with special guest star 'French Mediterranean Wine'.
Richard Mark James' blog: wine, travel, food, BYO restaurants, craft beer, stuff like that...

16 October 2019

Wine Education Service Belfast wine workshops, tastings and courses winter-spring 2020

You can now book these Wine Education Service NI wine workshops, tastings and courses online, scheduled to run from February to May 2020. All delivered with enthusiasm, insight and a sense of humour by wine tutor and blogger Richard Mark James, and held in Belfast city centre. Also available to buy as gift vouchers. Go to the WES Belfast web page for more details and online booking:

Saturday 1 February - French wine workshop £90.
Spend an intensive yet relaxed Saturday on this one-day course exploring the very diverse regions and wines of France, where we'll taste and talk about up to fifteen classic examples from north to south and west to east. Featuring high-quality wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire Valley, Alsace, the Languedoc & Roussillon and the Rhone Valley, each carefully selected from a variety of local and online retail outlets. Price includes all wine tasting samples, lunch with wine and tuition. Timing: 10:30-11.00 meet at the venue with tea & coffee, lunch c.13.00-14.00 and finishing 16:30-17.00 (with breaks). Full details and booking HERE.

Saturday 7 March - Italian wine tasting and lunch £49.
A shorter wine tasting session than the Saturday workshop, but the morning will be spent tasting our way around Italy in all its diversity and glory, where there's always something new or unfamiliar to discover! Including eight well-chosen wines representing most of the 'classic' wine regions and a few lesser-known ones too, followed by lunch with, you've guessed it, a glass of Italian wine. Timing: 10.45 for 11.00 start, around two hours wine tasting and talking about Italy (with a break), then lunch at the venue and finishing by 14.30. More details and booking HERE.

'Essential Wine Tasting' five-week course: Wednesday evenings April 29 to May 27 - £125.
This 5-session introductory wine tasting course covers these topics:
1. Tasting technique; 2. Grape-growing & winemaking; 3. Wines of France; 4. Other European wines; 5. Wines from 'New World' countries. About half-a-dozen representative wine samples tasted each evening with your tutor, course booklet provided.
Timing: 18.00 to 20.00 Wednesdays 29th April, and 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th May. Details and booking HERE.

22 September 2019

Belgium and Netherlands: Bruges, Gent, Rotterdam, Haarlem; beer and eating...

Besides being one of the most awesome (and alas touristy) old cities in Europe, Bruges is home to three (according to tasty breweries as well. The Bourgogne des Flandres brewery backs on to the Dijver river on the south side of the old centre. On the website, their beer is described as a 'red-brown ale' (the English translation obviously), although I remember it being fairly dark but not at all heavy - alcohol content is 5% - with a lovely tangy finish to the richer darker malty side. It's made in the traditional Flemish 'lambic' way, where 'young beer (brewed on site) is blended with a little older (aged for a year in barrels) lambic from Timmermans Brewery' (the parent company in Brussels). This process can I think be compared to how 'reserve' wines are added to younger wines in the production of special cuvée or vintage Champagnes, and indeed this kind of quality beer gains its sparkle from second fermentation in bottle or cask (in this case) like any Champagne or 'traditional' method fizz or 'real' ale. The lambic beer portion is also made by spontaneous or wild ferment courtesy of particular indigenous yeasts, not with added cultured yeasts like most other beer.

The photo above was taken in the spacious courtyard outside Gauthierz brasserie, which is found tucked away not far from the Bourgogne des Flandres brewery heading towards the rail station and is a good spot for enjoying flavoursome beer like this, or Liefmans (pictured below) for instance, away from the madding crowds (the simple menu looks reasonable enough too). By the way, you can find some of my other photos taken in and around Bruges on my Face Book page. Also when 'in Bruges', you might bump into Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in the main square cursing (if you haven't seen the film, then just skip that 'joke' or click on the link to a trailer on You Tube).
Gent (the G pronounced with a clearing of the throat), or Ghent in English I believe or Gant in French, is another must-visit city in Flemish speaking Belgium with a smaller scale of pretty old buildings and canals than Bruges, probably less tourists and a touch rougher around the edges although becoming more gentrified and trendier I suspect. Gent was once home to many breweries apparently, and the craft beer industry is slowly growing again. Gruut is the best known, and for a while the only one, where they use herbs instead of hops I'm told (man); there are a few other beer touring tips on the local tourist site here. Some of my photos taken around the city are here and here too on FB.

