featuring 'French Mediterranean Wine' and BYOB restaurant reviews:
Richard Mark James' wine, food and travel blog.

05 March 2019

The Hoose Bistro, Belfast

Chocolate orange délice @ Hoose.
(No I wasn't drinking gin, the Hendrick's
bottle makes a tasteful candle holder.) 
This is the first in a new 'chapter' on this admittedly wine-centered blog, which will feature 'reviews' (for want of a better word) of recommendable restaurants where you can bring your own wine, either because they are unlicensed or the owner is flexible / enlightened. The focus initially will be eateries in Belfast and North Down, for no better reason than that's where I work and live, although the grand plan is to 'roll out the guide' (to use the marketing speak) to further afield, as and when other places are discovered where you can experiment a bit with wine and food without being ripped off.
Moving swiftly on then to The Hoose Bistro in east Belfast, lurking just up the hill from Holywood Arches on the way up to Ballyhackamore (the beginning stretch, more or less, of an increasingly happening food and drink scene), we have started going back again after a glitch a few months ago, when four of us felt the meals on a particular night weren't great compared to previous occasions. However, I'm pleased to say that Hoose is back on form and has recently introduced a revamped day and evening menu combined. This retains the very good value two courses for £16 idea, but offers a wider and better choice overall where you can upgrade to a different starter or main if you wish, each priced individually (and not particularly steep à la carte style prices either) rather than imposing supplements on these dearer dishes to the menu price as before.
For instance, I thought the 'Pan-fried duck breast, duchess potato, burnt butter cabbage, tenderstem broccoli, red wine & blackberry gravy' at £14 was reasonably priced compared to elsewhere; and I loved the sauce idea, which too often is too sweet with duck. I took along a half-bottle of Tesco's Finest Valpolicella Ripasso (£6-ish? - see note in my previous 'wines of the mo' post) that worked well together. Hoose's sea bass dishes are usually a worthwhile choice as well.
Although the selection on the £16 menu is more limited nowadays, it does still include e.g. Hoose's consistent favourite main, 'beer battered Portavogie scampi, triple cooked chips, homemade tartare and lemon wedge'. And tasty pork and chicken liver parfait or usually superior soups of the day for starters. Desserts always were on top of the two-course deal or à la carte price and cost £5.95 each, except their rather yummy (and fancy-looking too: see my crap photo above) chocolate & orange délice at £6.25 (worth the extra 30p for sure!). This three-storey bistro (in an old converted slightly camped-up townhouse) also excels at classic puds such as sticky toffee pudding, inventive cheesecake (changes quite often) and substantial raspberry & white chocolate waffles.
In addition, there's a brunch and sandwich menu, the bargain special Monday night club (basically the same two-course menu but for £12! You'll definitely need to book as it gets busy apparently), Sunday roast menu etc. They charge £2 per person corkage on the wine you bring; and offer a creative cocktail list if that lights your fire (probably would).
52 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast BT4 3EL. Phone 02890 658216 /
Open: Monday 5pm-9pm, Tuesday-Sunday 12pm-9pm (so most of the time really!).

Coming soon reviews on - in Ballyhack: Good Fortune Chinese, The Rajput Indian; Café Essence and Bangla in Bangor; The French Village bistro, Botanic and more...

07 February 2019

Winter 'wines of the moment'

