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Muscadet: the perfect al fresco summer wine

Muscadet: the perfect al fresco summer wine

First published in The Irish Times
Sat, Jul 11, 2015, 01:00

Those of you of a certain vintage will remember Muscadet with a shudder. For a while in the 1970s and 1980s, this was the favourite tipple of the wine drinking classes. No drinks party was complete without it, and it featured on every wine list in the country. To meet demand, the vineyard area expanded dramatically and the larger companies started making vast quantities of very cheap wine.Most was pretty dire and a some of it probably didn’t even come from the Muscadet region. We moved on to the New World, and poor Muscadet hasn’t really gotten a look in since. Which is a pity as the region has long ago reformed itself (the good producers never went away), and now offers the intelligent buyer a selection of light wines, beautifully made and complex, with a character all of their own.There are few finer things in life than a large plateful of spanking fresh plain seafood washed down with generous quantities of Muscadet. As with Beaujolais, it is the perfect al fresco summer wine, one that seems made to drink outdoors at lunchtime.

Muscadet is the wine; the grape variety is Melon de Bourgogne, a distant relative of Chardonnay. The vast majority of the vines, some 20,000 acres, are grown in the Sèvre-et-Maine region and most bottles will bear this name on the label.In recent years, two other smaller sub-regions to the north have been created, Coteaux de la Loire and Côtes de Grandlieu. Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu tends to be riper and fruitier; Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire is lighter and more linear.Muscadet sometimes suffers a little due to its reputation as a crisp light white to go with seafood; although it will never be a big wine, that does not mean it is simple. The best have a wonderful subtle complexity. At a wine fair a decade ago, I worked my way around half-a-dozen small domaines, tasting some superb wines, including some excellent 10 year-old Muscadet.However, I would not recommend ageing your bottles; to me this is a wine best enjoyed in the first few years of its life, when the elegant plump fruits are to the fore. I am happy to say that a few intrepid outlets are now importing some of the top estates – Terroirs in Donnybrook in Dublin has the biodynamic Domaine de l’Ecu, and Le Caveau in Kilkenny has Château du Coing. Whelehans in Loughlinstown in Dublin imports the excellent Luneau-Papin, The Wine Store has Domaine Huchet and Wines Direct offers the wonderful Domaine de la Louvetrie. Most sell at €15-€20, very good value for quality wines. These days, most of the multiples offer decent inexpensive Muscadet. “Sur Lie”, which appears on most bottles, refers to the practice of leaving the wines on their lees, or dead yeast cells, for a period after fermentation. Bottled without filtration, the wines have a slight prickle and a soft creamy texture. Producers in many wine regions, including Burgundy and Rías Baixas, age white wines on their lees for 12 to 24 months to add flavour and complexity. It is traditional in Muscadet.

I am the proud owner of a Muscadet vineyard. A few years ago at a wine fair in the Loire, a producer presented me with a wax-covered stick and a small sack. The bag contained salt, Sel de Guérande, and the stick was a Melon de Bourgogne vine. These I was told, were Brittany’s greatest products. I enjoyed the salt and stuck the vine into the only vaguely sunny spot in the garden. Last year, it produced three bunches of very green acidic grapes. I don’t think the vignerons of Muscadet have much to fear from the vineyards of Wicklow.

DSCF5570Muscadet de Sèvre & Maine sur lie, Domaine de la Chauvinière 2013

Lovely light refreshing dry wine with delicate ripe plump apple fruits. Perfect with all manner of fishy things. Try it with oysters for a real treat.

Stockists: O’Briens; James Nicholson , Crossgar.

ImageMuscadet de Sèvre & Maine sur lie, Clos des Montys 2014

Jeremie Huchet makes the Chauviniére above and this delicious wine too; clean, subtle almost snow-like with a lovely long finish and a subtle spritz.

Stockists: Jus de Vine; McCabes; Redmonds; One Pery Sq. Limerick.

DSCF5496Muscadet de Sèvre & Maine sur lie, Les Pierres Blanches, Domaine Luneau-Papin

Delicate refined and crisp with the finest of floral, lemon-scented pristine fruit.
Exquisite wine.

