Mr Vine Tasting 6

With the autumnal weather as unpredictable as Richard Hemming’s dress sense, we gathered for our Mr Vine’s September panel tasting at Winemakers Club near the Holborn viaduct. A somewhat revered site as was the original Oddbins in a former life. So it was under the musty moody railway arches of this new-ish wine bar/shop/events space that we set about sampling a new batch of wines. Intriguingly four out of five of the winners were Italian, this time out. But each one different and dancing to its own beat. 

First place: Luigi Maffini ‘Kratos’ Fiano 2014 (Campania, Italy; 13.0%; £14.50, WoodWinters)

Some say the white Fiano grape will be the next big thing in the UK, and classic examples like this one show why. It’s an intense and persistent wine, with no-nonsense apple, pear and apricot aromas and a herbal twang. Starts off subtle, but finishes with a fresh, dry, mineral edge and a burst of flavour. You could drink this all night and not get bored. 90 points.

NN verdict – Certainly worthy of the top spot.

Second place: Tenuta Mara ‘Maramia’ 2012 (Emilia-Romagna, Italy; 13.5%; £41, WoodWinters)

This is the first vintage from this ambitious new biodynamic estate. They only make one wine, and no expense is spared; they even serenade the Sangiovese vines with Mozart. Who knows if that makes any difference, but the care and effort the take really shows through; this is a genuinely fine wine that really speaks of its origin. Autumnal aromas like dried leaves and truffle spill from the glass, alongside red cherry and dark chocolate. It’s lively and tangy, robust yet refreshing, ethereal but long in flavour. It has a high price for sure, but this is delicious and has real substance and interest. 91 points.

 NN verdict – Was totally enamored of this bonkers despite its higher price tag.

Third place: Luigi Maffini ‘Kleos’ Aglianico 2012 (Campania, Italy; 13.5%; £14.00, WoodWinters)

Another winner from expert winemaker Luigi Maffini, this time from the robust red Aglianico grape. It has baked blackberry, blueberry and stewed plum fruits inlaid with cigar tobacco and cinnamon. In the mouth it has real presence and texture; it’s full-bodied, savoury and very dry. It’s a big black bull of a wine that needs hearty food to be best appreciated. 89 points.

 NN verdict – That Maffini was back and though not as interesting as his Fiano still a solid bronze.

Fourth place: Le Fonti Sangiovese 2012 (Tuscany, Italy; 13.0%; £9.89, Cadman Fine Wines)

There are two Sangioveses to bring to your attention this month; this one may not have the brilliance of the Tenuta Mara, but then it is less than a quarter of the price. It’s like a beginner’s guide to Italian Sangiovese – expressive cherry and herbal notes, crisp acidity and an elegant lightness of touch. Not the most concentrated, but it’s very decent for under a tenner. 87 points.

NN verdict – A bit out of balance for my palate, but the group thought it a solid showing.

Fifth place: Domaine Baron Sauvignon Blanc Vieilles Vignes 2014 (Loire, France; 12.5%; £8.99, Cadman Fine Wines)

Sauvignon Blanc can be samey, but this one from the Touraine is more luscious and interesting than the norm. It’s relatively ripe, fruity and opulent for a Loire Sauvignon – fans of New Zealand examples will get it immediately. Plenty of grapefruit and green pepper with a hint of smoke; not the most subtle, but very enjoyable. 88 points.

NN verdict – I really enjoyed this wine. Possessed character and of a sense of place.

Mr Vine is a free iPhone app that helps you discover and buy the kinds of wine you like from a marketplace consisting of over 1,000 wines across a dozen different independent UK wine shops. Each month, a panel of five drinks experts (Richard Hemming, Helena Nicklin, Matt Walls, Zeren Wilson and me) meet up to taste a selection of wines available via the app in order to sniff out some gems. We score the wines out of 100, provide a tasting note and – perhaps most importantly – pick our top five of the night. These won’t necessarily be the highest scoring, just the wines we feel most excited about bringing to your attention.

