restaurants taking part.

The festival menus are set around six themes:
Flights and Pairings features menus with drinks pairings, signature cocktails and fine wines.
London Legends features the city’s established stars at restaurants including Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Grill Mayfair, and Simon Rogan’s Roganic.
Amazing Spaces spotlights much-loved restaurants with beautiful surroundings, such as The Cinnamon Club in the Old Westminster Library and the grandeur of Holborn Dining Room.
Talk of the Town offers guests the chance to dine in some of London’s most newsworthy restaurants including Frog by Adam Handling, the legendary Otto’s, and new opening Farzi.
London with a View takes diners from the heights of Helix at the Gherkin and the Shard’s Ting Restaurant at the Shangri-La, to the banks of the River Thames at The Waterway.
Avant Garde celebrates the diverse, boundary-pushing cuisine from the likes of Marcus, Black Roe and Lima London.

And if you like a little competition, if you sign up to the LRF newsletter during October, you’ll be in with a chance to win a trip to Bangkok with Thai Airways; a weekend in Galicia with Estrella Galicia; or a trip to Jerusalem for the Open Restaurants festival in November.

LRF founder Simon Davis says, “I’m delighted to be partnering with OpenTable to make it even easier this year for guests to access London’s top dining experiences - we have some fantastic menus available. It’s one of my favourite parts of the festival, and this year I think we’ve got the best line-up yet. We’ve been running the festival for the past 11 years, and during this time we’ve seen other cities around the world emerge as impressive culinary hotspots. I’m delighted we’re able to transport our own guests to these cities to explore for themselves.”

All the information on this year’s LRF can be found at

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Aerolite Lyndsay 10-year whisky: A mystery from Islay

I love a good mystery. I love a mystery even more if it involves whisky… a whistery? Whiskery?

Independent bottler Atom Brands has launched a new range of Islay whiskies, and this is the first release from its Character of Islay Whisky Company. Future releases will be single and blended malts representing the unique characteristics of Islay spirits.

The Aerolite Lyndsay - an anagram of ten-year-old Islay - is a peated single malt bottled at 46% abv, and interestingly, it’s from a mysterious unnamed Islay distillery. It’s been matured for at least 10 years in 70% ex-Bourbon barrels, 25% ex-Sherry Spanish oak quarter casks, and a bonus 5% mystery casks.

Islay whisky

Islay is one of the southernmost islands of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Although it’s a very small island, it has nine active distilleries. Islay whisky is known for its smoky, peaty style.

Islay itself has a bit of mystery about it. As well as being tricky to get to, it’s got an interesting, varied and rugged landscape. To the south of the island, you’ve got Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, which epitomise the Islay style with their salty, peaty, smokiness.

To the north of the island, you’ve got Bunnahabhain and Jura, which have both used and not used peat over the years, as well as Bruichladdich, which is typically unpeated (except for a couple of big hitters in recent times).

And then there’s Caol Ila which mostly produces fragrantly smoky whiskies, but spends part of the year making unpeated whisky, Kilchoman - which only opened in 2005 - and Bowmore, with its typically fruity, smoky whiskies.

Islay is also home to one of the most famous ‘lost’ producers. Port Ellen closed in 1983, but its whiskies are still incredibly sought after today. Which one could it be from?

Less mysterious about the Aerolite Lyndsay is the packaging. It’s quite basic - not in a bad way - and keeps things real, stating ‘believe what you will’, bringing the focus back to the whisky itself.

Filling your nose with this stuff transports you to the Hebrides. It’s rugged, salty, peaty and smoky. Add a few drops of water and you open up some sweeter notes too. On the palate, straightaway you get a burst of rugged coastal smokiness, but there’s some sweetness in there as well. It tastes like a trip to a stormy, dramatic seaside. The finish lingers for a little while with a woody smokiness, and some spice.