Babbels restaurant in Haarlem, a handsome buzzing and surprisingly large town lying west of Amsterdam heading towards the sea, is worth trying for its slightly unusual menu options if you go beyond pasta, pizza, steak etc. I had a tasty duck dish there six months ago (which doesn't now seem to be on the menu on their website), nicely complemented by a delicious bottled dark beer called Imperator made by the Dutch Brand brewery. They produce a wide range of styles from Pilsener, Blond and wheat beer to IPA, Dubbel (kinda like red ale), Porter and the Imperator which is probably somewhere in between style wise. Some inventive fish dishes are served at Babbels too.
Another good dining tip in Haarlem would be the Phang-Nga Bay Thai restaurant (links to info and reviews on Trip Advisor) found a short walk from the town's huge main square. Good value food and portions, and prawns the size of aforementioned square. Can't remember what beer we had with this meal, probably Thai!

Affligem is another well-respected Belgian beer that comes in a full-flavoured Dubbel or 'Double' style among others, as photoed here in Blij café restaurant tucked away in a quiet residential area of central Rotterdam. I quaffed this with some rather nice mussels with three sauces, tasty chips (of course) and salad. Another good choice here is a very well-made mushroom and truffle risotto, even if a little light on quantity (why do places do that with veggie dishes, give you less?!). Desserts included a weighty yet gooey chocolate number and a classic example of Dutch apple cake. If you're looking to stay the night in Rotterdam, the very central Days Inn Hotel is good value including an excellent breakfast.

A Liefmans al fresco, as mentioned above in Bruges.
Other Belgian beer favourites include Duvel in its two or three styles, Leffe blonde and brune, Tremens, Chimay, Orval and on and on...

30 July 2019

Ballyhackamore Belfast BYO: Rajput and Good Fortune restaurants (with wine tips to match dishes).

Ballyhackamore in east Belfast - known locally as 'Ballysnack' thanks to no shortage of eateries and cafés along this busy stretch of Upper Newtownards Road - is home to at least two recommended restaurants, where you can bring your own wine. The Rajput has become something of an Indian food institution, and I've always found the quality to be very consistent and the service top notch. It has also become one of the dearer Indian restaurants in Belfast, although no more than some fancy places with arty pretensions where you don't get enough food for the money. Whereas, even if the prices have edged up a little at Rajput, you always get good portions of tasty and varied dishes.
A few favourites from their menu include: Lamb Monposond, which I haven't seen elsewhere, featuring a good amount of fenugreek; or Lamb Jal-Jal if you like a hotter sauce. I don't often recommend red wine with curry simply because it doesn't usually work (clash of tannin vs chilli etc.), but Los Cardos Malbec from Argentina (SuperValu) photoed here wouldn't be a bad match with its soft berry fruits; or try the Clos des Batuts Cahors (made from Malbec too, at certain Lidl stores) featured in my previous 'wines of the week' post below. The Rajput serves up a nicely prepared example of the ubiquitous King Prawn Biryani as well, or an impressive Tandoori King Prawn Main: suitable wine choices for these would be Cono Sur Bicicleta Gewurztraminer from Chile (Tesco), also recommended below, or the 2018 Albarino from star Languedoc winery Laurent Miquel (Dunnes stores). And either of Rajput's spinach side dishes (my favourite veg for curry sauces) are lovely and generous (unlike some places where they seem to think you'll want less when having vegetarian dishes), in addition to pretty classic crispy Onion Bhajis.
More details on or - restaurant prices are about 50% more than the takeaway menu shown on there. Photo below: lamb saag with bombay spuds.

I find rosé fizz a solid all-rounder with spicy food, whether Indian, Thai or Chinese. Such as Tesco's good-value Cava Rosado Brut again reviewed below; or for a posher option, check out your local Asda to see if they still have any half-bottles left of the sumptuous Nicolas Feuillate Champagne rosé, which was reduced to clear I think and quite a bargain (£6 or £7?).
Either of these wines would be a sensible choice to take to the Good Fortune Chinese restaurant in Ballyhack (Eastleigh Drive BT4) to complement a variety of different dishes, and where they don't even charge you corkage. Another consistently good eatery, in fact probably better then many Chineses in Belfast and beyond, and it's reasonably priced. A couple of starters enjoyed here a few times are their duck spring rolls and salt and chilli squid. For mains, they have a wider selection of duck dishes than usual (often too many with sweet sauces) including spicy ones like Szechuan, piled with decent pieces of duck breast and not too much fat. Good Fortune's king prawn Thai curries are all flavoursome too (red, green, yellow), and I love their wok-fried noodles as a side; alternatively, the chilli chips are something else!
Pinot Noir works generally well with duck: try one of Lidl's 'winemaker selection' range, the Marlborough Pinot Noir 2018 from New Zealand, which isn't the most spectacular version but certainly value for money and fairly light offering an attractive mix of sweet and savoury fruit. Or any of the PNs recommended in the post below, especially the two Germans. And what about the maturing smoky concentrated Domaine de Lavail 2016 old vine Carignan (M&S) from the Roussillon in southern France, an ample pairing for rich poultry dishes. A good quality unoaked Chardonnay is a delicious and arguably more 'serious' alternative to Sauvignon blanc with Chinese: a couple of favourites sampled recently include Aldi's lovely Exquisite Collection Limestone Coast Chardonnay from Aus, and Domaines Arnaud 2018 Chardonnay from the Languedoc (Tesco Ireland). Chablis does the business too, although hard to find one nowadays for less than a tenner or even close. A final white wine tip for those of you looking for something a little unusual, I enjoyed and photoed the Attiya 2018 Viura & Garnacha, sourced from Catalonia, but can't now remember where exactly I bought it: probably Lidl or Aldi in the Republic of Ireland. Floral and zesty on the one hand, yet fairly full-bodied and nutty at the same time.

