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Richard Mark James' blog: wine, travel, food, BYO restaurants, craft beer, stuff like that...

23 December 2019

Posh Armagnac, Calvados, Cognac, Marc de Champagne, Marc de Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Armagnac - Château de Laubade

My modest holiday home. Not.
Château de Laubade is the largest estate in the Armagnac region (lying in deepest south-west France, south of Bordeaux and Bergerac, the main town is Auch) with 105 hectares of vineyards, which they claim allows them not to have to buy in any grapes or spirits from outside of the property. Laubade is considered the centrepiece of the Lesgourgues family business run by Arnaud and Denis Lesgourgues.
The three Armagnac styles featured here are made from the region's four principal grape varieties: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard and Baco. The Lesgourgues family maintains that 'sustainable farming' is practised in their vineyards, such as adding pure sheep manure and growing bean plants between the rows in winter to help restore natural nitrogen levels to the soil. The distillation 'house style' is to use separate alambic (continuous) stills for each variety. The Gascony oak barrels for ageing the spirits are manufactured on site, which is much less common nowadays, and are aerated regularly during maturation then topped up.
Intemporel Hors d’Âge (mostly Baco, 40% abv) is a blend of 'at least 15 different spirits, the youngest of which is 12 years old and including some very old reserves'. It delivers an enticing mix of powerful and smooth, and spicy yet pruney aged characters: a stylish 'starter' Armagnac if you like! Their PR blurb suggests matching it with Roquefort cheese, meat pie or baked apple and pear, although it's dessert-friendly overall I'd say. Approx retail price: €45 for 70cl bottle.
Brut de Fût 1990 is a true vintage Armagnac according to the tech sheet, so all from 1990 which was a fab year for wine pretty much everywhere in France. Its name ('cask sample') implies each batch is bottled on demand, so the spirits remain in barrels until then when three casks of Baco, Ugni Blanc and Colombard are blended and left unfiltered. Richer and punchier (over 50% abv!) than the '80 below, seductively caramelised and concentrated with long cutting finish. About 140 Euros a bottle although available in several smaller sizes too like most of their Armagnacs.
Brut de Fût 1980 (46.7% abv) has similar make-up and production regime as the '90 and spent its long years in 'cellar number 2', which sounds like a good secret place to hide. Wonderfully deep colour and complex nose / flavours with toffee, honey, vanilla, coffee, dried fruits and other more elusive things, relatively smooth and mature although this isn't going to fall apart anytime soon. Deliciously decadent and expensive: €170.
There's more on Laubade and other Armagnac producers from an intensive trip to the region in 2005 on this archive page:

Calvados Pays d’Auge Roger Groult

This highly rated distillery is run by 'fifth-generation' Jean-Roger Groult who continues to produce their tasty Calvados by 'traditional wood-fired double distillation' method, yet likes to be innovative too such as certain special bottlings launched in 2016 aged in old whisky, Jurançon or sherry casks. Both of these Calvas are made from cider apples in the Pays d’Auge subzone and aged in used French red oak casks.
Calvados Vénérable (41% abv): Although 'at least 18 years old', this lovely 'cider brandy' is actually very fruity and appley with a subtle richness and smoothness gained from substantial ageing. Their serving tips include 'with chocolate or apple desserts' as well as a straight 'digestif' of course. Around €75 for 70cl, also available as 5cl, 50cl, 75cl (USA), 150cl and mindbogglingly big 250cl!
30 Year Old Calvados Cask 102 (41% abv): This one-off bottling is described by Groult as 'destined to mature for a few more years and blended into our Réserve Ancestrale, but this spirit had such different aromatic characteristics to our classic range, very likely because this small oval cask was only half-full promoting oxidation. Due to its unique character, we decided to make it into a very limited, special '30 year old single cask' edition, since only 235 bottles were put on sale.' An awesome Calva, one of the best I can remember trying, with rich yet savoury toffee-apple notes and improbable mix of smooth and powerful. Not surprising then, it's reassuringly dear at about €120 for 50cl.
Others in the Groult Calva range include 3 Year Old, 8 Year Old, 12 Year Old, Âge d’or, Doyen d’Âge and Réserve Ancestrale.
Previously about this producer on (written in 2015).

