Hand up who likes eating and drinking? All of you eh? Well, it just so happens I have five pairs of tickets to the Eat & Drink Festival at Olympia in west London, from Saturday 17th March-Monday 2nd April 2018.
The event’s special guests include Aldo Zilli, Rosemary Shrager, Theo Randall, Olly Smith, Simon Rimmer, Ed Baines and Lisa Faulkner (picture above from Little London magazine), who will be giving tips, demos and seminars throughout the 17-day event.
A pair of tickets would usually cost £32 plus booking fee for a weekend pass, or £28 plus fees for a weekday one. Eat & Drink Festival ticket holders also get free entry to the Ideal Home Show, which is being held at Olympia at the same time. Kids go free, so it could make a nice family day out.
To enter, like the Wine Ninjas Facebook page and share my Facebook post about the even, and I’ll stick your name in the hat (or similar small-to-medium-sized receptacle). I don’t usually use Facebook that much so, let’s face it, you’ve got a good chance of winning.
As the event gets under way soon, I’ll close the competition early next week, so be quick.
I’ve often wondered why there isn’t a Welsh and English vineyards map and directory online, and yesterday I belatedly discovered that there actually is. Wine Cellar Door was launched last summer, so I’m a bit behind the times with this, but I thought it was worth sharing because it’s just so damn useful. In fact, it’s just won a prize: the Best Promotional Body award at the Drinks International’s Wine Tourism Challenge 2018.
Complementary to the main directory, the site also runs magazine-style features. But the best thing about it is the interactive map, featuring over 200 Welsh and English vineyards that are open to the public. Hands up who knew there were that many.
I’m showing my ignorance here, but I assumed most UK vineyards were in Sussex and Kent, but it transpires there are quite a few in the Midlands, East Anglia, South Wales and even Yorkshire. The map doesn’t stretch as far as Scotland, but the most northerly vineyard is in the Lake District. How did they manage that?
Another useful feature is the ability to filter the results by county, facilities, opening times, and whether there’s accommodation available. Many of the vineyards are “featured”, meaning you get a bit of blurb, some photos and sometimes even a video when you click on them.
Elisabeth Else and Ian Hardwick did the donkey work behind the site, visiting over 150 Welsh and English vineyards, meeting producers and sampling their wares. A challenging job, but not without its perks.
The pair started off with a wine blog in 2013, while Wine Cellar Door was conceived four years later out of their frustration at trying to find the winemakers they wanted to visit. Let’s face it — vineyard websites (when they exist) aren’t always the best (although they have been getting much better).
By the way, I’m in no way being incentivised to promote this site, I just think it’s an excellent resource worth sharing. Now you’ve got no excuse for procrastinating about that UK wine tour you’ve (presumably) been dreaming up. Just make sure you’re not the designated driver.
If you’re planning any Sussex wine tours this spring, the good news is that eight Sussex wineries have joined forces to simplify your itinerary. The group invited me on a condensed, two-hour winery-crawl (aka a launch event) to learn more about the cream of Sussex vineyards.
I was at the press launch of Sussex Wineries at Murmur on Brighton seafront last night, tasting and chatting with eight producers and winery owners who have teamed up to shout from the fields about the county’s fermented grape juice products.
When I first heard about about the formation of this group (whose website goes live today) I imagined a Mafia-style cartel. A coven of shady vintners cloaked furtively around a vast walnut table, sipping Cognac and concocting nefarious machinations inside an opaque cloud of cigar smoke. But that’s just how my mind works. In real life, they’re all rather nice.
As I schmooze my way around the room it becomes clear that there’s an important distinction between “wineries” and “vineyards” being made here. Because wineries are not just places that grow grapes, oh no. They’re also an “experience”, a day out (or half a day at least), a lunch, a tour… you get the picture.