This long overdue mini-feature (there's no money in a wine blog so that's the unfortunate reality) takes a look at a gaggle of loosely recommended wines, which happened to have been bought, tasted, consumed and enjoyed over the last couple of months or so with a variety of food. There's a mix of themes here, from less obvious retailer offerings to favourite and more obscure grape varieties.
Lidl appears to be maintaining their penchant for buying special batches of rather good Italian white wines in particular, such as: Vermentino Toscana 2017 'Sassi del Mare' (12.5% abv) - Very tasty dry white made from the star Med white variety Vermentino, offering rich fruit and zingy mouth-feel at the same time. £8.99
Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2017 'Corte alle Mura' (13% abv) - Another sexy V grape from Tuscany, it's a nutty aromatic and zesty example of this now quite well-known white. £6.99
'Albente' 2017 Feudi di San Gregorio (13% abv) - A new-ish 'brand' I think coming from this consistently deliverable winery based in the hills east of Naples and shaped by the local Falanghina variety. Also £6.99 (seems a good price point for Aldi's better wines). All three are suitably tasty matched with various fish, pork or vegetable dishes.
Ribolla Gialla 2017 (12% abv) from Trevenezie in north-eastern Italy - there's a little of this rare local variety grown over the border in Slovenia too - which is elegant, light and aromatic with banana notes and zingy dry finish (£6.49).
There's another new dry Italian white from the Campania region on the way to stores apparently, a Falanghina del Sannio priced at, you guessed it £6.99. Lidl often has a tempting selection of Alsace whites (a mixture of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and sometimes Gewurztraminer) on and off over the year, displayed with their other posher bottles in those stacked wooden boxes; perfect with Indian or Thai dishes (not vindaloo though...).
Talking of Riesling, there's also an enticing example, one of their Winemaker's Selection range, in store for £7.99 from Australia's Clare Valley, 2017 vintage and a refreshing 11% abv although still fairly dry, zesty and lively with lime notes and attractive 'oily' Riesling aromas. I was quite impressed, for the money, by a one-off purchase Portuguese red from Lidl too, a 2016 Douro Reserva for, drum roll, £6.99; this bottle wasn't the same one as on their site, with a black label at £5.99, as I'm sure it had a white label. Made from the Port grape varieties but as a 'table' wine, this was fairly smooth and powerful (14-ish% abv) with attractive maturing fruit tones and subtle oak touches. Good with lamb steak.
Which leads on perfectly to some other flavoursome reds that should make you smile (no warranty provided):
Bellingham Pinotage 2017, Stellenbosch, South Africa (14% abv) - Structured and powerful needing a little air to open up (tasted better the next day actually), this conjures up those Pinotage 'sweet and sour' characters offering some lush fruit and oak countered by a 'crunchier' side. Great buy at £8 on offer at Tesco (usually over £11). Bellingham's Chardonnay is recommended as well, for fans of a richer yet lightly toasty style (same offer price).
Origin Pure 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon 'Organic wine, no sulphur added' (13.5% abv) - Dense and fruity youthful red style also from South Africa, this has some dry tannin firmness yet chunky black fruit finish. €7.99 Lidl Ireland.
Pinot Noir Gran Reserva 2017, Valle de Aconcagua, Chile (13.5% abv) - One of Sainsbury's often very good 'Taste the Difference' range, in this case made by immensely reliable winery Vina Errázuriz, this Pinot won't disappoint fans of the variety offering lovely aromatic sweet/savoury red berry/cherry fruit with truffle tones and soft juicy finish. £7 on offer, £8 usually. Try it with calf's liver. Another worthwhile 2017 Pinot Noir from Sainsbury's 'TTD' school, also costing £8, hails from the Rheinhessen area in Germany and is a tad lighter (12.5% abv) and fresher in style with similar attractive Pinot characters though.