Single Estate Cognac - Domaines Francis Abécassis

The Abécassis family 'aims to bring together a real collection of estates to create outstanding Cognacs,' the blurb states. Each property has its own vines, winery, distillery and storage cellar so Francis Abécassis and daughter Elodie can control all stages of production. Head Cognac maker Isabelle Couprie then decides the best time to do the blends and bottle each style. The Ugni Blanc variety is grown on low chalky hillsides and fermented in stainless steel tanks, followed by double-distillation in a small Charentais alambic still and ageing in new French oak then old barrels. Neither the press pack nor their website explains exactly how long each of these Cognacs is aged, although the terms VSOP and XO are regulated (at least four and six years respectively according to Martell via Google search).

ABK6 VSOP Cognac (40% abv): Selected lots from their estates in the Petite Champagne, Grande Champagne and Fins Bois subzones (easy enough to find out more about the different Cognac zones etc. by searching rather than me rehashing the same old). Light oak spice and cinnamon notes mingle on its savoury dried fruit and nut palate, quite subtle alcohol and fine in that more restrained Cognac way. €45 for 70cl; also available in 5cl, 35cl, 50cl and 100cl bottles.
Leyrat XO Elite Single Cru Fins Bois (40% abv): Selected from Domaine chez Maillard, 92 hectares in the 'Fins Bois' zone. Deeper coloured and richer aromas with more complex flavours and longer smoother finish. Definitely a notch up, then again it costs €120 in a fancy 70cl carafe and comes in miniatures as well. The serving suggestion sounds good: with crème brûlée or apricot tart.
ABK6 XO Renaissance (40% abv): Selected lots from their estates in the Petite Champagne, Grande Champagne and Fins Bois subzones. Similar to above, perhaps tastes 'older' and equally smooth with layered dried fruits and oak spice. About €129 for 70cl, comes in miniatures too.

Très Vieux Marc de la Champagne - Maison Drappier

This Champagne house was founded in 1808 and is still run by the Drappier family. Their vineyards in Urville have an unusually high proportion of Pinot Noir planted (70%) accompanied by Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. They claim to be the first certified carbon neutral Champagne winery.
Made in a similar way to Italian grappa by distilling the left-over (not a put-down but fact) grape skins and stems from the press, this sexy Marc de Champagne is matured for 10 years in oak casks, and it shows in its smoothness and tempered fieriness (if that isn't a word, it is now). Gives off some of those typical and difficult to describe aromas you get from grappa (kind of 'volatile' dried fruit and stalky grassy notes), but takes the genre to a whole new level in terms of rounded mouth-feel, concentrated complex matured flavours and a touch of freshness nevertheless. Very different, they suggest trying it in a cocktail (I could see that, or just with tonic water?) or, better still, in a sorbet! Around €37 for 70cl, apparently it's exported to Germany, Italy, Japan and the US.

Marc de Châteauneuf-du-Pape - Alain Jaume

The Jaume family has been around in Châteauneuf-du-Pape since 1826 and owns Domaine Grand Veneur, Clos de Sixte and Château Mazane, which are now farmed organically and overseen by Hélène, Christophe and Sébastien Jaume. Distilled from the destemmed dried pressings of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, then aged in oak casks for five years. The spirit is gradually reduced in strength to 40% abv by adding distilled water. Attractive dried fruit and nut aromas and flavours blend in with wood spice and relatively rounded kick of alcohol; more like Cognac in style perhaps. €32.50 per 70cl.

By the way, this isn't a random selection of obscure spirit producers: they are all part of the elite 'Vignobles & Signatures' club of leading French wineries and distilleries.