Each producer has provided three wines to sample, and tasting them in tandem reveals that, although each wine is unique, there is a definite Sussex-wine style. Light in colour and body, fresh, zesty with citrus and gooseberry notes and, most distinctively of all, a smokiness similar to French Sauvignon Blanc (I was once reprimanded for comparing English wine to French Sauv Blanc, but the similarity is undeniable). Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the Champagne cuveé) dominate the sparkling contingent, while the stills are mainly Pinot Gris and Bacchus.
“If you taste them all you’ll have tried 24 wines,” Stopham Estate’s owner Simon Woodhead tells me. He’s clearly been putting his engineering background to good use, working out how drunk I’m going to be by 7pm. I recognise his calculation as a warning disguised as trivia, but I forge ahead anyway and try them all. No spitting for me. It is Monday night, after all.
As expected, wines on display are roughly 60 per cent sparkling white, with the remainder still white — apart from one red perched defiantly at the edge of the Bolney Estate table. But there are a couple of surprises too. Wiston Estate’s (pictured top) award-winning 2014 sparkling Rosé is delightfully unusual. Aged in French oak, it tastes subtly like malt whisky. Rathfinney, meanwhile, have smuggled in a bottle of their Seven Sisters gin, which slides down uncommonly smoothly.
The evening ends with a palate-cleansing bubbly from Bluebell Vineyard Estates, which surprises me with mango sorbet on the tongue (although not on the nose). What black magic is this? Someone alert Willy Wonka! But by this time I realise I’ve learned an important lesson. Don’t attempt to drink the whole of Sussex in two hours. I did it so you don’t have to.
The eight estates comprising Sussex Wineries are Albourne Estate, Bluebell Vineyard Estates, Bolney Wine Estate, Oxney Organic, Rathfinny Estate, Ridgeview, Stopham Vineyards and Wiston Estate.
Echo Falls Chardonnay review: I recount the first (and last) time I tried this popular, cut-priced white. It’s one of the worst wines I’ve tasted. But that’s not the only reason to avoid cheap wine brands.
Just to warn you in advance, this is more of a rant than a review. But before the abuse begins, I’d like to reaffirm my anti-elitist wine stance and by saying that everyone should be allowed to drink whatever they like, free from mockery or prejudice. I, however, will not be drinking Echo Falls Chardonnay again.
Now, I love Chardonnay, but the cheap stuff can be oh so bad. And the fact that you can pick up an Echo Falls Chardonnay for £3.99 at the discount drug store Savers is a clear warning sign. As is the fact that Echo Falls (owned by Accolade, the same Australian mega-brand who make Banrock Station and Hardy’s wines) also produce Peach & Mango and Raspberry & Cassis flavoured wine. I just did a little vomit in my mouth.
The Problem With Cheap Wine Brands
Putting taste aside for the moment, the aspect that concerns me most about very cheap wine brands is this. When you consider how much of the price tag goes on VAT, excise duty, retailer’s profit, winery labour, packaging, transport costs, advertising etc, the amount spent on actually producing the wine must be miniscule. According to the below infographic, the actual value of the ingredients in a £5 bottle of wine is 37 pence. Some other infographics I’ve seen suggest the number is far lower.
Of course, not everybody is willing or able to spend more than a few quid on wine. For many, alcohol is just a means to an end, and that’s fine. But as you can see below, an exponentially greater percentage of cash goes into the wine costs the more you pay (this only applies up to a point, of course, before you start to get diminishing returns).
In a bid to make your wine as cheap as possible, Echo Falls must have skimped on copywriting costs too, judging by their description of this Chardonnay on their website. “It’s so famous there are children named after it!” and “Life’s great when things just happen!” read the adjacent taglines. Classy. Right down to the superfluous exclamation marks. Who needs to hire a professional when the office junior can just do it for nothing.
The only time I’ve tried this stuff was at the summer party thrown by the publishing company that produces the magazine I write for. It was a generous affair: more like a mini festival than a party, with live bands and free food. Generous, that is, in all aspects bar the wine.