For more info on the app and how it works, check out



Bay Tree Lavender Jelly

I discovered West Country based The Bay Tree Food Company at a food fair last year and fell in love with their Spicy Gooseberry & Coriander Chutney. I had been holding onto the their Lavender Jelly for a special occasion but wish I hadn’t. The stuff is wonderful! Despite the ‘warning’  on the jar saying “Not only lovely with lamb” I went ahead and had it with it anyway. You see because that’s how I roll. I am a total rebel.

Tasting it solo, the first thing you get is a sharp hit of cider vinegar, then bright shards of aromatic lavender with subtle hints of Indian spices. It’s very balanced, so not cloying or over sweet. The flavours are exotic, yet soothing.

It went beautifully with the roast lamb, which loves aromatic accompaniments. But also went well with chicken, elevating the humble clucker without the need for lots of gravy. Pan fried pork paired nicely with the classic sweet and sour character.  Finally soft creamy goats cheese was given the royal treatment with the sharpness in both harmonising but also being lifted by the fragrant lavender.

You can buy Lavender Jelly for £2.70 online as well a a ton of other delicious consumables from The Bay Tree Food Company.


Non Alcoholic Beers

At the behest of my good lady we had a dry January and so I had a reason to try some booze free brews.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 11.44.46Jever Fun (.05% abv/£1)

Made by a respected German brewer and despite its rather ironic name (those crazy Germans with their “unique” sense of humour) I thought this wasn’t bad at all. It’s price tag of a quid is pretty attractive as well.

Smells of normal lager green hops hint of sweet malt a bit metallic. Crisp fresh, nice mouth feel, bitter in the right places, it’s dry, balanced finish no nasty aftertaste. It actually tastes better than a lot of alcoholic McLagers and was quite good with a spicy curry. It does need to be drunk very cold though & relatively quickly. As the ‘Fun’ loses carbonation and warms more uneven vegetal flavours emerge making it less pleasant to drink.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 11.45.08 Rothaus Alkoholfrei (.05% abv/£2)

Another German offering with a slightly sweet stinky malt nose. It’s clean, easy drinking with no aftertaste. Reminded me a bit of light Swedish beers (Skol and Falcon) I drank when I first visited Scandinavia back in the 90’s. Not bad at all. Tasting blind, I’m not sure I could tell it was non alcoholic. A good sign.

I can’t say that I will be rushing out to stock up on either of the beers but I can say hand on heart that if you are unable to or choose not drink alcohol but still want a decent brewski and either of these will do.

I bought both beers from The Beer Boutique which is a lovely beer shop in Putney.


Alipus and Los Danzantes Mezcal Masterclass

Some of you may never have heard of mezcal and others might just have a murky painful memory (or two) of some bygone hangover that involved it or its deadly compadres tequila, that most notorious firewater of Mexican extraction.

Mezcal and tequila are indeed similar spirits, and with most considering tequila to be a type of mezcal (means “oven cooked agave” in native Nahuatl). Essentially both are distilled from types of agave, though Tequila can only be made from blue agave, while Mezcal has more than 30 types of maguey (Agave Americana) to choose from, with most made from Agave Espadin. Mezcal is produced in eight Mexican states (mostly in Oaxaca), tequila five, but the production process for both begins with harvesting the hearts of agave or the piña. For most tequila the next step is for the agave to be pressure cooked in large stainless steel ovens. Mezcal differs in that it tends to be more artisanal in its production, with methods that go back centuries, having been passed down through generations. The technique of baking small batches in the earthen pits or stone ovens (for three to four days) is an ancient one. Industrial crushing and fermentation takes place on the large scale, but smaller producers crush the maguey in stone mills with the help of a donkey or horse with the resultant juice left to ferment for one to two weeks.

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A wander through history tells us the Aztecs saw the maguey as mythically powerful plant and produced a fermented beverage from it called octli (later called pulque). However things changed (not all for the better, but that’s another story) with the arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of distillation, thus bringing mezcal into being.