14 November 2019

Irish Craft beer: Kinnegar Brewing, Donegal

Originally set up in a farmhouse in Rathmullan Co. Donegal, the Kinnegar (named after a nearby beach apparently) operation moved into a new 'state-of-the-art' brewery in Letterkenny in 2017. The 'core range' comprises six beers (plus an intriguingly wide variety of seasonal 'specials'): pictured above is the absolutely delicious Rustbucket Rye Ale (5.1 % abv), very fruity and tangy and rather different; and below their equally tasty Devil's Backbone Amber Ale (4.9% abv) with characteristic chocolate notes. These two cost €2.99 a bottle in Supervalu stores (might have been a '2 for x' type offer at the time). There's also Limeburner Pale Ale, Scraggy Bay IPA, Yannaroddy Porter and Crossroads American style IPA. You can book a tour and tasting at Kinnegar brewery too: more info @

By the way, another recent Irish brewery discovery is Franciscan Well from Cork, although probably less crafty as such since it comes on draught and can be found in many pubs. The IPA is aromatic and citrus fruity with quite full and creamy yet crisp finish; and the Red Ale much maltier with red fruits and molasses but refreshing bite too. £2.50-ish for a half in Belfast.

07 November 2019

New York State, Finger Lakes: Seneca and Cayuga

The cool-climate Finger Lakes wine region, although summers can be very warm for sure, is named after this series of eleven beautiful glacial lakes found in central-northern New York State, which dramatically mark the landscape like long deep cuts running north-south(ish) about 50 miles inland from the southern (US) side of Lake Ontario. It's about a four and a half hour drive from New York City and two and a half hours from Niagara Falls (extremely touristy but unmissable by the way). Seneca and Cayuga lakes are the longest of them, and Seneca the deepest, which is where the greatest concentration of vineyards are planted along and around their sloping edges since the corresponding microclimate is much less severe in winter here. Not surprisingly then, there are two well-organised wine routes - in fact Cayuga Lake wine folk claim to have 'America's first wine trail' - linking up wineries, accommodation, restaurants, events and attractions.
Check out: and

The Finger Lakes region boasts New York's 'biggest' wine production - and NY state ranks as no. 3 or 4 in the US depending on whether you count volume or number of wineries* - although there are less than 10,000 acres / 4000 hectares under vine, and only 10% of it Riesling, just to add a little context. As this doesn't amount to a great deal of wine, the prices reflect this but you can definitely find some very good quality. There's a little more geeky info and stats on this site if you like: (* There's plenty of slightly misleading info out there about American wine production: it depends how up-to-date as things have presumably changed a lot in recent years.)
There are also several pretty State Parks worth visiting such as Watkins Glen at the southern tip of Seneca with its sliced gorges, splashy waterfalls and serene forest walking trails. Watkins Glen itself and surrounding area would make a good base for a wine trip (can be very busy with tourists though), as is the laid-back town of Seneca Falls on the north-west side of Cayuga or the historic small city of Ithaca lying at the southern end of that lake. Back in Seneca Falls, the Gould Hotel is an appealing 1920s-style option for a couple of nights' stay; and this attractive wee town, set on a canal connecting the two lakes, offers a decent selection of diners, restaurants and stores alongside important social history too (a landmark in the women's rights' movement).

Boundary Breaks Vineyard - Lodi, Seneca Lake, NY 14860.
Tucked away in an isolated spot right on the eastern shore of Seneca a couple of miles from the village of Lodi, Boundary Breaks was established in 2008 and has become something of a Riesling specialist, although they make some good red wines too. There's an interesting point on their website basically citing Riesling as a red wine drinker's first choice for white wine in terms of depth of flavour and potential development, and I can see what they mean. The winery is owned by Bruce Murray and Diana Lyttle with Kees Stapel as Vineyard Manager aided by Jesse Kovnat and John Swick. These wines were sampled in the tasting room in situ in early October (you get 20% discount off these prices if you become a wine club member):