And guess what - there's yet another very enjoyable lighter red wearing the JS 'Taste the Difference' colours, this time a 2017 Zweigelt, apparently 'now the most planted red grape in Austria', made by top winemaker Markus Huber, which delivers lovely spicy cherry flavours and reasonable mouth weight nevertheless (13% abv): on offer for £8 (down from £9). Back to Tesco's 'Finest' label, there's a not lighter Valpolicella Ripasso 2015 (13.5% abv) made by the Cantina di Valpantena from local grapes Corvina, Rondinella and Corvinone, which delivers gorgeous Italian dried cherry, berry and liquorice fruit with balsamic edges: a hearty winter food red. £9 on promo / £11 a bottle, in half-bottles as well at £6.99 I think.
Marks & Spencer's delicious Val Rhona Sparkling Brut is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by South African fizz maestro Graham Beck, which was briefly a bargain at a tenner (used to be £15, maybe has now been delisted though): not quite as toasty, rich and sexy as the rosé version, but this fine SA Champagne-style is complex and full of flavour. From South Africa as well at Marks is the fairly sumptuous Honeycomb Journey's End Chardonnay 2017 by Lourensford wine cellar in the Stellenbosch region, which deftly balances ripe fruit, creaminess and very subtle toasted edges. Leading Lebanese winery Château Musar has created a label for Marks called Levantine, a lush soft and maturing blend of 80% Cinsault and 20% Grenache produced in the Bekaa Valley. It's quite expensive, towards £20 a bottle (?), and might be out of stock at the moment, but look out for it if you're searching for something special and different.
Coming back to whites, I actually never stopped loving Chardy, and here are no less than four French ones worth trying especially when on offer as these were...
Bourgogne Chardonnay 2017 (13% abv) from the Buxy co-op winery at Marks (£8 / £10) - a good all-rounder with different Chinese dishes actually.
Chablis 2017 by Brocard (13% abv) was recently on promo at a mere £7 at Sainsbury's - rare to be able to buy Chabbers for less than a tenner nowadays - but it all disappeared quickly, surprise surprise. Fairly classic steely style of this unoaked Chardy but a touch riper than usual.
Pouilly-Fuissé 2017 Louis Max (13% abv) - buttery and oaty but not oaky, pretty classy wine especially for £8 at JS! The price appears to have tumbled from £19 and, so far, not many seem to have noticed. Being cleared maybe?
Louis Jadot Macon Villages 2016 (12.5% abv) and 2017 (13% abv) - You might still find both vintages at Tesco: the 17 is a little fuller, the 16 a bit more mature obviously, but both are tasty examples of unoaked French Chardy, also from the south of Burgundy (£7.50 / £9).
Returning to South Africa, one of Tesco's 'Finest' and/or 'Fair Trade' ranges (the label appears to have changed recently so not entirely sure which) that's eminently quaffable, and a little different from Sauvignon or Chardy, is their Chenin Blanc 2018 (12.5% abv) sourced from the Breede River Valley region (£6 / £7). And JS stocks Stellenrust Chenin 2018, which is fuller (13.5% abv) yet still zesty and honeyed; very nice with fish and chips (£7.50 / £8.50).
Staying at Sainsbury's and back to Germany, they stock a 'modern' Pinot Blanc 2017 from the Pfalz region (13% abv) made by Weinkellerei Klostor, which might surprise with its fairly full-bodied style although is aromatic and lively. A dearer classic German Riesling appears to be on the clearance list at JS, Dr. Loosen's 2015 Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett, a traditional off-to-medium-dry single vineyard Riesling delivering a delicate 8% alcohol level yet loads of enticing aged Riesling character and still pretty fresh acidity underneath: actually a surprising match for a chillied king prawn dish, sag aloo and cauliflower curry sides. £10.50 but worth it.
Finally, out of several good dry rosés I've tried recently, it's the Santa Julia Argentinian Malbec rosé at Sainsbury's that I remember, which nicely balances fruit, crispness and weight. Good all-rounder with Chinese or Indian food, and any kind of fish. As well as the succulent Rioja rosado Faustino VII 2018 (13% abv), which Asda has on promotion at the moment for £6: very appealing mix of zestiness, creamy red berry fruit and a bit of mouth-feel too; it was a decent match for a spicy pasta Bolognese. Reminds you that northern Spain is one of the best places to look for good rosé.

