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Ever since my first visit to Florence, a few years ago, I’ve been banging on about “enotecas”: wine shops where you can sit down and try before you buy, generally alongside some cheese-‘n’-charcuterie nibbles. There are loads of them in Italy, and we need more in the UK! Well… boutique sparkling-wine bar Grays & Feather slots into the concept nicely.

Opening in late August 2018 on Wellington Street, Covent Garden (near the Lyceum Theatre), Grays & Feather will doubtless get lots of footfall from the post-work crowd. Even better, it’s in a sweet spot for visitors who are so Ab Fab that they can’t get through an afternoon of shopping without a fizz fix.

I’m intrigued by their promise to “showcase undiscovered and unusual wines from small, hidden, experimental winemakers across the globe”, although I’m hoping English sparkling wines will be well catered for. We are making some of the best bubbles on the planet right now, after all. At the time of writing UK wine is represented on their website by Bolney Estate’s Cuvée Noir, but I’m looking forward to seeing the range expand once the bar has opened.

I’m told the wine list will be complemented by an international menu of small plates, in true enoteca style, while they’ll also be hosting events, including personal tastings with founder Andrew Gray, who started the business as a market stall in 2011. Here’s hoping this Feather gets of to a flying start (boom boom).

Grays & Feather is (fingers crossed) coming to Wellington Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7DD in late August
www.graysandfeather.com

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I gave Aldi’s Grande Alberone Organic Red a five-star review in the early days of this website, so I was interested to try this Zinfandel made by the same producer in Puglia, south-eastern Italy — and housed in a very similar (difficult to photograph) bottle.

It’s no shrinking violet, that’s for sure. It’s darker than ox blood, with more body than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Cherry and dark berries smack you on the nose, against a backdrop of chocolate, but it also smells unusually… alcoholic.

And on checking the label I realised that this is indeed about as strong as regular wine gets, at 15% volume it’s verging on fortified wine. Yep, in a parallel universe, this Zinfandel could easily take on most other reds in a bare-knuckle street fight.

However, it is a wine that’s likely to polarise opinion, and it does so on Aldi’s website. One customer gives it a five-star review, saying “Don’t come to this wanting a finessed, complicated mouthful. This is massively fruity, in the velvety, richly extracted style of Californian Zinfandel… Easy to drink, but very alcoholic.” Another gives it one star, calling it “Too sweet, over-extracted and over-engineered.”

They’re both valid opinions, of course, but at £7.99 I’m inclined to side with the former. This is a rich, smooth, hefty and fruit-forward wine that will appeal to fans of New World reds like Barossa Valley Australian Shiraz — me included.

4 NINJA STARS

Aldi Grande Alberone Zinfandel, 2016. 15% vol, £7.99.

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For some reason, my local Aldi has been light on higher-end wines recently — high-end for Aldi being the £9-12 bracket, in which they generally offer some really impressive stuff. After scouring the shelves for something out of the ordinary, I eventually found this Californian Redtree Pinot Noir hidden away by itself in a totally different section. Why do they do that?

The understated label drew me in, as did the cute blurb on the back. “Like the red oak that has stood sentry over our family home for generations, Redtree Pinot Noir is rooted in a strong sense of place,” it said. I’m a sucker for well crafted design and friendly-sounding copywriting.

The Flavours

Taste-wise, it’s not especially subtle. In fact, it’s a cherry and liquorice party on your tongue. On the nose, you’ll also find a hint of the earthy, woody aromas you normally associate with Pinot Noir. Left to open up, a layer of leathery, oaky smells emerge.

I found it richer, heavier and a little sweeter than a lot of Pinot Noirs, and for this reason I’d recommend serving it at room temperature, rather than lightly chilled.

First impressions were pretty good, but its sweet cherry flavours became a bit cloying after a while, and it started to remind me of the artificial, cough-syrup taste you get in some lesser Eastern European reds.

It’s hard to make good Pinot Noir at this price point (it’s not exactly easy at any price point, to be fair), but Redtree have given it a fair stab. A likeable, decent value, if ultimately unremarkable, expression of the grape. As an alternative, I’d recommend the Grande Alberone Zinfandel, which is the same price but offers slightly more depth of flavour.

3.5 NINJA STARS

Redtree Californian Pinot Noir 2016, £7.99. 13.5% volume

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You can imagine the meeting: “what are two of the most on-trend drinks today? Gin and Shiraz, right? Why not make… Shiraz gin?!” Why not indeed. Shiraz’s smooth, full-bodied, fruit-packed flavour has made it the world’s most popular red wine — and deservedly so, I say.