Now I don’t claim to any kind of an expert (far from it), but I did learn a lot while at a masterclass of bespoke producers Alipus and Los Danzantes. The event was hosted by importer and retailer extraordinaire Amathus at their Wardour St shop; where I arrived a few minutes late. Spotting what looked to be the last empty place at the long tasting table (wedged between chatting factions of bartenders, it being an afternoon affair), and using my “ninja skills” I managed to slip into the seat practically unseen. As I settled my finely tuned reflexes must have sensed danger because my left arm flicked out at blinding speed knocking over one of my full tasting glass and smashing another. Smooth, very smooth. After a few jokes that I hadn’t even had a drink, some blushing, tidying and a refill we began tasting:

We got started with a trio of Joven or young spirits from Alipus:

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San Juan  (Fermented in oak vats) – 47.3%  AVB  Pear and aquavit on the nose. This was followed on the palate by creamy pear that was a touch chemical, with that familiar “tequila burn” finish.

San Baltazar (pine vats) – 48.1% AVB – Tannery and gamey aromas with the similar pear flavours to the San Juan but a smoky edge with a longer finish.

San Andres (cypress vats, agave crushed by hand) – 48% AVB – The nose is instantly more exotic and complex than the previous two: whiffs of soft peach, pear and perfumed elderflower. In the mouth it’s creamy stone fruit, warming hot cedar and a delicious smooth finish. A beauty!

Next was Los Danzantes (Organic and fermented by naturally occurring wild yeasts):

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Joven  42.5% AVB – The nose is wild (those yeasts), hot spicy and a kind of boozy that reminds me of grappa. Sippin it I feel as though I am in a dry hot smoky sauna made of pears.

Reposado – 43.2% AVB – Reposado means aged and in the case of this mezcal that translates to 11 months in new French white oak barrels from the Nevier forest (oh my!). Sharp eau de vie nose, tasting it there’s plenty of earthy smoke, but for the first time I can actually taste baked agave (reminded me of aloe), then lovely caramelised pear and a full sensual round finish. Yum E!

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I was deeply impressed with the complexity, texture and character of the mezcal, especially the Reposado and San Andres. These hand crafted spirits had nothing in common the kinds of beverages dished out at dodgy TexMex joints by scantily clad gals (guys) in a holster full of shot glasses. Alipus and Los Danzantes are most certainly special sippers deserving of a decent size glass for swirling with perhaps a slice of orange rather than a salty hand and a wedge of lemon. Such premium quality does come at a price, with these bad boys retailing between £52-65. But if you are a fan of mezcal or known someone who is, it’s certainly worth picking up a bottle or would make a great gift. 

Though none of the mezcals tasted contained any, many of you are probably thinking: What’s the deal with the worm?

Well firstly its actually a butterfly larva and is more associated with mezcal than tequila. The larvae bore into the agave heart and so were often cooked up with the maguey, with some feeling the little grubs added to mezcal’s flavour.  Then sometime around 1950 some guy in Mexico city decided it would make a great gimmick to put a bug in the bottle and needless to say it has stuck.

As I stood to leave the fact that mezcal is considered to have somewhat more of a psychotropic effect than the usual inebriation was made plain. That sensation of being a bit “high”, I felt invigorated and left smiling with that most famous Oaxaca saying ringing in my ears:

“para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” (“for everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same”).