04 November 2018

Germany: Saale-Unstrut region (and more).

The Saale-Unstrut wine area lies in eastern Germany roughly between Leipzig and Erfurt along the banks of those two eponymous rivers: most of the vineyards are actually in the state of Saxony. Production here is small compared to Germany's other wine regions with less than 800 hectares of vines, often on steep terraced hillsides around the towns of Naumburg, Freyburg (see photos left and below) and Laucha for example. About a quarter of the various grape varieties planted are red, alongside a fair amount of Riesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Grigio), Silvaner, Muller-Thurgau et al. Here's half-a-dozen recommended bottles enjoyed on a recent stay in Naumburg (nice old town) and Berlin (awesome city).
Winzerhof Gussek 2017 Rosé trocken Gutswein (12.5% abv) - Blend of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Portugieser and Blauer Zweigelt. By the way, "Germany is the world's third largest producer of Pinot Noir..." according to Attractive crisp 'French style' rosé with light berry fruits and fresh finish. €8
2017 Blanc de Noirs (12% abv) from the same family winery in Naumburg - Dry white made from 100% Spätburgunder, giving a fairly complex nutty and yeast-lees edged wine underlined by crisp length. €9.50
Winzervereinigung Freyburg-Unstrut 2016 Dornfelder trocken (winemaker Kathleen Romberg, 12% abv) - Despite its very deep colour, this red made from the Dornfelder variety has supple mouth-feel with lots of enticing peppery wild fruit flavours. €5.99
Weingut Dr. Hage Traminer trocken Gutswein (12.5% abv) - Lovely aromatic off-dry white with floral lychee notes, quite rounded palate with subtle exotic fruit then fresher finish. €4.99
Rotkäppchen Sekt Rosé trocken (11% abv) - This sparkling winery is located in Freyburg in the Saale-Unstrut region, but the wine used as a base to the recipe comes from a much wider area (they produce big volumes I think, to keep up with the Germans' insatiable appetite for bubbly no doubt). Medium-dry really but nice crisp and refreshing acidity underlines this fruity and lightly yeasty rosé fizz. €3.99
Jochen Uebel 2016 Chardonnay trocken, Pfalz (13% abv) - This wine estate in the Pfalz region appears to make some good Chardonnay, this one is their unoaked version offering plenty of ripe citrus fruit enhanced by attractive buttery flavours and fresh bite. €8

There's a slideshow of more wine trail photos from this trip on my Wine Education Service Facebook page HERE.

14 October 2018

Belfast wine tastings and courses autumn 2018 to spring 2019

Updated November 2018:
The Wine Education Service NI (that's me) program of wine tasting courses starting this autumn is (drum roll)...
Saturday 2 February 2019 - France and Italy workshop.
Saturday 30 March 2019 - Grape to Glass workshop.
Thursday evenings 25 April to 23 May 2019 inclusive - Essential Wine Tasting five-week course.
Prices: £90 for a Saturday wine workshop including lunch, course manual, tasting samples (of at least a dozen diverse high-quality wines) and glass of wine with lunch and tuition. Runs 10.45 to 16.45 approx with breaks and lunch served in the room.
EWT 5-week course: £125 including tasting samples (six or so wines per session), course manual and tuition. Timing: 18.45 to 20.30 approx.
Wine tasting glasses supplied free for each event, although you're welcome to buy your own set (usually six in a box) and bring along. Unfortunately, WES NI does not keep a supply of tasting glasses for sale.
Venue: Lord Lucan Room, McHugh's bar & restaurant, 29-31 Queen's Square, Belfast BT1 3FG.
For further information and online booking, please visit the Wine Education Service website, send an email via the contact form on this blog or check out the WES NI Facebook page

Wine tutor RMJ tasting at Domaine Madeloc (Banyuls-sur-mer, France), pretending to be serious (slightly).

WES terms and conditions apply, which will be emailed with your invoice or can be viewed on this blog HERE. Over 18s only. Wine Education Service NI does not sell wine - our wine tastings and classes are designed to be purely educational and informal while focusing on getting more enjoyment out of tasting wine; we source high quality representative samples from a variety of different retailers.