Stockists: Whelehan Wines, Loughlinstown

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Whiskey Galore – Teelings Irish Whiskey

Whiskey Galore – Teelings Irish Whiskey

The Irish Times 4th July 2015

The Teeling family can take a huge amount of credit for the current revival in the fortunes of Irish whiskey. John Teeling was the first to challenge the might of Irish Distillers by setting up Cooley distillery in 1987. It must have been a lonely furrow to plough in those days, but he succeeded in creating viable alternatives for Irish whiskey lovers.

Cooley was always innovative, releasing interesting whiskeys under various names, as well as supplying own-label spirits to many others. In 2011 Teeling and his investors sold Cooley to American giant Beam for $95 million.

Teeling is in the process of building a large column grain distillery in Dundalk, a very canny move. While all the talk is about Single Pot Still whiskeys, blended whiskey makes up the majority of sales, and the new distilleries (26 and counting) will need to buy their base whiskey somewhere.

Teeling’s sons Jack and Stephen obviously inherited his entrepreneurial skills and seem poised for success with their Teeling Whiskey Company. The full story featured recently in Whiskey Business, a four-part documentary on TV3. The Teeling whiskeys are interesting, the label design excellent, and the most of the prices hit the “profitable premium but affordable” category.

The final coat of paint was being applied to their new distillery and visitor centre in the Liberties in Dublin when I arrived last month. The building is smartly designed, a mix of bare cement, exposed wood, steel and copper, giving it an edgy industrial feel. There is a shop, a tasting area and café as well as a bar with wonderful barrel-shaped snugs looking out onto Newmarket. There is a rooftop garden too. It is open for tours and hopes to become a major tourist attraction.

Master distiller Alex Chasko started out as a brewer in Portland, Oregon, but is clearly very much at home discussing whiskey and the art of blending.

Production had started when I visited, with a wort fermenting away, although according to Chasko it will be the end of the year before they hit full production of around 500,000 litres a year. It will then take several years before any of the distillate can be called whiskey.

In the meantime the Teelings bought up stocks of old whiskey from Cooley. These have been put to good use, finished in various casks and released as a series of very tasty whiskeys. I have featured the Single Grain Whiskey (€45) here before. Finished in American Cabernet Sauvignon casks, it is smooth and buttery with vanilla and spice. The Small Batch entry-level whiskey was the first release.

“The challenge was to say ‘this is who we are’, to take existing stock and make it unique,” says Chasko. They did this by marrying grain and malt whiskey in rum casks to create a distinctive and delicious whiskey with raisins, vanilla spice and light woody flavours.

“For the Single Malt, my instructions were simple,” Chasko says. “Make it the best.” He chose from whiskey originally distilled in 1991, and aged in five types of cask (White Burgundy, Californian Cabernet, Sherry, Port, and Madeira).

The 21 year-old Reserve Single Malt was created by fear, jokes Chasko. “What happened if it was crap? That was two and half years ago. Now we can’t keep it in stock.”

This wonderful complex whiskey, smooth and quite delicious was finished in Sauternes casks. At the top of the tree is the 26 year-old Reserve Single Malt (€475) a truly unique whiskey that has been partly aged in White Burgundy casks. It is full of fruit and lemon zest, with subtle deep woody flavours.

It seems that once again the Teeling family are laying down the gauntlet to Irish Distillers and the other Irish whiskey producers.

ImageTeeling Whiskey Small Batch

Raisins, vanilla spice and light woody flavours on nose and palate, with a soft sweet finish.

Stockists: specialist off-licences.

Image 2Teeling Whiskey Single Malt

Aromas of tropical fruit, lemon zest and spice, and a palate of toffee, caramel and exotic fruits. Full of flavour.

Stockists: specialist off-licences.

Image 3Teeling Whiskey 21 year-old Single Malt

Wonderful aromas of white stone fruits, honey and beeswax; the palate explodes with complex flavours of peaches and apricot with a background note of smoke.

Stockists: specialist off-licences.