*Feature photo is of Gustavo Muñoz, founder of the Los Danzantes Group

Little Brew Beer Review

I stumbled upon Little Brew at some beer event that I don’t recall the name of: Craft Beer Empire or Crafty Crafty Beer Beer or some such. What I do remember though is making friends with a bunch of railway signalmen (active and retired), who after the session ended invited me to a nearby pub where we all got so pissed that as I prepared to depart via my pedal bike, promptly fell flat on the pavement. Uninjured, I cycled home (do NOT drink and cycle it is very dangerous and against the law) and except for a violent emotional episode around Elephant and Castle both the Little Brews and I arrived home safe. Here’s what I thought of the beers…

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Pale Ale 5.2%

Quite dark for a pale (I thought) with a nose that wasn’t giving much away. Touch earthy woody mushroom perhaps. That ho hum continued onto a palate that was dry, nutty with some chestnut. Tannins were quite drying, like an over brewed cup of tea. Hmmm.  Score- 6.25/10

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Ruby Red Ale 5.6%

Deep auburn with a lovely interweaving aromas of raspberry, chocolate and super fresh mint. Full mouth flavour that was tangy, herbaceous with warming malts. The finish was long bitter cherry with a hint of worn leather. Solid. Score 7.25/10

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Extra Tusks IPA 6.6%

Hazy golden sugar brown. The nose bashed you right on the face with grilled pineapple, barley sugars, green tea and tobacco. The exotic adventure continued on the palate with creamy coconut and dried pineapple that was direct, clean and sharp. The banana finish topped off the tropical fruit salad in stellar fashion. A great beer! Score 8.25/10

Little Brew is a one barrel brewery in Camden Town, but are expanding to York premises so must be doing alright. Has been awhile since I tasted the beers so they are worth another look for sure.



Hung Out to Dry in January

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 10.40.26As a food and drink blogger taking an entire month off the sauce seemed utter madness. Why would I do that to myself? I really like good booze, nay I love good booze! “Libational” religious experience is common parlance in my vocabulary. But at the behest of my fiancée, who was also abstaining for the month of January, I decided to give it a go.

There have been plenty of opportunities to slip up: a free bar at the opening of Brooklyn Bowl at the O2 (post to follow), a friend’s raucous house party. Though most challenging of them all have been the numerous delightful dinners at home with my lady. Between us sits a very unwelcome, but familiar guest, murky miserable looking squash is his name and washing away any culinary joy is his game. Between bites, are half heard mumblings, curses to our puritan resolve, while wonderful beers, ciders, wines and spirits sat mere feet away calling to us like sirens.

During this time of reflection, my understanding of why I drink has come more clearly into focus. It’s not so much the “two pint euphoria” or the “winegasm” I miss (though those are some good vibes). It’s the ceremony of opening a bottle of wine that’s been laid down a few years, the discovery of a new brewery whose beer sings at the first sip, the sound ice makes when it’s stirred with bourbon to make an Old Fashioned. But most of all, I miss the marriage of well-made food and good drink. Sure there are some very good non-alcoholic matches for some cuisines. You only have to look at the Lassi with an Indian or Green Tea with Sushi. But for me nothing can quite match the harmony that is achieved with pairing the right wine or beer or cider or spirit with a dish. The word sacred may seem a step too far for some, but not me.

On the plus side I’ve discovered some very good alcohol-free beers: the ironically named Jever ‘Fun’ and more to the point Rothaus  Alkoholfrei.

When I started out on this little experiment in temperance, I didn’t believe I possessed the will power to abstain from one of my greatest passions for a whole month, that somehow I would lose my nerve and give in.

But I did it; I abstained for a whole month.

The 2 things I learned?

1. I am strong enough to go a month (or longer if I so chose) without drinking.

2. I am unlikely to take a month off drinking ever again.

Fullers Vintage Ale

I had been saving a bottle of Fullers Vintage Ale 2000 since I was given it during a visit to the historic Griffin Brewery in Chiswick at a beer bloggers conference nearly three years ago. It was the first time a beer had lasted more than a week in my house, let alone years. Of this particular vintage Fullers had produced 85,000 bottles and decided to brew with English Champion Optic Malt and Organic Target Hops.

I wanted a special occasion to open it, Christmas Day seemed appropriate and much ceremony was made while pouring out this bottle conditioned* time capsule. Its smooth rich deep amber hue nestled comfortably into the feminine curves of the two elegant 1/3 pint CAMRA glasses I had chosen for the special task.