24 May 2019

'Wines of the week'

This varied selection of 'wines of the week', to use the popular editorial-speak, is making an impromptu appearance here instead of the more customary 'wines of the moment', just for a change of scenery, along with a few random dishes that made a good match. Some of these wines were opened at two recommended BYO restaurants located in Ballyhackamore in groovy suburban east Belfast, known affectionately as 'Ballysnackamore': the Rajput Indian and Good Fortune Chinese, which will both be featured on this blog shortly.


Paradis Secret 2018, Languedoc, Vignobles Foncalieu (13% abv) - Tasty southern French rosé shaped from Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault. Lightest shade of pink, aromatic red berry fruits, crisp yet with a little mouth-feel too. Not a bad match for smoked haddock and pasta in a spiced tomato sauce. Comes in a fancy frosted bottle with a glass stopper no less: they've pitched it at a trendy celeb Provence rosé style price-point (see below), which is a little steep me thinks although it is well made.
Griset Extraordinaire Rosé 2018 Pays d'Oc, Vignobles Foncalieu (12.5% abv) - Quirky gris de gris style rosé, meaning very pale pink and essentially tasting like a white wine, made from the rare Sauvignon Gris variety sourced from two vineyards: to the south of Béziers and between Narbonne and Carcassonne. Zingy and aromatic with ripe pink grapefruit flavours. For those Sauvignon Blanc fans who fancy a rosé but much less 'grassy' in character! Attractive all-rounder of a wine.
UK stockists/importers for Griset rosé: Albion Wine shippers (London) £8.95, Inverarity Morton (Glasgow), Yorkshire Vintners (Ripon); and Paradis Secret: Fine Wines Direct (Cardiff) £11. In Ireland, Paradis Secret rosé is €17.99 and the other €13.99: McHugh's Off-Licences (Dublin), Redmond's of Ranelagh (Dublin), Red Island Wine Co. (Skerries), Baggot Street Wines (Dublin). Also available in the US: details to follow.
Pinot Noir

Hans Baer Pinot Noir 2016, Weinkellerei Hechtsheim, Pfalz Germany (12.5% abv) - Fairly light and fragrant with fresh fruity finish: try with confit duck leg or calf's liver or salmon. £7 Tesco.
Oyster Bay Pinot Noir 2016, Marlborough New Zealand - My memory of this big brand Pinot was 'okay', but this surprised me: either it's got better or getting an older vintage with three years' age has added an enticing smoky savoury side to its silky fruit and tannins. Winemark (NI): dear if you buy one bottle but I think you take off £5 from the total as part of a selected 'buy two...' type offer? Their website doesn't tell you as it's crap.
Palataia Pinot Noir 2017, Pfalz Germany (13.5% abv) - Consistently classy German Pinot made by Gerd Stepp, who, as I've said before, used to work for Marks & Spencer as a winemaker / buyer: lovely style, depth and balance. Some people might not usually spend over a tenner (like me), although it's £9 a bottle on their site at the moment (6-case price), and I got it on offer in store; but you'll get no or very few Pinot Noirs as good from Burgundy or the New World for the price (except perhaps Chile, e.g. Sainsbury's TTD own-label for £8 made by Errazuriz).
Te Taha 2016 Pinot Noir, Martinborough New Zealand (13.5% abv) - Another sexy M&S Pinot created by 'legendary Kiwi winemaker Larry McKenna, the father of Martinborough Pinot Noir,' as the blurb says, again bought when Marks had one of their good-deal 'third-off' offers making it a bit less than ten maybe (it might be out of stock at the moment). Obviously more of a special occasion bottle (like having dinner) with concentrated 'sweet / savoury' Pinot style, subtle oak, weight and still structured although elegant too all in one. Yum. Good with smoked paprika pork.