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Portuguese Style Counsel

Portuguese winemaker Luis Duarte is a sought-after winery consultant
The Alentejo is a vast arid region, historically best-known for growing wheat and cork oak trees

First published in The Irish Times:
Sat, Jun 27, 2015, 00:00

Portuguese winemaker Luis Duarte jokes: “I have three lives.” Originally from the Douro, he began his winemaking career in Esporao, a well-known estate in the south of Alentejo. The Esporao wines, once popular with Superquinn customers, are available again through independents. Duarte moved on and now has relationships with no fewer than 10 wineries, almost all in the Alentejo, as consultant, proprietor or managing director – hence the three lives. One of only two people to be voted Portuguese Winemaker of the Year twice, he is recognised as one of the finest winemakers in his country.

The Alentejo is a vast arid region, historically best-known for growing wheat and cork oak trees (and the black pigs that feed on their acorns). More recently the construction of reservoirs has allowed a huge increase in olive oil production and viticulture, both with notable success. The Alentejo only received D.O. status in 1989, which may have retarded marketing efforts, but the lack of regulation meant winemakers were free to plant whatever grape varieties they wanted. It has certainly made the region one of the more varied and exciting in Portugal, although, by and large, native Portuguese (red and white) varieties hold sway. The wines tend to be forward and full of ripe fruit. After 18 years in Esporao, Duarte was on the point of setting up his own business when he was approached by a German insurance company that had bought an old farm in the Alentejo and wanted to turn it into a luxury agriturismo hotel and winery. They asked him to set up and run the operation and agreed he could keep his own project, Luis Duarte Vineyards, as well as running his consultancy.

Duarte has been manager of Herdade de Grous since its beginning in 2004. This, like Malandinha and Sobroso, has a small hotel, restaurant and spa, complete with swimming pool (infinity pools seem obligatory) and is very popular for weddings, weekend breaks and holidays with Portuguese and foreigner visitors.Regular travellers to the Algarve may be familiar with the Malandinha labels. Brothers Joao and Paulo Soares, with their families, own a chain of 15 wine shops in the south – unsurprisingly, their wines feature alongside other Portuguese and foreign wines. When I met Joao and Rita Soares they were still enjoying the afterglow of several awards for their wines. The estate is beautiful, set in the rolling hills, with a boutique hotel and restaurant. They produce their own olive oil and rear black pigs, horses and Alentejo cattle.

Both white and red wines reds are very good (they find it difficult to make sufficient white wine, frequently running out after six months) More expensive than the Monte Peceguina below, the claret-like Maladinha 2012 red is excellent and well worth the extra cost. Quinta do Sobrosa is one of Duarte’s more recent clients. This is a 1,600 hectare estate, although vines take up only 52 hectares. Filipe Teixeira Pinto and his wife, Sofia, began production in 2006 with a mix of Portuguese and international varieties.

Wine consultants are not always universally liked. Critics argue they impose the same winemaking techniques and produce similar wines wherever they work. If Duarte has a style, it is wines with rich, smooth fruit and good ripe tannins for the red wines, and plump, textured whites. However, the three wineries I visited all had a very distinct identities.

“Wine is a great international emblem for Portugal,” says Duarte. “If the government had spent money over the last 15 years marketing our image as a green country, instead of building motorways, we would be in a much better place. We produce fantastic fruit of all kinds. They may not always look perfect but they taste great. The Alentejo has great potential. The crisis is finishing and the future will be good.”

Image 3Herdade dos Grous Red 2013

A very moreish medium-bodied wine with rounded plump dark fruits.

Stockists: La Touche, Corkscrew, Fresh, O’Donovans, Donnybrook Fair, Deveney’s, Fallon & Byrne, Sweeney’s, Nectar, Redmonds, Mortons; D Six, Listons, Whelehan Wines, Red Island, Power & Co. On The Grapevine, Baggot St. Wines, Green Man Wines,Terenure, Mitchell & Son, The Wine Shop,Perrystown.

Image 4Sobro Red 2013, Herdade de Sobrosa

An attractive blend of Aragonese and Alicante Bouschet with a little Syrah and Cabernet, this has light elegant blackcurrant and plum fruits, with a good dry finish.