The grapes for this particular concoction come from the Yarra Valley region, not far from my birth place — Melbourne. And, because they’re Australian, they’ve named it “Bloody Shiraz Gin” (of course they have, mate). For nearly two months, the producers left their excess Shiraz grapes in contact with their dry gin until it turned that familiar plummy shade of Shiraz purple.

“The flavours of spice and pepper from the Shiraz combined with the citrus and juniper notes from the gin created a delightful hybrid,” says the PR blurb. I’ll have to take their word for it for now, because I haven’t tasted it yet.

My only concern is… gin is rumoured to make some people emotional, so what might the combo of gin and red wine do to them? Could get messy. But running the experiment will be fun.

Bloody Shiraz Gin (37.8% vol) is available now from Selfridges’ London store, priced £49.99

They also stock Four Pillars Spiced Negroni gin (£46.99)

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Looking for home wine storage solutions? Here’s all you need to know about how to store wine at home

Unless you’re the kind of person who can’t keep hold of a bottle of wine for five minutes without drinking it (don’t look at me like that), you’ll want to make sure it’s stored properly to reduce the risk of impairment… or worse.

Obviously, this is especially important with a higher-end wine, where you’ll be hoping its delicately nuanced flavour profile will mature and deepen with time. Imagine the trauma of opening that Bordeaux you’ve been hoarding for two decades to find it tastes like a wet dog drenched in vinegar. I call it Rack Rage.

Conditions And Location

For years, I stored my wine upright in the corner of my kitchen. And why not? You want it to be within arms’ reach while you’re cooking, right? But unless you have a temperature-controlled kitchen, this isn’t the wisest choice — especially in the medium to long term. Because when sunlight enters the room, it’ll alter the wine’s temperature: and, like a pampered rock star, wine’s fussy about things like that. Undulating temperatures just put it in a bad mood.

Instead, lay your wine horizontally, in a cool, humidity-controlled, dimly-lit space that’s unaffected by fluctuating temperatures or vibrations. A basement is ideal, because its subterranean location is typically cooler than other parts of the house. But if (like me) you don’t have a cellar, a cupboard under a staircase makes a decent alternative — provided it’s not full of mouldy wellies and dusty Christmas decorations.

Cellar Conditioners

If you’re lucky enough to have underground storage, investing in a cellar cooling unit is the way to keep your wine on top form. Cellar coolers are different to standard home air conditioners, because they’re specifically designed for wine storage. They cool the air at a slower pace, while maintaining its humidity so that the corks don’t dry out, oxidise and damage your wine.

Contrary to popular opinion, connoisseurs will tell you that wine fridges are not always the best option for high quality wines. Why? They produce excess heat, and if opened and closed frequently, can cause bottle vibrations that disturb the wines.

Wine Racks

Investing in good wine racks is essential for any serious wine collector. And what many people don’t realise is that the wine racking system you choose should depend on the types of wine you’re storing.

Standard wine racks are typicially 3.5 inches wide, just right for 750ml bottles, but if you’re storing irregular sizes (Champagne, magnums, half bottles, split bottles), you might need a bespoke wine rack fitted instead.

When shopping for custom-made storage, you’ll want to hire a specialist, as they’re used to dealing with bottle-size specifications, and can create storage solutions for a broad gamut of shapes and sizes.

Materials

When choosing a material for your wine racks, you’ll have to factor in durability, style and, of course, price.

The most common materials used are pine or oak, which both remain durable in humid rooms without the risk of mildew or cracking. With wooden racks, you need to ensure the material is thick enough to sustain the weight of many bottles.

Cheap wooden materials like cedar, fir and poplar are best avoided because they can taint the wine’s aroma. Likewise, while a finishing paint might look stylish, it can also affect the wine. Instead, use Danish oil or coloured stain to achieve your desired effect.

However, even oak or pine might not be suitable if your cellar is particularly damp. This is where a metal wine racks come into their own.

Metal racks suit modern interiors and are easily transported, although they can be tricky to achieve an exact fit, particularly in awkwardly-shaped or hard-to-reach spaces.

Finally, make sure the spaces that house your bottles are sufficiently smooth, so that labels labels don’t get damaged when you pull them out. It goes without saying that this can decrease a bottle’s value — cue another attack of Rack Rage.

For wine storage solutions in the UK visit www.wineracks.co.uk 

Top image courtesy of Antrim 1844, other images by Wine Racks.

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The gentle thock of rubber on cat gut, five-set thrillers, apocalyptic tantrums, biblical showers, Cliff Richard… Some Wimbledon clichés are better than others. For instance, what’s the attraction of lukewarm Pimms in a plastic cup? Give me some proper wine any day.