Overall, Aerolite Lyndsay covers quite a few aspects of a ‘typical’ Islay peated whisky. It might not be the most complex whisky I’ve ever sampled, but it’s tasty, and incredibly drinkable, with a reasonable price. I just had to keep drinking to see if I could work out where it was from.

It looks like the Aerolite Lyndsay won’t be the only mystery release from the company, with future releases exploring ‘a unique personality based on stories, legends and experiences associated with the island and its people.’

Aerolite Lyndsay costs £44.95 a bottle, so well priced for an exciting Christmas present, and is available from Master of Malt.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Darling House party bar: pillow-filled bath tub, 'push for prosecco' and butterflies in the library

I sometimes miss being a teenager and going to house parties, seeing what interesting concoctions you could try from someone’s parent’s booze cupboard, hanging out in the kitchen…

Well, a new bar in London could see you reliving those days, but in considerably plusher surroundings.

Darling House is the latest work from Darling & Edge, the theatrical set designers behind some of London’s coolest, wildest and most unusual immersive experiences (Alice’s Adventures Underground, Gingerline’s Grand Expedition etc.).

Their latest space is above Hello Darling restaurant in Waterloo, and is definitely not a normal bar. You enter through a painting (perhaps not a particularly new concept in London, but unless you know what’s behind it you genuinely wouldn’t spot it was a secret door), and you’ve got the run of six rooms, featuring a pillow-filled bathtub, library and five-foot tiger head coming out of one of the walls.

The space takes up two floors to create an ongoing house party:

Lounge: Striped like a Big Top tent, and casually featuring a giant tiger head on the wall.
Library: Lots of books, lots of butterflies
Lounge/bedroom: This is in a ‘30s style, with sofa seating and hand-painted flowers decorating the walls.
Kitchen: As the song goes, you will always find me in the kitchen at parties. This one features chandeliers and marble countertops.
Bedroom: There’s a four-poster bed (feel free to lounge but those sheets are bolted down), and pampas grass all over the walls.
Bathroom: Chill in the pillow-filled tub with a cocktail. Perfect.
Hallway: Sicilian lemons everywhere.

The bar is hidden in a cupboard near where you come in, with a bartender on hand to mix you up a little something. Much more pleasant than trusting your pal to dig out some 80s vermouth from the back of the shelf.

We know everybody loves a ‘push for prosecco’ button, so naturally there’s one hidden in Darling House. Push the brass doorbell in the hallway, and reveal a hidden magnum.

Each room also has its own speaker system, so you can plug in your own music and have a different playlist in each room. Up to 60 people can party the night away in Darling House, and the whole place is available to hire for private parties.

No washing up, and you can go to bed whenever you want!

Find out more.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Gallo super premium wine dinner at Boisdale

Gallo super premium wine Boisdale dinner

The only thing you might know about Gallo wine is the mass market White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Cab Sav and Merlot you’ve likely drunk with friends or at a barbecue. Or perhaps you know the Barefoot wine brands? That was all I knew about Gallo wines anyway. But oh my, how surprised I was to learn there’s a whole other world out there: Gallo super premium.

It turns out Gallo owns a huge number of wine brands, and even more so after a $1.7bn deal to buy 30 others from Constellation Wines earlier in 2019.

But this is about the premium end of Gallo’s offering. You may be surprised to know you won’t see a Gallo label anywhere near any of these wines. I asked Gallo’s head of fine wine for EMEA, Edouard Baijot, MW (Master of Wine) – and one of only eight French MWs! – if the company had considered labelling the wines as Gallo, but apparently it didn’t resonate from a marketing perspective.

The tasting was part of a US vs Scotland dinner at Boisdale, Mayfair: an intense battle over which country offers the best lobster and the best steak, fought out in rowdy, boys club surroundings. 

Gallo super premium wine Boisdale dinner

We started the evening with several glasses of J Vineyards & Winery Cuvée 20 Brut, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. A classic blend of champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir – this sparkler tastes like the California summer. It’s bright and round and soft, with a delightful citrussy creaminess. As lovely as it is however, I think most UK consumers would baulk at paying champagne prices for a Californian fizz, not taking quality or taste or anything else into account.