Stockists: Stockists: La Touche, Corkscrew, Fresh, O’Donovans, Donnybrook Fair, Deveney’s, Fallon & Byrne, Sweeney’s, Nectar, Redmonds, Mortons; D Six, Listons, Whelehan Wines, Red Island, Power & Co. On The Grapevine, Baggot St. Wines, Green Man Wines,Terenure, Mitchell & Son, The Wine Shop,Perrystown.

Image 2Mte de Peceguina Red 2013, Herdade de Malhadinha Nova
€ 20.95

A lovely inviting wine with smooth fresh strawberry fruits and an easy finish.

Stockists: La Touche, Corkscrew, Fresh, O’Donovans, Donnybrook Fair, Deveney’s, Fallon & Byrne, Sweeney’s, Nectar, Redmonds, Mortons; D Six, Listons, Whelehan Wines, Red Island, Power & Co. On The Grapevine, Baggot St. Wines, Green Man Wines,Terenure, Mitchell & Son, The Wine Shop,Perrystown.

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Light Summer Reds

Light summer red wines
Demand for wines lighter in body and alcohol steps up in summer

From the Irish Times, Sat, Jun 20, 2015

In recent years, there has been a slow but perceptible trend towards wines that are lighter in alcohol and in body. The two are different, although they often go hand in hand. For many it means drinking more without ill effects and once the sun comes out, it becomes an imperative. I might drink a glass or two of a full-bodied red with barbecued red meat, but otherwise I head straight for a more refreshing wine that will feel less heavy in the mouth.Thankfully these are becoming more common; there was a time when every red wine seemed to be 14 per cent or more, and packed full of rich fruit and ripe tannins.This style of wine often won medals and trophies at competitions, but were a little too powerful to actually drink. Over the past five years, producers in the New World have realised the consumer is turning away from these wines and have tried to lower alcohol levels – not always an easy thing to achieve. It may actually lead to increased sales, as it can be hard to drink more than a glass of a 14.5 per cent monster, whereas a wine tipping 13 per cent slips down all too easily. A number of companies have released lower alcohol wines and I want to like them, but barring German Riesling, most taste incomplete. White wines at 12-13.5 per cent or lower are relatively easy to come across. Reds are more difficult.

The two best-known light red wines are Gamay and Pinot Noir. Gamay generally means Beaujolais although you will find some good versions elsewhere; the Loire Valley is one place to look (see below). The 10 “crus” of Beaujolais are variations on a theme, markedly different in taste, but almost always light in alcohol and sometimes the nearest thing a red wine can get to white with its delicate fruit and elegance.These wines are often best served cool – chilled is too much, but left in a cool unheated room or in the shade outside (in Ireland) those mouth-watering succulent fruits comes alive.

Further north of Beaujolais lies Pinot Noir country – the great red wines of Burgundy. These are light in body, but often 14-14.5 per cent in alcohol. I would include most of the red wines from the Loire valley in this category, Cabernet Franc in particular. These tend to be light in alcohol with crunchy redcurrant, blackberry fruits and an attractive sappiness. Some wine lovers find them a little too herbaceous but I love them. They are a brilliant foil for cold meats, charcuterie as well as oily fish such as salmon or tuna. Beyond France, Austria is now producing some very good light red wines from the Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt grapes, and the north-west of Spain offers some very good light sweet-savoury reds that are generally low in alcohol. The Italians are very fond of lighter wines generally and the north of Italy produces a huge range of fragrant fruity reds, often made from obscure local grape varieties. Look out for Teroldigo from Trentino (Mitchell & Sons and Supervalu both stock one) as well as Bardolino, some Valpolicella and the fascinating wines of Emilia-Romagna, such as the Sangiovese.

New World reds tend to be bigger and higher in alcohol, although several countries, including Chile, New Zealand and Australia produce very good Pinot Noir. Chile and New Zealand can also make very good Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that can ripen properly at 12.5 per cent alcohol.If you like red wine, but suffer from headaches after just one glass, it might be worth trying lighter, less tannic wines. The causes of red wine headache are still unclear; some believe they are caused by the high levels of histamines in red wine, others by the tannins. Wines that have been macerated for shorter periods and are less extracted seem less likely to cause headaches.