And there are three types of wine that make ideal doubles partners for sun, strawberries and lawn tennis: fizz, rosé and a refreshing English white. So whether you’re at home or picnicking in front of a big screen, here are three ideas for ace wines to serve alongside Wimbledon.

The Local Favourite: The Uncommon Wine of England 

This slightly sparkling white is made in Surrey, just up the road from Wimbledon itself, from one of England’s most common grape varieties — Bacchus. But, as the name suggests, Bacchus is about the only thing common about it. For a start, it comes in a convenient, recyclable, lightweight can that can be chilled in 15 minutes. Very handy for the hamper.

Tart lemon, strawberry, and gooseberry flavours make it a close comparison to certain New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Although, of course, if you drink it straight from the can you’ll miss out on these nuances of flavour. I tried it from a white-wine glass and a flute. The flute worked better, acting as a chimney to shoot the bubbles up your nose through.

On the rear of the beautifully designed can it says “Our bubbly pairs perfectly with festival mud baths.” Presumably they’re talking about Glastonbury. Well, Wimbledon is around the same time as Glasto. And if you want to travel light, but still look classy, this is the option for you.

The Uncommon Wine in a Can is available from Selfridges and on The Uncommon Website. £5 a can. 11.5% volume

The Bubbly Crowd Pleaser: Bouvet Saumur Rosé Brut 

If you’re anticipating a celebratory mood, and a can won’t cut it, this delicate salmon-pink Bouvet Saumur rosé, made from Cabernet Franc grapes, will do you nicely. Provence might be home to the top seeds of the rosé world, but don’t underestimate this wild card from the nearby Loire Valley, where you tend to get more for your money.

Strawberry and peach on the nose combine with a backhand smash of citrus on the palate. Don’t expect bold flavours though — it’s as subtle as a deft lob over the net from close range.

The Bouvet Saumur Rosé Brut is available from Majestic Wine for £12.99. 12.5% volume

The French Flair Player: Co-op Truly Irresistible Pic Saint Loup Rosé

This Co-op own brand Pic Saint Loup won game, set and match in my supermarket rosé tournament last year. Light, crisp, dry and alive with the fumes of summer berries: this is a fine al fresco tipple.

It’s got that succulent, savoury, multi-layered (almost herby) texture you’d associate with a good quality Provence rosé. But the Pic Saint Loup is made from grenache and syrah from the Languedoc region, to the south-west of Provence. I’m guessing this is how they can get away with making it cheaper than its Provencal neighbours — similar ingredients, slightly less cachet. Well… nobody’s written a book called A Week in the Languedoc, have they. They’re not daft, those Co-op wine buyers.

You can pick up the Pic Saint Loup from most Co-op stores, price £7.99. 13% volume

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I journey to the fruity end of the Chablis spectrum with this Domaine Gueguen Chardonnay from London independent wine merchant The Vino Beano

“Beano”. Now there’s a quaintly old fashioned noun. Apart from the obvious association with Billy Whizz and Lord Snooty, it’s a word that brings to mind cockney knees-ups in Edwardian Bethnal Green. My almost-equally old fashioned hardback dictionary defines it as “a celebration, party or other enjoyable time.” And it’s short for “beanfeast”, apparently.

But what’s all this got to do with vino? Well, London-based online wine merchant, club and tour organiser The Vino Beano take a celebratory approach to wine. As their satisfyingly funky logo suggests, they agree with me that wine should be a jolly adventure playground for the palate.

I’m also down with their “indie” philosophy. As their website claims: “The Vino Beano specialises in bringing undiscovered wines exclusively to the market. We are passionate about introducing you to sophisticated, hidden gems from passionate producers all over the world.” I’m betting there won’t be any Jacob’s Creek Shiraz at the Vino Beano Christmas do then… oh no.

So I was excited when this tasty little envoy from Beano HQ turned up on my doorstep: a 2015 Domaine Gueguen Chablis. Not one I’d tried before.

Now, I must admit that I sometimes find Chablis quite austere and overly yeasty. It can, in its steeliest of incarnations, be the Victorian headmistress of wines — refined, but rather serious. Champagne without the bubbles, to put it crudely. This one’s at the other end of the spectrum.

While at first sniff it’s undeniably Chablis, it soon reveals itself as a fruity little number… way softer and more restrained than most Chablis I’ve tried. Domaine Gueguen’s website describes it as “slightly racy”. Steady on.

