Pass the port … and the chocolates

Yesterday, we attended the Three Wine Men Christmas Tasting at Lancashire County Cricket Ground. While we tasted some great wines (my top pick was Two Paddocks Picnic Riesling), the highlight of our day was the Port & Chocolate Matching Masterclass, presented by the excellent Sarah Jane Evans MW. Ramos Pinto port, Godiva chocolates and a Master of Wine, tasting doesn’t get any better than this!

Sarah Jane opened the session by allowing us to smell and suck (but not bite!) a square of dark chocolate while she gave us some background on her extremely tough existence as a wine and chocolate expert. She explained that, while port is traditionally enjoyed with cheese on Christmas Day, it is much more versatile than that, as we experienced over the next 30 minutes.

Ramos_Pinto_Collector_grandeThe first port we tasted was Ramos Pinto Collector Unfiltered Ruby Reserve NV. I thought this was excellent value for money (£16.99), as it was velvety smooth with no alcohol “burn” and packed with dark cherry flavour. (The Ramos Pinto website entry for this port describes the fruit as “sanguine”; I’m not sure if they mean in the sense of being red or optimistic, but either way I like it.) We then took a bite of the Godiva Saint Germain marzipan covered in daIntense_Framboiserk chocolate. Now, I normally hate marzipan, but I do try to stay open-minded so I gave it a go. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on it by itself, but when I took another sip of the port, they were fantastic together: the marzipan magnified the smoothness of the port.   Next, we tasted the same port with the Godiva Intense Framboise. This had a different effect, emphasising the (sanguine) fruit flavours and extending the length of the finish.

Garrafa_Terroir_Platinum_LBVNext came the Ramos Pinto LBV 2009. This is richly creamy, with vanilla and cherry flavours. The website describes this one as defiant! I’m not sure what the writer meant, but it was my favourite port of the session, defying my preconception that I prefer tawny port. We tasted it with the Godiva Dark Orangette and Tourbillon 85 – a dark ganache. They were both excellent combinations, but I loved this port so much that I preferred to taste it by itself. (Believe me, for me to prefer anything to chocolate, it has to be sublime.)



The final port was Ramos Pinto 10 Year Old Tawny Quinta de Ervamoira NV. This was a proper Christmassy treat, full of toffee, walnut and figs. We tasted it with the Godiva Speculoos Truffle and Mochaccino Truffle. I preferred it with the Speculoos Truffle (if you’re not familiar, speculoos are spiced biscuits popular in Belgium, the Truffe_Speculooshome of Godiva), which brought out lovely rich caramel flavours.





My favourite things about the masterclass were the LBV port, the speculoos truffle and Sarah Jane’s warmth, enthusiasm and ability to convey her wealth of knowledge in a way suitable for the absolute novice and keen amateur.

La Dolce Vita

I may have to give up wine tasting. I think my tastebuds have died and gone to heaven.  Last night, I sampled some of the most exquisite wines I have ever tried, at the Wine Society’s Italian tasting in Chester.

Back in March, I wrote about our trip to the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter: Italy.  While we discovered some excellent wines among the hundreds on offer, we were left feeling underwhelmed.  Last night, there were only 28 wines available to taste, but this meant that we could taste all of them (actually, the one rosato slipped through the net, as we forgot to go back to it between white and red).  The “hit rate” was extremely high – while we couldn’t get excited about every single wine, they all had something about them and some of them were amazing.

I won’t list all 27 wines, but I’ll share details of some of my favourites: worthy winners of my patented “smiley face” system.

Vini bianchi

Two white wines stood out for me:


Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, Le Giumcare 2010: this had a lovely full body, achieved by ageing 25% of the wine in oak for 14 months.  It had a lovely nutty almond flavour.  I’ve previously found Verdicchio boring; this was anything but.

FalanghinaFalanghina del Sannio, Janare 2013: I’d never heard of Falanghina before last night; apparently it’s only grown in Campania.  I think it would be a lovely name for a horse, if I had one.  Janare is a local name for a friendly witch!  This wine was slightly off-dry with a creamy mouthfeel, balanced with zippy acidity and a delicious apricot flavour.  I think that this would work best well-chilled as an aperitivo, but it’s also recommended for serving with seafood.  I’d love to try it with spicy prawns.  This was a really exciting discovery for me – a grape variety I hadn’t even heard of, that turned out to be absolutely gorgeous!