To my nose I raised the branded tulip and was struck a touch dumb with the complex aromas that greeted me. My olfactory curator reeled trying to make sense of this woody earthy perfume, but it began slowly to emerge. First fresh bees wax, then sweet corn syrup left to sit in the sun, next came toasted sunflower seeds and finally dense rich malt loaf with fat raisins. All the while weaving in and out were wild herbs and dried grasses. Now it was time to taste, the first sip coated my mouth with dry peach, then Demerara sugar. I kept needing to taste and re taste to discern the dry herb finish. It caused my to mouth actually sweat, the drying woody tannins lingering on my tongue. To say this 8.5% ABV beer is rather special is an understatement, it is a beverage imbued with the nuance and diversity of flavour that I usually reserve for wine – a truly try before you die beer.

It paired beautifully with the Neal’s YardMelrose & Morgan cheeses (Perroche soft goats, Stawley washed rind goats & Gran Jura) biscuits and onion chutney. Despite never having “laid down” beer before I can proudly say that there is around a dozen bottles from different brewers sat in my pantry stood a reasonably cool dark box, maturing, growing wise. I thoroughly recommend you do the same.

You can order Fullers Vintage Ale 2013 direct online from £6 a bottle. They may have other vintages in stock so do get in touch with them to find out. Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.11.56

*Bottle Conditioning – The secondary fermentation that occurs when yeast and sugars are added to the beer right before bottling. This process leads to higher alcohol content and allows the beer to be aged, which can produce varying changes in taste and strength.

Definition courtesy of Beer Tutor

Jackson & Rye

The Americans are coming the Americans are coming! No I’m not talking tourists or invasion (though the tourists can make it feel like an occupation sometimes), I am talking food. London is overflowing with patty shacks, rib joints, dog stands and God save you if you don’t have Mac n Cheese on your menu. Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.07.51We also seem to have fallen back in love with the 20s, the speakeasy and brasserie all done up in moody, sensual, art deco curves are popping up as often as a flapper’s backside. Sister to recently opened Grillshackoffspring of Tommy Tune lookalike billionaire Richard CaringJackson & Rye is most definitely a nod across the pond to the kind of place we imagine New York to be full of. Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.04.33Cozy banquettes all deep brown, subdued lighting, walls that looked stained with the smoke of thousands of cigars. To the untrained eye J & R looks like it could have been there for 80 years, but the giveaway that they only opened their doors before Christmas is that the grand marble toilets are spotless & smell only of scented candles.Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.07.11 There’s a lovely bar as you come in, with seating upstairs as well as down with capacity for 130 diners.

I kicked off with a glass of their unfiltered lager which is brewed by Brewers & Union and quite good indeed. While we perused the sensibly priced brunch menu (which is pure Americana. The likes of Milk & Cookies, Buttermilk Pancakes, Corn Bread, Reuben Sandwich, Chopped Salad, wait for it… Truffled Mac n Cheese, etc) we moved onto their house fizz from the Loire. Francois Dulac Blanc de Blanc Mousseux Brut NV was cScreen Shot 2014-01-08 at 13.10.06lean, fresh and with hits of lime it impressed on the palate as well as the wallet, only £19.95. The wine list is well priced and thought out, with plenty of interesting offerings by the glass from Europe as well as the US of A. In addition to the unfiltered draft lager, they also do a handful of well worn Yankee names by the bottle.

To start we ordered the Market Soup, Chopped Tuna salad and Crab. The pumpkin soup was rich thick and came in a classy pewter jug. Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.06.07The twist came at the bottom of the bowl, a delicious spinach and ricotta ravioli. So using your spoon as a cleaver and digging deep you could pull up a mouth full of cheesy Popeye goodness with that creamy pumpkin richness. The chopped tuna was a bit of a let down. Seared and nicely presented but it lacked seasoning and could have done with a good squeeze of lime. The classic crab and avocado stack was substantial, decadent and raised to a new height by the pool of spicy tomato that it swam in.Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.06.29 A super dish.