2018 #356 Bubbly Dry Riesling - Refreshing and crisp with nice oily and yeasty notes with underlying citrus. $19.95
2017 #90 Extra Dry Riesling - Hints of 'mineral' complexity, fairly rounded mouth-feel actually yet with long crisp finish. Good. $18.95
2018 #198 Reserve Riesling - Later picked and more medium in style, this is a bit sweeter obviously but more concentrated too with elegant 'chalky' palate (and only 8% abv). Tasty. $22.95
2018 Gewurztraminer - Floral and spicy lychee on the nose, quite dry and elegant with crisp floral finish. Nice style.
2018 Dry Rosé (DeChaunac grape variety) - Deep-coloured with super fruity nose, strawberry/raspberry and chocolate flavours even on the palate but with attractive crisp finish. $14.95
2018 Cabernet Franc - Aromatic red fruits with leafy edges, subtle oak and tannins on the palate, very good actually. $19.95
2017 Harmonic Red (56% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc) - More tannic mouth-feel at first but has some nice fruit with cedary notes, fair depth and a smoother finish in the end with a hint of oak. $27.95

Sheldrake Point Winery - Ovid, Cayuga Lake, NY 14521.
Another not-so-easy-to-find winery, this time lost on the western side of Cayuga near a little promontory on the lake called Sheldrake Point, it doesn't appear to be part of the 'official' wine trail but is worth seeking out. This former orchard and dairy farm was bought and planted in 1997 by the 'principle' (sic) owners Chuck Tauck and Fran Littin, and over time was transformed into a now 60 acre vineyard (25 ha) show-casing ten vitis vinifera varieties (imported from Europe). Sheldrake specialises in keeping back stocks of what they call library wines (older vintages obviously going back to the beginning originally) as well as making some rather good ice wines from Riesling. Dave Breeden and Greg Dlubac are the winemaking team, working alongside vineyard manager Dave Wiemann and assistant José Aguilera. More about the people behind the scenes at Sheldrake Point, the wines, club membership and where to find them:
2017 Dry Riesling - Aromatic with 'mineral' oily tones, nice balance of quite rich mouth-feel and crisp acidity, pretty intense and dry finish. Good Riesling. $16
2017 Chardonnay - Yeast-leesy 'Chablis' style, a bit lean and unexciting. $18
2017 Pinot Gris - More full-bodied to start with underlying slender nutty palate, attractively crisp finish; different style and it works. $16
2016 Gewurztraminer - Fairly full-on lychee, Turkish delight and pineapple notes poised by fresh/bitter twist to compensate, this has lots of maturing flavours. Very nice Gewurz. $16 / $14 on offer at the moment.
2018 Riesling Ice Wine - Picked at temperatures of 14 to 17 Fahrenheit (-8 to -10 C) over three days to freeze-concentrate the grapes, the final wine has 8.4% abv and 230 grams per litre residual sugar. Rich honeyed nose with lovely developing Riesling character, lots of oily 'mineral' flavours and textures plus layered with honeysuckle aromas and underlining zippy acidity. Delicious dessert wine. $60.
Sheldrake also makes two styles of sweet wine from red grapes (Cab Franc) and from iced apples; as well as dry Pinot Noir, Gamay and Muscat Ottonel among others.

Another winery based in Ovid that caught my attention with their tasty fruity dry 2018 Cabernet Franc Rosé was Hosmer, which dates back to 1985 so they must have some of the oldest vines planted in this AVA* area, and is run by the fourth generation who has owned the farm since the 1930s.
(*American Viticultural Area.)

There are clearly many good craft breweries in the US too judging by the quality of some of the beers tried on this trip. The evocatively named Fat Tire Amber Ale from the New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado was one of the stand-out bottles consumed in moderation with a classic burger and sweet potato fries dinner one evening.

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.