Vini Rossi

My favourite reds were:

BaroloBarolo, Luigi Baudana 2009: I often find Nebbiolo-based wines too acidic and tannic.  Not this one – the 3½ years’ barrel ageing has smoothed out those rough edges, while preserving the pure sour cherry flavours.  This is really lovely and extremely approachable.  The lovely signorina pouring the wine described it as a table-pleaser: if you need to order a wine to go with different meals, or if you’re going to a dinner party but don’t know what’s on the menu, this will work with everything.  As a fish lover, I’d be very keen to give this a go with something fishy.


While I’m on the subject of Barolo, I have to share with you my favourite wine quote ever, from the very funny (and very rude) Channel 4 sitcom “Peep Show”. Jeremy is out for a meal with a girl he really wants to impress.  She orders a bottle of Barolo.  When he tastes it, we hear his inner monologue: “Oh. That is fantastic. THIS. This is wine. Yeah, look at what these idiots are drinking. Look at these dicks! Obviously it’s not REALLY delicious like hot chocolate or Coke but for wine…”

Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena 2011

This is one of the very few wines ever to be honoured with my highest ranking: the “O” face. This is far and away the best Chianti I have ever tasted, brimming over with violets and blueberries.  I’ve written before about wanting to have a “Drops of God” moment and finding myself transported to a field of fruit and flowers.  I had one last night.  If I had to choose one wine to drink every day for the rest of my life, this would be it.


Vini Dolci

Vino Santo del Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena 2005: Vin santo is an unfortified sweet wine particular to Tuscany, made from a blend of malvasia bianco and trebbiano toscano.  The grapes are dried on rush mats during the winter, to concentrate the natural sugars.  On our recent trip to Tuscany we enjoyed cheap and cheerful vin santo a couple of times, served by way of a dessert with cantucci biscuits for dipping.  They were lovely, but this vino santo was the real deal, bursting with dried fruit flavours and a long citrussy finish.  It was lusciously sweet, but well-balanced with lively acidity.  At £29 for a half bottle, I won’t be using it for dipping cantucci, but it would be a fantastic treat at the end of a special meal.

Orvieto Classico Superiore Calcaia Dolce, Barberani 2010: this is another sweet wine, but made with Grechetto grapes affected by “Muffa Nobile” (that’s Italian for noble rot, isn’t it beautiful?).  It was light and fresh, less sweet than the vino santo, with botrytis flavours of marmalade and apricot.

I was hugely impressed by the standard of wines at this tasting. The Wine Society is owned by its members (a one-off fee of £40 buys lifetime membership) and its stated aim is to introduce members to the world’s best vineyards at a fair price.  It has a team of expert buyers, whose brief is to “buy only wines which they are enthusiastic about from producers who share their passion for quality at every price”.   Last night’s event proved that the Society’s buyers know exactly what they’re doing.  They assembled a small but perfectly-formed selection of high-quality wines to provide a wonderful evening’s tasting.  Quite a few of the producers were checking their phones between pouring to see Italy’s footballers follow England out of the World Cup, but they helped to prove that Italy’s wines can compete with the best in the world.

Rule Britagne: The Mighty Blighty Fizz Spectacular

FrankLast night we celebrated English Wine Week with a tasting of English sparkling wine at Corks Out in Timperley, appropriately under the gaze of the statue of Frank Sidebottom, a great but sadly late English eccentric.

Some English wine facts to get you started:

England now has about 110 wineries (there are 14 more in Wales) producing about 2.5 million bottles a year, of which about 60% (and I think it’s fair to say the most successful) is sparkling.

While the French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is often credited with inventing sparkling wine, there is documentary evidence that in 1662 the Englishman Christopher Merrett presented the snappily-titled paper “Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines” in which he described the process of adding sugar to wine to make it sparkle. Although it seems that the French did play their part: wine was transported from France in casks for bottling in England.  Sometimes it contained some remaining yeast which, when the wine warmed up, would start a second fermentation.