Other reds

Clos des Batuts 2017 Cahors, France - Nice example of a more 'modern' Malbec style from 'the home of' in south-west France, Lidl has found a good batch here showing aromatic floral yet chunky fruit and well-handled dry palate texture. About £7-£8? I don't remember exactly and as usual can't find it on Lidl's site. Just about works with lamb curry dishes.
Condado de Haza 2015 Crianza, Alejandro Fernández, Ribero del Duero (14% abv) - Very tasty maturing Spanish red from the centre-north made from the Tempranillo variety, seductively mixing up rich fruit, savoury balsamic notes and still quite structured yet melt-in-the-mouth tannins. I'm thinking aged Manchego or Comté cheese. £15-£16 Sainsbury's, JN Wine.

Pablo Old Vine Garnacha 2018, Bodegas San Alejandro, Calatayud Spain - The back label says it was produced from 'gnarly old bush vines planted up to 100 years ago in dusty dry soils at an altitude of 1000 metres.' The vineyards and winery are indeed found on the high ground 80 to 90 km south-west of Zaragoza, in the Aragón region the likely origin of the Garnacha / Grenache variety by the way. The result is a chunky fruity deep-coloured (especially for Garnacha) powerful red (14.5% abv) with spicy dark cherry and berry fruit, a bit of tannin and attractive meaty side too. Great offer for €8 at SuperValu stores, Ireland (allegedly 'half price' type deal).


Gewurztraminer 2018, Alsace France (13.5% abv) - The benchmark 'affordable' Gewurz I suppose (prices have risen though in recent times), region and winery-wise (the standard-setting Turckheim co-op), this '18 combines textbook exotic lychee and rose water notes with a zesty lively palate and nice weight too (13.5% abv). Nice partner to smoked trout. £8 on offer at Sainsbury's (usually £9).
Gewurztraminer 2017/2018 (?) Alto Adige Sudtirol - Classy and elegant Gewurz, more restrained and drier perhaps coming from the relatively cool far north of Italy, very perfumed and refreshing yet with obligatory lush mouth-feel too. One of Lidl's posh one-offs at £10+ or €12+ in the Republic of Ireland? €10.99 in Germany. Unfortunately Lidl's UK and especially Ireland sites aren't much good for finding any useful info on their better wines. It has a green and silver label. By the way, their delicious Winemaker Selection Clare Valley Riesling has been reduced to a bargain £6.
Cono Sur Bicicleta Gewurztraminer 2017, Chile - Tesco stores keep knocking this out at £6, making me wonder if they're getting rid of it, so buy up some while you can? Great buy at this price for Gewurz fans with a little maturity too adding extra richer flavours and 'oily' texture, although it's drier than the French one I'd say. Delicious with king prawn biryani, and generally versatile with different curry / Chinese / Thai dishes (although not sweeter ones).

Other whites

Passerina 2018 Terre di Chieti, Abruzzo Italy (13% abv) - The back label describes Passerina as 'southern Italy's rare grape... named after the sparrow that enjoys eating them.' Not convinced the local winemakers will be great friends with said sparrow, but I'd say the Abruzzo region is more central than southern? Lively and zesty with e.g. fish and chips or garlicky prawn pasta dish, goat's cheese as well. Tesco £7.

Cava Catalan bubbly, Spain.

Rosado Brut Jaume Serra (11.5% abv) - Tesco's vividly pink and fruity rosé Cava is very versatile but matches Indian, Thai or Chinese dishes especially (see reviews of the Rajput and Good Fortune to follow soon). Or dark chocolate even. £6
Brut Nature 2014 United Wineries (11.5% abv) - One of Sainsbury's very good 'Taste the Difference' labels, this is tasty tangy floral Cava at its driest with delicate toasted almond flavours. Good on its own or with fish and chips, prawn risotto, tuna and pasta etc. £9
Arestel 2017 Vintage Extra Brut (11.5% abv) - A new posher version of Lidl's reliably drinkable Arestel NV Brut Cava, this has more class and flavour, is definitely drier with delicate yeasty nutty finish. Try with baked Camembert? Good stuff for £7.99.

Amontillado dry Sherry 'Exquisite Collection' (19.5% abv) - Packed with complex matured flavours with tangy baked nutty notes and rich but dry finish, tis 'proper' sherry like. Have a wee glass chilled with unsalted peanuts. Aldi €7.99 for 50cl.