Image 14Frappato 2013 IGT Terre Siciliane

Juicy light easy summery strawberry fruits – a great seasonal quaffing wine.

Stockists: Marks & Spencer

DSCF5304Sangoiovese Rubicone Medici Ermete

Charming, dangerously moreish wine with light ripe cherry and raspberry fruits. Amazing value for money.

Stockists: Sheridans Cheesemongers

Image 13Gamay Le Bois Jacou 2014, Jean-Francois Gamay Mérieau

Free-flowing fresh cherry fruits with a nice earthy edge.

Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook

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New World brings us back to Chardonnay

Did Chardonnay ever go away and, if so, is it now making a comeback? If the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd were merely trying to get us to try out a few other grape varieties, they have certainly succeeded. In turn the BTC (Back to Chardonnay) party, of which I am a paid-up member, was merely pointing out that Chardonnay produces some of the world’s greatest white and sparkling wines. I hope we can all agree that good Chardonnay is great and the bad stuff is awful and move on a little in the debate.

Talking to importers of New World wine I get the distinct impression Chardonnay never really went away; there is a large swathe of wine drinkers who have continued to buy it even if all of the noise was about Sauvignon Blanc. At the bargain-basement end there are plenty of sickly-sweet wines with very pumped-up, confected flavours, but at €10-€15 you can find plenty of well-made, crisp, dry and fruity Chardonnay from every part of the globe.

If you need convincing, try Aldi’s Lot 2 Chardonnay (€12.99) from Tasmania, a fresh crisp dry wine, made by Wakefield, one of the leading estates of Australia. The New World has learned that masses of new oak and rich buttery wines are not always what the public wants. If anything the criticism is that some have gone too far the other direction, offering us wines stripped of all flavour and character.

Today I concentrate on Australia and New Zealand, which have had very different relationships with Chardonnay. Both now appear to be making world-beating wines made from this variety. At one time Australian Chardonnay was big and brash; how times have changed. Now the best wines come from the cooler regions: the Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley, both near Melbourne, and Tasmania all produce some excellent wines as can the Adelaide Hills in South Australia and parts of Western Australia, the Margaret River in particular.

New Zealand has been hugely successful with Sauvignon Blanc, but we have seen precious little Chardonnay in Ireland. That may be about to change. New Zealand is making some excellent Chardonnay, often in regions responsible for the best Pinot Noir, such as Martinborough, Waipara and Central Otago, although Neudorf in Nelson and Kemeu River up north are two of the best.

The best Chardonnay I tasted on a visit to New Zealand earlier this year was the 2013 Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay. This will arrive in Ireland shortly. A close second was a Puligny-like Felton Road 2013. James Nicholson has something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Chardonnay; they are waiting for their allocation of Felton Road Chardonnay, but in the meantime customers can try the excellent Neudorf from Nelson and the Dog Point from Marlborough. I would also love to see Pegasus Bay return; they make some fantastic Chardonnay

What should you look for in a top Chardonnay? The best are nuanced yet sumptuous wines, medium-bodied with a lightly creamy texture, possibly with a hint of spicy oak, but never to the exclusion of fruits – green apple in cool climates moving through to pears and then peaches in warmer regions. Chardonnay coats the entire mouth with flavour. The three wines selected this week are all expensive. But then their equivalents from Burgundy would certainly match them for price, if not make them look reasonable.

I know some wine drinkers are reluctant to spend money on white wine, possibly because they see it as something to sip with a starter before moving on to the main course. I tend to save my best white wines, usually a Chardonnay or Riesling, for those times when I am cooking really good fish or chicken as a main course – black sole drenched in butter, turbot, and of course salmon paired with a top-notch Chardonnay will turn dinner into a real feast.

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Irish Cider: how d’you like them apples?