MansellWhile the early days of Champagne production were hampered by exploding bottles, England led the way in glassmaking.   In 1615, Sir Robert Mansell, an admiral in the Royal Navy, obtained a monopoly on a new method of glass production using sea coal rather than charcoal.  The story goes that James I banned the use of charcoal in order to save trees to make ships for the Navy.  Sir Robert’s other claim to fame was that he cut off the hand of Sir Christopher Heyden in a duel.  The mummified hand is now on display in Norwich Castle Museum.  If that’s not a reason to visit the UK, I don’t know what is.



Our tasting commenced with a dégustation of the French stuff: Ayala Brut Majeur NV (45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Meunier).  This was very fruity, with lots of green apple flavour.  However, it did make me realise that I’m developing a bit of a Goldilocks complex in relation to sparkling wine, specifically the fruit/toast balance.  I recently slated a Franciacorta for being too toasty; last night I was criticising a Champagne for being all fruit and no toast.  I’m looking for one that’s just right.

After mocking the French for the absence of pain grillé, we returned to home territory with Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2009.  Gusbourne Estate is in Kent, which has the same chalky soil as Champagne, enabling it to grow grapes and make wine in the same style.  This is also green appley, but moving in the right direction with the toast.


My favourite of the night was Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009 (55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier).  This was more complex and balanced than the preceding wines, combining red fruit flavours with biscuity briochey flavours.  Excellent and the winner of the night’s smiley face.  (The Renen-Utet alternative to Parker Points.  It’s the way forward.)  It’s also just won a Gold Medal in the International Wine Challenge.


Next up was Henners Brut Vintage 2009 (33% of each of the usual suspects).  While this was perfectly good, I think that it suffered from following the Nyetimber, which was too tough an act for it to follow.  It was an interesting contrast, as it had a pronounced mineral flavour, with high acidity and citrus flavours.  If you prefer minerals to fruit, you’d love it.  I’d also be happy to give it another go, just not straight after Nyetimber, to see if that improves it.

VivienneThe next wine was what I’d describe as the oddball of the evening: Coates and Seely Brut Rosé (65% Pinot Noir and 35% Pinot Meunier).  Coates and Seely sell their wines (all sparkling) under the name “Britagne” (ie British Champagne).  I’m not sure that it will catch on – what do you think?  This wine stood out in so many ways, starting with its colour, which was a pale golden peach, rather than pink.  I’d describe its aromas and flavours as the essence of English eccentricity: strawberries at Wimbledon, Lancashire cheese and a hint of the farmyard.  The Vivienne Westwood of wine.  I gave it a quizzical smiley face.

The last sparkler was Bolney Cuvée Noir (100% Dornfelder from Sussex).  I was apprehensive about this, because I’ve tasted a number of Aussie sparkling reds with an open mind, only to find something resembling sparkling Ribena.  However, this could actually convert me to sparkling red.  It was pleasingly dry, with a pronounced sour cherry flavour.  It’s extremely drinkable and I think that it would make a great original opening number for a barbecue.

We finished with a still wine: Stophan Estate Rosé 2013 (another 100% Dornfelder from Sussex).  This was good fun; off dry with lots of strawberries with a touch of cream.  It had a very pronounced fruit flavour, but was let down a little by a short finish.

I think that our evening showed that when it works, English sparkling wines can be great. Bear in mind that our southerly vineyards are only 80 miles from Champagne and share the same geology, so why shouldn’t they be just as good?  However, our winemakers are at the mercy of the unpredictable climate; in 2012 Nyetimber had to scrap its harvest, which had failed to ripen properly due to poor weather, including the wettest June since records began.  The attendant difficulties of winemaking and low volumes mean that prices are high at present, which probably puts people off. The silver lining in the cloud that is global warming is helping, but its future impact is uncertain.  I will certainly be keeping my eye and tastebuds on English wine, and I recommend that you do the same.

A Majestic evening

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Last night, we spent a lovely evening at our local (Hale Barns) Majestic store, enjoying their summer tasting. We were warmly welcomed by the manager, Nick, who offered us a choice of sparkling French rosé or Nyetimber Classic Cuvée.  Being … Continue reading