With mellow peach and pear on the nose, and a subtle citrus minerality on the palate, it’s not too dissimilar to a good quality Pinot Gris. And personally, that’s the way I like it.


Domaine Gueguen Chablis 2015. 100% Chardonnay, 12.5% volume. £85 for a case of six (£14.17 per bottle) from The Vino Beano

4 NINJA STARS

Check out www.thevinobeano.com for The Vino Beano’s full list of wines, tours and tastings.

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German online wine merchant Vicampo have extended their tentacles into the UK. And to showcase the launch of their British arm, they kindly sent me a dozen samples to slurp through and evaluate. There was much excitement at the Wine Ninja hideout when that box arrived.

And while the overall quality was really impressive, my favourite was this Leitz 4 Friends Riesling.

In response to my words of enthusiasm (below), Viampo have set up a special offer page for Wine Ninjas readers (see the link at the bottom). £49.90 for six works out at £8.32 per bottle (and postage is free); outstanding value for a wine of this quality. The Vivino website gives the Leitz 4 Friends an average price of £11.68 per bottle, which which is roughly where I would have placed it on a blind tasting.

Leitz 4 Friends Riesling Review

If you’re one of those Brits who thinks they don’t like Riesling, here’s the wine to convert you – and to make you realise why Riesling is one of the grape varieties most loved by sommeliers. I’m completely confident that even the staunchest Rieslingophobe will enjoy this dry and fruity white, from esteemed producer, Leitz. So are Vicampo. They’ll refund you if you don’t like it.

That isn’t going to happen though because, you see, the Leitz 4 Friends is just so very… likeable. Its mouthwatering mash-up of soft peach, zingy lime and singed orange zest is a nailed-on crowd pleaser. In the mouth, its grapefruit acidity is refreshing without being harsh.

Despite being from the landlocked Rheingau region of southern Germany (near Frankfurt),  it reminds me of the sea, thanks to a subtly salty minerality on the nose. All this makes it a perfect partner for a fish fillet with a squeeze of lemon on top.

Its summery flavours are complemented by a lightness in colour and body, while its 12% alcohol volume is a blessing, considering how moreish it is.

It may not be not hugely complex, but this is a really elegant expression of the grape. And while it retains those destinctively Rieslingy characteristics of petroleum and rubber, they’re mere backing singers to the lead vocals of peach, grapefruit and lime.

Refreshing, elegant and ever so drinkable, this is, as the name suggests, a Riesling worth sharing. (Although probably not with “4 friends” –  a quarter of a bottle each just ain’t gonna be enough.)

Click here to visit the Vicampo special offer page. £49.90 for a case of six (£8.32 per bottle equivalent), with free postage.

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When it comes to whisky cocktails, I like to go classic. Here are my top three easy bourbon cocktails for summer

If you hail from the more northerly latitudes you’ll know that, when the frost’s gnawing at your fingers, there’s no better antidote than a straight-up single malt Scotch. However… during the summer cocktail season, American whisky comes into its own — especially bourbon.

So why do bourbons make such a solid base for other ingredients to dance around? I reckon it’s the sweet, smokey aromas that come from ageing in charred oak barrels. Maybe the Kentucky summer sunshine has something to do with it too. Who knows.

If you enjoy short and strong cocktails (the ones I’m featuring below should be mixed to between 20% and 30% volume), a high quality alcohol base is essential.

The last time I made the three included here I used Woodford Reserve, partly because I like its vanilla and tobacco flavours, but also because they sent me some for fre, haha. I’m also a sucker for aesthetics though and, let’s face it, the bottle looks cool on the kitchen shelf, with its deep amber colour and old-fashioned medicinal-looking design.

Let’s get down to it then: here are my top three easy bourbon cocktails for summer. They only need a few ingredients each. So, as long as they’re served cold, in a good, solid glass, there’s no way you can mess them up.

(1) Whisky Sour

Whisky sours have been around since the days of the Wild West. Powerful, refreshing and zingy, this is a no-nonsense cocktail that’s hard to get wrong — as long as decent whisky is used. Apart from maybe the bourbon, you’ll likely already have all the ingredients you need in your cupboard, so no need to spend ages trawling the supermarket isles.

Ingredients
A generous slug of bourbon
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice (about half the amount as you have of whisky)
Sugar syrup: ie around a teaspoon of sugar per serving, dissolved a little warm water, to take the edge of the lemon (experiment till you get the right balance of sweetness)
Egg white (about half an egg’s worth). This is optional but recommended. It adds a lovely creamy head that complements the sourness
A few large ice cubes

Method
Shake it all up in a cocktail shaker for half a minute. Pour into a short glass tumbler, sip… and wait for your tastebuds to explode.