I generally try to see the positives in a wine, but this Echo Falls Chardonnay was undrinkable. It tasted like fruit cordial mixed with vodka and water. Extremely sugary and cloying, it bore no resemblance any wine I’d ever tried. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was closer to an alcopop than a Burgundy.
It was like type two diabetes in a glass. I felt so sorry for the grass I spat it onto, that I actually apologised to it — as soon as I was able to speak again.
Ok, so this might not be literally the world’s worst wine (I once tried a Chinese “wine” that smelled of cow manure). And I wouldn’t expect any employer to splash out on world class Californian Chardonnay in bulk at a party, but guys… you could have done better than this.
Which brings me on to the biggest mystery here: that you can actually get some very decent wine for under £6 if you look hard enough. You won’t even have to cross the English Channel to get it. I’ve reviewed a couple on this site. Click the following link to find out which is my best-value supermarket white wine.
1 NINJA STAR
Echo Falls Chardonnay is available at most supermarkets in the UK, including Tesco, usually priced around £5.
We’re a spoilt (some might say smug) lot, here in Brighton and Hove. The winter snow’s barely had a chance to melt this year, and already two hot new bars have hit the streets. In January The Fix appeared at The Artist Residence, and now L’Atelier du Vin is set to unleash Brighton’s biggest wine and spirits collection upon North Laine’s blessed boozers.
If you’re sensing something familiar about the name L’Atelier du Vin, your suspicions might be correct. It’s the brainchild of two former Hotel du Vin experts: award-winning cocktail-maker Steve Pineau and Master Sommelier Dimitri Mesnard. The bar’s name translates as “artists’ studio of wine”, although I’m sure you’ll agree it sounds better in French.
It’s been styled as a Prohibition-era bootleg bar — a theme reflected in its “secret” entrance off Kensington Gardens, and inside by its mélange of reclaimed 1920s-style furniture, exposed brickwork, crepuscular lighting and jazzy sounds.
But what you really want to know about is L’Atelier du Vin’s gargantuan drinks menu, right? They’ve put together a selection of over 500 wines and 300 spirits, with a glass of wine starting at a surprisingly affordable £4 and rising to… well, I don’t know, but probably quite a lot.
The cocktail menu is classically inspired and organised in chronological order — ie, the drinks invented first are at the top. While this is an interesting concept, I’m not sure how they can know for sure who invented which cocktail and when. I mean, how do we know who made the first ever Tom Collins? Ok, bad example. Anyway, vintage spirits will also be available, including a distinctive Gordon’s Gin from the 1950s.
Food-wise, the bijoux menu features steak sourced locally from Trenchmore Farm and a range of charcuterie and cheeses. I’ll be at the launch of L’Atelier du Vin next week, so will keep you posted about how it measures up…
L’Atelier du Vin, Brighton, opens on Friday 16th March 2018, offering two for one on a selection of wines and cocktails between 5 and 7pm, Sunday to Friday. The bar will be open from noon each day, closing on Tuesdays.
I taste-test the new Sainsbury’s organic, vegan Sauvignon Blanc — one third of the latest additions to their So Organic range
Food and drink trends (or any trends, for that matter) don’t usually interest me much, but it’s impossible to ignore the rise in organic and vegan produce on supermarket shelves. And consumers’ increasing concern with what they’re putting in their bodies can only be a good thing.
Organic produce, of course, means no chemical fertilisers or pesticides, but what makes a wine vegetarian or vegan isn’t so widely known. Some wines use animal or dairy produce — gelatine, milk protein, egg whites — as “finings”, which are added during production to soak up unwanted particles, thus increasing clarity and/or adjusting the taste before being discarded.
At Sainsbury’s, sales of their “So Organic” wines are up by 25% over the past year, and they’ve reacted by adding three new organic, vegan offerings to the range: a Prosecco from Italy’s Veneto and Friuli region (£10); a French Rosé (£6.50); and a Spanish Sauvignon Blanc (£6.50), which I’m reviewing here.
