"Buy my book about the Roussillon region on Amazon UK in colour paperback and eBook or black & white version, and Amazon USA: colour paperback and eBook or black & white. Also available in the US from Barnes & Noble in hardcover, paperback or eBook. For other countries, tap on the link below above the cover image." Richard Mark James

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 WineWriting.com (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 @ kinnegarbrewing.ie.

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: cayugawinetrail.com and senecalakewine.com.

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: fingerlakeswinealliance.com. (* 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.

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 belgium.beertourism.com/cities/bruges) 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 rajputbelfast.co.uk or facebook.com/Rajput - 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.

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 / Hoosebelfast@gmail.com
Open: Monday 5pm-9pm, Tuesday-Sunday 12pm-9pm (so most of the time really!).

Hoose's awesome Banoffee tart.

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.