Then the battle began. We were presented with two halves of a lobster: native Hebridean vs New Jersey Atlantic, pairing with Orin Swift Mannequin Chardonnay 2014, California. We weren’t allowed to confer and had to vote for our favourites. The Scottish lobster won out, but being the terrible person I am, I preferred the US lobster. It was sweeter, and meatier. The first faux pas of the evening.

The wine matched up to the meatiness of the lobster. It’s certainly a punchy white, at 15% ABV. It’s a beautiful pale gold colour, with so much going on. On the nose you get vanilla, lemon, a light oakiness, with floral notes too. Sharp-sweet lemon on the palate with some grapefruit, and a rich, long finish.

Gallo super premium Boisdale dinner

Two wines for round two, and the food battle intensified: Black Angus USDA prime vs Dry Aged Buccleuch Scottish grass-fed ribeye. As the wine was flowing, so were the strong opinions… 

Another Orin Swift wine. This time, the Abstract 2016. So. Fruity. Cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and a smoky meatiness that was the perfect match with the steak. Smooth and long.

The second red, and absolute favourite wine of the evening (well, until the impromptu second tasting anyway) was the Louis M. Martini Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon 2016. Absolutely my kind of wine. Unsubtle, big, rich, and lip-smackingly delicious. Blackcurrant, dark plum, herbs. So full-bodied, with well-structured tannins, but also balanced, with a finish that just goes on and on. Lovely now, but even lovelier in a few years. I will dream of this wine.

On the steak front, Scotland beat the US hands down, with only one vote for the US.

Gallo super premium Boisdale dinner

The conversation turned to cheese, with Ranald Macdonald, younger of Clanranald, and managing director of Boisdale declaring that Britain makes the best cheese in the world. The look from Edouard Baijot could have melted a vintage cheddar.

The wine we finished the evening with was the MacMurray Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Gris 2016, Sonoma County. This wine had some incredibly rich aromas and a fruit forward character, full of baked apple and peach. This tasted great at the dinner, but will likely taste even better in a few years.

The battle was all but forgotten about at this point in the evening, but it looks like the UK won hands down.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

A wine lover's guide to the Douro Valley

Recently I went to Portugal for a holiday. At least that was my cover story to my wife. The truth was that I wanted to visit the legendary wine-producing area of the Douro Valley and I needed an excuse to go! I wrote a piece recently about my experiences visiting the city of Porto (or Oporto in Portuguese) which you can check out by following this LINK.

In this post I am going to share my experiences and recommendations from my trip up the Douro river to where the magic happens. 

Setting and Geography

What makes Douro region special?

The most important aspect for the region is the Serra do Marão mountain range which stops the rain clouds and cool Atlantic air. This helps to create a micro-climate on the other side of the mountain range. There is a common phrase used to explain the climate of the Douro: “they have nine months of winter and three months of hell”. Essentially, you have a quite comfortable and temperate climate for most of the year and then in the summer it gets a little ridiculous. We were there at the end of May, but the temperatures were already hitting the early thirties… 

The Port-producing area of the Douro is divided into three sub-regions as you can see from the diagram to the left. The Baixo Corgo (or “below Corgo”) is the closest region to the coast and to the mountain range, hence it is the wettest and coolest area which means that it is not quite ideally suited for top-quality port. Next along is the Cima Corgo where many of the finest ports are produced as the temperatures are warmer and the amount of rain is just enough to promote growth, but not too much. Furthest inland is the pancake-flat Douro Superior area, which borders Spain on its eastern side, where temperatures in the summer regularly touch the mid-forties and the levels of rain are very low. This area tends to be used for the production of red table wines.