Sauvignon Blanc can be hit and miss; often it’s too acrid for my taste. But you don’t see much Spanish Sauv Blanc in the UK (most of it coming from France, Chile or New Zealand), so I was looking forward to seeing how this one measured up. And I was pleased to find some unusual flavours in there.
The distinctive salty, leafy Sauv Blanc smell is present, along with the predicted pear and gooseberry. But the warmer Spanish climate and consequent longer grape-ripening time has added some tropical fruit notes too. I got orange and even… banana. OK, I might be the only person who thinks this wine smells of banana, but I cannot tell a lie.
On the palate, it’s lemon and lime all the way. I paired it with a salmon fillet drizzled with lime juice, with green beans and new potatoes on the side. An ideal combo, and a great-value wine with environmental credentials that’ll leave you feeling (almost) virtuous.
As the Beast blows in from the East, this Metaxa 12 Stars from Waitrose gives me a warm glow
It’s late February in London. And as I write these words, a rapidly swelling volume of snow cascades through the left side of my peripheral vision. Out of the office window, the winter is clamouring for my attention; insisting it’s not going out without a fight. I’m worried I might not make it home tonight, but the knowledge that I have two thirds of a bottle of Metaxa 12 Stars waiting for me should keep me going later, as I trudge through the blizzard they’re calling “the Beast from the East”…
The Greek spirit Metaxa is a blend of brandy and wine, featuring Savatiano, Black Corinth and Sultana grape varieties, plus Muscat wine from the islands of Samos and Lemnos and a secret blend of Mediterranean herb and floral extracts. It’s been around since the late 19th century and comes in nine major categories — hence the star rating. As you might imagine, the stars refer to the amount of time each variety has been aged, in French Limousin oak barrels (the same oak used for Cognac).
Three stars is the entry-level category, and is the stuff you’ll likely be offered to wash down your souvlaki and chips in a Corfu tourist restaurant. The three-star makes a serviceable digestif, but this pricier Metaxa 12 Stars variety is a different beast altogether. Imagine the difference between a blended Scotch from the Happy Shopper and a 15-year-old single malt and you’ll get the idea.
How To Drink Metaxa
If you’re wondering how to drink Metaxa 12 Stars, I can recommend the following three official recommendations.
Straight up in a short glass.
In a whisky glass with one large chunk of ice.
In a long glass over ice, with cucumber, ginger ale and a twist of orange peel or lime zest (see picture above).
I tried all three, plus I also experimented with lemon instead of lime zest in the cocktail option. The former two work beautifully as winter warmers and are a neat alternative to whisky or brandy as a fireside treat or to cut through a heavy mea.
Conversely, the cocktail option is extremely refreshing and would suit a summer’s evening in the garden or make a zesty aperitif. With the cucumber, it’s comparable to a stronger, more complex (and less sickly sweet) version of Pimm’s. Like red wine, I find brandy or brandy-based drinks can make me sleepy if drunk straight. The sugar in the ginger ale helps to counteract that effect, so a Metaxa cocktail would also make a good going-out drink.
The blurb on the Waitrose website promises, among other things, “a secret bouquet of May roses”. Hmm. I’m not sure I could tell the difference between May roses and June ones. Maybe that’s why it’s a secret. But what I did experience was equally delicious: honey, hazlenut, nougat and orange, tied together in a rich and complex package that, at 40% volume, also kicks like a mule. I’m converted.
Metaxa’s recent ad campaign features the ice-cool explorer Mike Horn urging us: “don’t drink it, explore it”. Well, I’ve explored it alright. But I fully intend to drink it too — if I ever make it home through this raging blizzard.
5 NINJA STARS
Waitrose sells Metaxa 12 Stars for £30 (on offer for £25 at the time of writing) at www.waitrose.com
If I were ever attacked in the wine isle at Aldi (you never know, it could happen), the bottle I’d pick for self-defence purposes would be this Aldi Astélia Limoux Chardonnay. The glass is thick and heavy enough to stop a charging rhino.