31 July 2018

Madeira: Henriques & Henriques and D'Oliveiras

Henriques & Henriques wine cellar is found just up the hill in the touristy fishing village of Câmara de Lobos a few kilometres to the west of Funchal, which is one of the main grape-growing areas on the island. These mostly small blocks of vineyard are strung along dangerous terraces lying above miniature banana plantations and steep market gardens, and offer a spectacularly dramatic backdrop to the town whether approaching from the coastal path to the east or staggeringly winding and elevated cliff-edged roads to the west as you descend into its vast awesome natural amphitheatre.
The Henriques family were already longstanding landowners in this area supplying grapes to Madeira houses in Funchal before setting up their own cellar in 1850, Maria Aguiar informed me on a trip there last month. By 1925, the company was known as Henriques & Henriques named after the two brothers, Francisco Eduardo and João Joaquim, who expanded the business focusing on their own production and especially for export. Traditionally, the main markets were the UK and US, although Japan for example among others has now become very important. Germany continues to take the largest volume of Madeira wines, but this is mostly entry-level quality: H&H's three year old sweet wine is still the biggest seller in Europe. The last of the Henriques family involved in the business passed away without heirs in 1969 when it was bought out by the remaining partners.
In 1994, H&H moved location from Funchal to the new ageing cellar, offices and shop in Câmara de Lobos; and a modern winemaking facility was also built nearby at their Quinta Grande property which was replanted to become their principal vineyard covering ten hectares. This lies at 600-700 metres altitude where the micro-climate can be cool and misty, so the vines were trellised using contemporary techniques to create better canopy exposure. The minimum potential alcohol content of grapes only has to be nine percent (by volume) by law though (remembering that the final wines are fortified anyway), with picking taking place as early as mid August but sometimes lasting into October progressing from vineyards by the sea and working upwards to the high ground.
H&H doesn't grow the island's predominant (red) grape variety, Tinta Negra, at Quinta Grande, as it can easily be purchased from other growers; the focus here is on the so-called noble white varieties as well as the very rare Terrantez grape (maybe from northern Portugal originally). "We are the largest producer (relatively speaking), but there's very little left," Maria told me. "Some growers are replanting Terrantez because of its premium price." Hence why the winery only makes limited-edition gracefully matured wines from it.
Coming back to H&H's barrel cellar and tasting room in Câmara, the facility houses three storeys for cask ageing. Maria explained that, by removing the bottling plant and other winemaking equipment (now at Quinta Grande), they made room to be able to reassemble those traditional big tuns. They also have their own cooper and workshop there, which you don't see much nowadays, as "barrels are reused for decades so are cleaned and repaired here." At ground level, there are some standard stainless steel vats used for storing base wine and aged wines drawn from cask waiting to be bottled. I spotted three rows of new barrels as well belonging to whisk(e)y distillers sent here for "seasoning." For example, Jameson and Bushmills keep barrels here used for ageing Madeira which are then returned to Ireland (empty obviously).
Speaking in general taste and style terms, although some of the cheaper, less-aged Madeira wines can be perfectly okay, it's definitely worth paying more money for wines aged for ten (or more) years as this is when Madeira gets really interesting and of high quality. Tasting through the Henriques range exemplifies this well (see tasting notes below). By the way, high acidity levels are common in Madeira wines due to a unique combination of climate (never usually that hot, varying cloud cover etc.), volcanic terrain, traditionally-trellised vines (latada or pergola method) planted at altitude on terraces (there is very little 'flat' land on the island) and early picking.
This acid structure partly explains why the so-called dry wines do actually taste quite dry despite containing a relatively large amount of residual sugar (RS), shown here in more readily understandable grams per litre (g/l) rather than degrees Baumé used by Madeira winemakers. And inversely why very sweet wines often don't end up too sickly because of that acidic balance; oxidative ageing characters (the casks are heated in fact and not topped up while some of the contents evaporates) also influence your perception of sweetness and the taste of these wines - those tangy nutty notes in particular - as well as alcohol levels of 19 to 20% abv typical of them being fortified.
More @
There's also some useful facts and figures on this site:

Notes on a selection of Henriques & Henriques wines (unless specified, as in the varietal 'classics', the main grape variety is Tinta Negra):
Monte Seco - The story goes that this wine was created during the Second World War because of a shortage of dry Martini. Manzanilla-esque styling (such as toasted almond aromas) but weightier with a dry and refreshing palate. Tastes much drier than you'd expect with 25 g/l RS, as it's nice and tangy. Good value at €6.50 cellar door.
Rainwater (73 RS) - This 'medium-dry' wine apparently gets its name from someone famously describing Madeira 'as soft as rainwater.' Nuttier walnut tones, again tastes tangy vs sweet, attractive enough easy-going style.
Finest Dry 5 Year Old (51.5 RS) - Richer and more oxidised but definitely drier with roasted almond flavours, more complex and lingering finish. Attractive good-value wine.
Full Rich 3 Year Old (108 RS) - Much browner and sweeter with brown sugar and aged nutty characters, surprisingly well-balanced though.
Full Rich 5 Year Old (111 RS) - More 'madeirised' with caramel and molasses notes, fruitier though with big mouthful and length, more complicated flavours too.
1997 Single Harvest (aged in Bourbon barrels and bottled in 2004/5, 108 RS) - More vanilla and caramel on the nose, rounded and fairly punchy palate, rich although balanced finish despite the power and sweetness with a touch of grip and texture too. A warming Christmas pudding of a wine!
Sercial 10 Year Old Dry (55 RS) - Much fresher nose with citrus and apricot then concentrated tangy almonds on the palate, nice power vs cut, complex long finish. Lovely. €15.50 50cl.
Verdelho 15 Year Old (72 RS) - Candied orange, smoky too, very intense mouth-feel making it taste relatively dry actually, concentrated and rich vs tangy nutty smoky and elegant finish. Delicious too.
2000 Boal Colheita Single Harvest medium-sweet (96 RS) - Coffee and caramelised brown sugar aromas, very lush mouthful vs 'kick' and 'cut', tangy pecan nut flavours linger with warmth; very concentrated big wine, wow. Try with chocolate or coffee and walnut cake, proper vanilla ice cream.
Malvasia 20 Year Old (114 RS) - Very powerful nose with toasted cocoa bean tones, vanilla and treacle, very intense flavours, lingering roasted walnuts, powerful long finish, textured even with rich coating. Wow.
Terrantez 20 Year Old medium-dry (75 RS) - Made from this now rare variety, this is the youngest wine H&H makes from it. Orangey brown colour, very complex aromatic nose, spicy too with roasted almond and hazelnut, again very intense palate with salty tang almost, unusual and long finish with peppery and tangy vs sweetish yet almost bitter dry combo; delicious lingering finish. €53
1898 Solera Verdelho medium-dry (77 RS, bottled in 2008) - A solera (similar to the protracted cask ageing process used for sherry, where wines of different ages are slowly blended together from one level of barrels to another etc.) is normally stopped after ten years and the final wines bottled; this one is kept in cask. It doesn't really look any older than the other wines! Tangy and intense, oaky notes on a rich backdrop cut by unbelievably fresh acidity, very long complex and lingering flavours with an almost dry-tasting flourish. Tastes lively still.
1900 Solera Century Malmsey sweet (123 RS, bottled in 1999) - Deep brown with orangey edges, raisins molasses and candied citrus on the nose, super concentrated and rich but again with fresh cut and power running underneath; lasts forever. What can I say: daft to try and 'score' it or anything as futile!

Pereira D'Oliveira Vinhos is a well-respected 'century-old Madeira house' formed by the merger of five independent family producers and shippers founded between 1820 and 1949. Their pretty old cellar and tasting room (front of building above) is located in the centre of Funchal old town, just up a side street heading up from the Jesuit Church, where you can taste some of their basic range wines for free (charges apply for the dearer wines depending on what you want to try). At the top end, the cellar holds stocks of bottles of old vintages from about 2005 to 1850 (not every year obviously) as far as I could see when I went there last month. Here are a few quick notes then on three of their entry level qualities sampled in situ (all 19% abv):
D'Oliveiras Medium-dry (aged 3 years in cask) - Nice and nutty and smooth on the palate, neither too sweet nor too dry with attractive weight vs tangy finish.
D'Oliveiras Medium-sweet (aged 3 years in cask) - Richer and sweeter with more pecan nut and caramel flavours, has a little 'cut' although it's a bit cloying on its own. Would be nice with cake or ice cream.
D'Oliveiras 5 Year Old sweet - Sweet brown sugar flavours, seems fierier and punchier with roasted walnut and tangy notes, longer and more interesting finish in the end despite the amount of residual sugar.
I brought back a pack of four miniatures of D'Oliveiras' 15 Year Old Madeiras (€14), one of each style, which were on an altogether higher quality level overall. I preferred the Dry and Medium-Dry 15 Year Olds the best with their nutty tangy toasty complexity; the sweetest of this range is still good although correspondingly rich dark and sweet.