Mains of Sea Bass, Meatballs and Rib Cut Steak were all reasonably accomplished. The sea bass didn’t look appetising, the colours bland and uninviting, but it wasn’t too overcooked, and the caper sauce did its job. Sadly the grilled baby gem came of the worst, looking sad indeed.Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.06.41 The veal & beef meatballs were a hit in their roasted tomato sauce, and certainly the best of the trio. The 10oz steak was acceptable, decent piece of meat cooked to an average standard. We got a few sides as well, Creamed Corn Grits (imagine fried crunchy creamy polenta) did what they said on the tin with aplomb, thought the Tomato Salad very tasty as well, but I can still taste the Olive Oil Whipped Potatoes. The texture of silk melting in the mouth leaving that fruity tang of the olive oil. Dreamy stuff. The Shoe String Fries were edible enough

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.06.59Pudding was probably the least impressive course with the Blueberry Cobbler lacking sweetness as well as substance. The Pecan Pie was alright, I have certainly had better, but it was just saved by a well made rye ice cream. Best was the Potted Cheesecake, thick sweet and the berry compote complimenting what was a quite simple dessert.
Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 17.08.19Service was a little inconsistent at times, but staff were warm and as we were there pre official opening I am happy to let that slide. Now taking into account its location in the heart of Soho, the prices, the quality of the food, drink, service and atmosphere I would go back to Jackson & Rye. Sure there are better places but for what it is, in the right company I could easily while away a day or night in its charming old world embrace.

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Jackson & Rye Website

Open Mon-Fri 8am to 11:30pm

Saturday Brunch 9am to 4:30pm & Dinner 4:30-11:30pm/Sunday Brunch 10am to 4:30pm & Dinner 4:30-11pm

For 2 (3 courses with wine and service) around £80 but you could eat for much less than that


Pilton Cider

I picked up a bottle of Pilton Cider at a food fair in Exeter early this year but only finally got around to tasting it this week. I wish I hadn’t waited so long!

Made in the noble 450 year old but not often used method of keeving, where the milled apple pulp and juice are allowed to macerate (stand) for up to 24hrs, places Pilton in my opinion firmly at the vanguard of premium UK cider production. Over the winter when the wild yeasts are doing their work, this humble apple juice pressed from 88 different varieties transforms into the sort of aperitif that other “aperitifs” wish they could be. It’s hard to believe that it’s only 5.5% abv yet packs so many layers of flavour. Pilton simply leaves most other ciders I’ve tried out in the cold.

It’s a lovely amber gold, and when I poured into the glass, a foam of what appeared to be a dense meringue frothed up. Never have I seen such luxuriant bubbles on a head of cider! On the nose those vagabond yeasts are still frolicking merrily in the hayloft, while earthy woody mushrooms sprout in the beams. On the palate it’s refreshing apple resonance is clear, yet it is transformed, evolved into a beverage that literally pulses with charm, depth and character. You get mature apple, earthy woodiness and subtle spicy floral notes. Its texture is creamy yet fresh and all the while your mouth is tickled by those ever present bubbles.

Pressed in 2012 bottled in 2013, the smart spare packaging with the classic cork and wire cage exude class and refinement. In my humble opinion owner Martin Berkeley is producing a cider of the complexity, dryness and balance that truly competes with quality sparkling wine. No small feat.

As I said this is the perfect aperitif, alone or with nibbles of the nutty or cheesy persuasion. But really this stuff is so fine you could carry it through a whole meal. Grilled pork, roast chicken, fish and chips but onto to dessert as well in the form of tarte tatin, bread and butter pudding or good stinky cheeses.

A 75cl bottle  is about £8 and available from various retailers but can also be bought direct (6 bottle minimum) and is UK shipped for free!

I cannot recommend Pilton highly enough and most certainly will be stocking on up on some. I suggest you do the same…