Cluedo-style acts of violence aside, this would also be my bottle of choice for drinking purposes because, at the time of writing, it’s my favourite white wine in the store. Sure, the Freeman’s Bay Pinot Gris provides the best value at a ridiculous £5.69, but this is a classier, more complex wine with greater depth of flavour. And that’s reflected in the price (£8.99).
Rich honey, creamy pear and a crumb of apple pie smack you on the nose here (sorry, I’ll lay off the violent imagery now), while on the tongue a touch of gooseberry citrus partners buttery oakiness and a thankfully light touch of oak. It’s as bold and dry as an Arnold Schwarzenegger put-down. But, of course, far more elegant.
It’s made by the respected producers Paul Mas in the Limoux AOC of the Languedoc region of south-western France. In the Languedoc, you tend to get more for your money than in some of the higher-profile regions of France. And at this price, the Aldi Astélia Limoux Chardonnay is a beautiful bargain. I’m not sure how Aldi do it, and I’m veering on suspicion that they can do it at all.
4.5 NINJA STARS
Aldi Limoux Chardonnay 2016. £8.99. 13.5% vol
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As a wine ninja, I’m fascinated by all things Japanese. So I was excited to learn that Waitrose this week becomes the first UK supermarket to introduce Japanese gin. It’s called Roku – and my years of counting punches in the dojo tells me this translates as the number six.
And sure enough, Roku Japanese gin is made with six Japanese botanicals, including two styles of green tea (Sencha and Gyokuru), Yuzu, Sanshō pepper, and Sakura (cherry blossom) flower and leaf.
The Japanese serve Roku with ice and tonic, but in lieu of lemon or lime they recommend six slithers of fresh ginger. This, of course, gives me no end of ninja-related wordplay ideas, and I reckon a Japanese ginger gin and tonic should henceforth be called… a ginja.
I’ve not tasted Roku gin yet, but arigatou gozaimasu (or thanks very much) to Waitrose for continuing their experimental approach to drinks buying. Given the relentless rise in popularity of gin and, to a lesser extent, Japanese whisky, Roku Japanese gin sounds like a knockout combo.
Roku Japanese Craft Gin is available in Waitrose branches nationwide and on WaitroseCellar.com, priced at £30 (70cl).
Due to popular demand, the above handbag-sized half-bottles (sized at 37.5cl and marketed as “weekday friendly”) have been added to the Aldi Wine selection.
I think this is a smart move by the bargain retailer; they’re clearly listening to their customers’ feedback. I was in Portugal last week and they have a far greater selection of half-bottle wines in the supermarkets over there, compared to the UK. And half-bottles appeal to me for several, pretty obvious, reasons.
You can try two different wines for the price of one.
It’s cheap and convenient for cooking/slurping-while-cooking.
It saves couples from arguing/costly legal battles if one wants white and the other red with dinner.
Sometimes you fancy a glass of wine at home after work, but a whole bottle’s too much and a mini is too… mini.
The first varieties they’re rolling out in this size are from Cramele Recas, Romania’s largest winery, priced at £2.99 each. The come in 2017 Malbec, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir varieties — neatly spreading themselves across the spectrum from featherweight to full-bodied.
Which three do you reckon they’ll bring out next? My money’s on Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc and a Zinfandel rosé. What I’d LOVE to see, however, is mid-priced white Burgundy, Napa Valley or Stellenbosch Chardonnay; a Rhone Valley GSM blend; and a smokey Austrian Blaufränkisch. Maybe one day.
I’ve just received samples of the Pinot Grigio and the Pinot Noir, but 10.30am is a bit early to start boozing, even for me. So I’ll try them over the weekend and update this story with my verdict. Offbeat opinions to follow in the white space below…
Half-sized Malbec, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir from Aldi. 37.5cl, 2017, £2.99.
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