(2) Old Fashioned 

These have come back into fashion in recent years, partly due to the influence of Don Draper from the series Mad Men. They’re not for everyone though — their face-puckering bitterness can be too much for some. So play around with the quantity of bitters until it hits the right note for you. Another short, strong and simple one, the Old Fashioned enables the bourbon to shine (so, again, make sure you use a good one).

Ingredients
A large slug of bourbon
A few dashes of Angostura bitters (don’t hold back)
Sugar syrup: half a teaspoon of sugar, mixed with a little warm water
A twist of lemon, orange rind. Or a cherry
Ice

Method
Dissolve the sugar with the warm water in the glass. Add the bitters, then the ice, then top up with bourbon. Easy. Finish with the citrus rind or, my favourite, a cheap ‘n’ tacky glacé cherry.

(3) Manhattan

My third choice is closely related to the classic Martini, in that it contains Vermouth and eschews ice in favour of good-old strong, in-your-face liquor. Oh, but this one’s stirred, not shaken, so not one for Mr Bond. Again, because there are so few ingredients for it to hide behind, an artisan vermouth will lift your effort above the competition. The last time I made these, I used Albourne Estate’s English vermouth.

Ingredients
Two parts bourbon
One part vermouth
A dash of Angostura bitters

Method
Stir the ingredients together in a shaker, or separate glass, with some ice, until cold. Strain into a martini-style glass, garnishing with a cherry or a twist.

Woodford Reserve small-batch bourbon is available at Waitrose, currently on offer at £25 (normally £30.50). See www.woodfordreserve.com

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Petit Chablis vs Chablis: it’s a big showdown, but is there a big difference between the Chardonnay-based siblings? I put a fine example of each in the ring together and let them slug it out. 

Some Chablis Background

Its location up in the cooler, northern tip of Burgundy means the Chablis region of France produces wines that are more steely/acidic and less soft and fruity than other Burgundys. A lack of oak ageing, plus plenty of time spent fermenting with the deceased yeast (aka “on the lees”) also give Chablis a bready character reminiscent of Champagne, which is made nearby.

Chablis is split into four categories which, in theory, increase in quality (and price) as they decrease in vineyard size. The two most important aspects affecting this four-tier classification are soil type and vineyard position. The most expensive wines come from sloped south-facing vineyards (meaning more sunlight) containing ancient, Jurassic-era limestone soil. They tend to be more complex, with greater depth of flavour.

Grand Cru occupies the top level, with Premier Cru breathing down its neck in second place, followed by standard AOC Chablis, while little Petit Chablis (on average only about £2 cheaper than AOC Chablis), brings up the rear.

But while Petit Chablis is grown in the less prestigious vineyards, its junior status doesn’t mean it’s bad. Not at all. Any wine that carries the Chablis name has to conform to minimum requirements and, as I found in this little experiment, the difference between AOC Chablis and good Petit Chablis can be tough to discern.

The Showdown

In the red corner, the title holder: a 2016 Society Chablis (on the right in the photo above). This exhibited a somewhat more discernible yeasty, “Champagney” character, smelling like it had maintained longer lees contact than the Petit Chablis (although I don’t know for sure if this is actually the case). As expected, white fruit dominated on the nose, with refreshing, acidic citrus in the mouth.

In the blue corner: the Domaine Séguinot-Bordet Petit Chablis. This wasn’t quite as strong on the nose as the Society’s wine, but it retained the trademark Chablis flinty, yeasty character. Even the bluntest of noses would be able to pick this out as a Chablis, no problem. And on the palate there was even less to choose between the two wines. White fruit, stony minerality and youthful citrus still dominated here. 

The Verdict

There’s really not much daylight between these two wines, with the Society’s Chablis winning the fight on points in a split decision, due to its marginally more up-front nose. To be fair, the Séguinot-Bordet is a particularly good example of Petit Chablis (the estate also produces Grand Crus Chablis), and these wines are similarly priced.

One thing this little battle has shown me is that the line between the Chablis/Petit Chablis classifications is blurred. Don’t be naive enough to assume you’ll prefer one to the other, just because of its ascribed status and price. I’d pick the Séguinot-Bordet Petit Chablis in preference to many cheaper Chablis AOCs, such as the previously reviewed Lidl Chablis, any time.

The Society’s Chablis 2016, 12.5% volume, is available for £14.50 from The Wine Society  

Domaine Séguinot-Bordet Petit Chablis 2016, 12.5% volume, can be found for £15.99 (£13.99 in bulk) at Magestic Wine

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