As the whole area is a valley that is created by the river Douro running through it (cue everyone remembering back to geography lessons…), the whole area is blessed with many beautiful views with dramatic backdrops of precipitous vineyards ranging up from the crystal-clear blue river. I have been fortunate that I have visited quite a few beautiful places in the world; but the Douro is now firmly embedded as one of the most stunning places that I have ever seen. Be prepared for some wonderful pictures in the rest of this post…!      

Getting there

There are various ways that you can get to the Douro Valley. A lot of people drive from Porto, but I have been told that the roads are pretty windy and tricky and not altogether a pleasant driving experience as the roads can be very windy with some fairly precipitous drops over the edge. As such you are better off letting the train take the strain - we took a train from Porto Camphana station (one of the most beautiful train stations in the world - see picture) to Peso da Regua which is the beginning of the main part of the Douro Valley in the Baixo Corgo sub-region. Word of advice here; you can’t book the tickets for this train online in advance, you have to book them in person at the station (although you can book them for subsequent days at the station). Also, the tickets that you buy don’t have a reserved seat and this is a popular train so make sure that you arrive early on the day that you want to travel. Particularly if you want to secure a seat on the right-hand side of the train (in the direction of travel) so that you get the best views of the valley.

The train journey starts out like any regular regional journey, but after an hour or so the line starts to wend its way along the north bank of the Douro river, which gives rise to some pretty special views. The line continues going up the river and many people continue up to Pinhão which really is the heart of the Douro region.

The other option that is worth considering when planning your journey that a lot of people favour is to take a boat. This is again a nice pleasant option as the river is normally very calm and it affords you plenty of opportunities to take in the wonderful views that make the Douro Valley such a special place to visit.

Places to Visit

So, enough of the admin – it’s time to tell you about the Port! We visited three different Port Houses and enjoyed them all tremendously. 



Our first visit was to one of the region’s most famous names: Dow’s Quinta da Bomfim, which is walkable from Pinhão station and therefore is a very accessible place to visit. Dow’s is a part of the Symington Family Estate, which contains such illustrious houses as Graham’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Vesúvio. Dow’s is the driest and spiciest brand in their portfolio, which suits me as I wanted to try port wines across the taste spectrum.

The vineyard and tasting centre are set amongst a backdrop of the most splendid scenery. Our tasting was held in a room with a jaw-dropping view over the south bank of the river, which all helped to make the tasting experience even more special. 

We tasted a few of their table wines (2018 Altano Branco, crisp and dry; 2015 Quinta Do Ataide, nice and supple; and the 2016 Quinta do Vesúvio, a star in the making, intense damson and plum notes), but the main event was going to be tasting their ports – naturally!

We tried the Dow’s 10yo and 20yo Tawnies. We concluded that we preferred the 10yo as it had a lovely caramel and treacle nose and featured tremendous precision. I also particularly enjoyed trying the Dow’s LBV 12yo, which had a fruity, sweet nose with a lovely balance to the wine and a not-overly sweet taste on the palate.

The star for me, though, was trying vintage port from Quinta Do Vesúvio, where grapes are still foot-trodden in the traditional style to this day! We tried the 1995 which had a remarkably dark colour in the glass. The wine itself was incredibly decadent and rich with some sweetness, but the main notes were of deep, rich chocolate and menthol/eucalyptus, which gave it a freshness to counteract all the decadence! Incredibly long finish of two minutes plus. I had no option but to buy a bottle of this one – it is drinking wonderfully now but will get even better over the next few years.



Our next visit was to Sandeman’s at Quinta do Seixo. This vineyard is about a 10 minute drive from Pinhão (it is walkable but it’s quite a climb to get there, so would take over an hour and quite a lot of energy!). The situation of Quinta do Seixo is phenomenal, with some of the most beautiful views over the valley and the northern banks of the river that we saw. The winery and tourist centre are also both incredibly well done, with a lot of money having been spent on them. Sandeman’s are one of the larger producers of port, with over 2m litres of production per year.

I enjoyed trying a glass of the Sandeman’s 20yo Tawny which sits a light caramel in glass, with a slightly floral nose with touches of honey. On the palate it was nicely sweet without being too sweet, there were nice flavours of orange and a little vanilla evident too. I will always remember this glass, as through the wonders of technology it was here that I had a WhatsApp video call with my brother so that I could see the last five minutes of the Play-Off final to see Aston Villa get promoted back to the Premiership. I was able to raise a glass to the team in the most tremendous of settings – a special moment!


Our last visit was to Churchill’s at Quinta da Grisha. This was definitely a place that you had to drive to as it is much more remote compared to the last two locations, with it being a 30 – 40 minute drive from Pinhão through some rather windy and “adventurous” roads. Once more, however, the journey was worth it as you get stunning views over the valley from the south bank at a serious elevation. Churchill’s actually have a residence at the Quinta that you can stay at, which is certainly something that I will be looking to do when I next visit the area. The residence comes with a swimming pool that you can chill in whilst taking in the views over the valley – bliss!

Churchill’s production is at about 0.5m litres / year, of which it is split 50:50 between table wines and port wines. Here because I had already done a comprehensive tasting in Porto of their ports I focussed on their table wines. Some of the highlights for me were: their 2013 Touriga Nacional which had a fragrant, floral nose with some black cherry notes and a good, well balanced tannic structure, which combined sweet fruit notes and some darker, mocha like flavours. The 2016 Talhao 8 (also Touriga Nacional) had a massive power and intensity to the wine, on tasting it had huge concentration and structure with bags of tannins counterbalanced with acidity. This wine will really open up in a few years’ time. The 2012 Quinta Da Gricha had bags of rather brooding fruit (black cherries and blackberries), it was nice and supple and ready to drink right now.

As a little surprise, we were given the opportunity to try the newly-declared 2017 Churchill’s Vintage Port, which is being sold now en primeur. The nose was particularly concentrated, with a deep blueberry profile. On tasting what was noticeable was that the wine was already showing its balance, it was not overly sweet and was already holding its own as a pleasant drinking wine. This wine will suit both drinking young, but also benefit from cellaring and holding onto.

Places to Stay 

There are plenty of places to stay in and around the main centres of Peso da Regua and Pinhão, but we opted to stay a little off the beaten track in a B&B called Quinta da Portela, which is just near the charming town of Lamego, about 30 minutes drive from Peso da Regua. Set high up in the hills this B&B is set in a working vineyard that produces both table (still and sparkling) and port wines. Indeed, we had carafes of port wine (tawny and ruby) waiting for us upon arrival in our apartment, which were replenished throughout our stay – bliss! We were taken around the vineyards in the owner’s 4x4 and given a tour, which was fascinating. Their production is small (only 11ha of land), but they are justifiably proud of the work that they do. It also features a rather spectacular swimming pool with views over the vineyards, which we certainly made sure we took advantage of.

Each morning, the B&B staff put on an exceptional breakfast spread featuring fresh fruit, bread, cold meats, cheese, cereals and more. This really was a lovely way to start each day – I even decided on some days to start the day the Porto way, with a glass of Port to accompany my breakfast; it’s supposed to be good for you…!

We had a mini-tasting of their wines, including the 2018 Ardinia Douro DOC Premium (Rabigato, Arinto and Viosinho) which had a nice rich, buttery nose with some vanilla flavours giving that tell-tale oak indication. This was a very pleasant, easy to drink white – just what we needed after a hard-day’s tasting!  

You can find Quinta Da Portela on

If you fancy something that is going to really going to give a once in a life-time trip then you could always stay in a hotel room that has been made from an over-sized wine barrel, like the ones at Quinta da Pacheca. These looked to be a lot of fun and I definitely want to stay in one – unfortunately they were all booked up when I was visiting; I’ve been told that you have to book them up well in advance, as you can probably understand!    

Right - who's up for a trip to the Douro then??