Ireland’s craft brewers received a deserved boost from the Minister for Finance a few years back when he granted them a 50 per cent rebate on excise duty. This allows smaller brewers to compete with the larger producers on a relatively even playing field. The results speak for themselves; the number of small craft breweries has shot up. However, our craft cider producers are currently excluded from this, and are therefore at a huge disadvantage to other similar drinks. Real cider is, like wine, fermented rather than brewed, and therein lies the problem.

Under EU law, the minister cannot simply lower the duty on fermented products. However cider is taxed in two bands, over 2.8 per cent alcohol and over 6 per cent alcohol. The Government could lower the current (extortionate) higher rate of duty; at the moment in a good vintage, such as 2014, a cider will ferment naturally to about 7 per cent. I would have thought this group was even more deserving than our craft brewers.

This is exactly the kind of business the Government should be helping; they are rurally based, use locally grown produce (genuine cider is made from 100 per cent Irish apples) and can substitute their cider for imported products. They may rescue many of our orchards with their unique stock of heritage apples. Let us hope the minister extends the lower duty rate in his next budget. In addition to this, while restaurants are permitted to serve bottled beer to those eating a meal, only those with a full on-licence can offer cider. Again it appears we are discriminating against our indigenous producers. Surely this too should be changed.

Changing tack, if you are getting married this summer, why not serve something Irish alongside, or instead of wine? Three of the more enterprising Irish producers now offer their ciders in very smart-looking 75cl bottles, perfectly suited for larger events. Throw in a few Irish beers and some genuine local apple juice for those not drinking alcohol, and you have a thoroughly Irish occasion. You could even finish off the evening by offering a glass of the excellent Longueville House apple brandy as well as whiskey.

James O’Donoghue of Longways produces an elderflower frizzante cider with summer celebrations in mind. James had been supplying a very large local cider producer with apples for 18 years before starting up his own cider-making business. His partner is John Maher, who worked as product development manager with C&C. Their aim, says James, was “to give it a taste profile similar to that of white wine”. They couldn’t get the flavours they were looking for from pure cider, but came across a locally produced elderflower extract. This was added to the cider once fermentation had finished. “It was quite amazing the change it brought to the product,” according to James. Craigies and Cockagee have been featured here before.

Angus Craigie and Simon Tyrrell started with the more traditionally styled Ballyhook Flyer, which has won many fans among more seasoned cider drinkers. The Dalliance is made in a very different style, lighter and fresher; the latest vintage is the best so far.

Mark Jenkinson has been producing his wonderful unique Cockagee for a few years, using traditional varieties grown in Meath. This keeved cider is naturally carbonated, unfiltered with a natural sweetness. I frequently enjoy cider with food but any of these three would make a very different and enjoyable drink to have at your wedding. Two craft cider producers also make other apple-based products. David Llewellyn makes a cider vinegar and an excellent balsamic cider vinegar, in addition of course to Irish wine – the current 2013 vintage is his best yet. Con Traas of The Apple Farm, who makes some of the best apple-based soft drinks, has a beautifully presented living culture Irish Cider Vinegar that tastes amazing.

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Here’s how to make your own G&T

With the right combinations of herbs, spices and alcohol, it’s possible to make a passable gin and tonic

The ingredients for making your own gin and tonic
The ingredients for making your own gin and tonic

Sat, May 23, 2015, 05:47

We all have a creative instinct and mine tends towards things that I can place in my mouth. Over the years, I have tried my hand at various cheeses, yoghurts, kefirs, sausages, hams, kimchis, preserved lemons, chutneys, marmalade, salt-pickled cucumbers, cabbage, radishes and various other edibles.

More recently, I have turned to drink. While researching Irish gin, I came across a blog in the Guardian by writer and forager Andy Hamilton that included recipes for gin and for tonic water. Hamilton began foraging at the age of eight, inspired by the Australian television series Bush Tucker Man, making chickweed salad, and then nettle soup for his parents. He started making alcoholic drinks as a student. “I made a load of elderflower champagne, 180 litres. It lasted a year and half and I ended up hating it. But it set me on the road to making my own booze.” Author of Booze for Free, and Brewing Britain, Hamilton is now experimenting with cocktails made from foraged herbs, flowers and weeds which will feature in his forthcoming book Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails – you can help fund this through his fascinating blog,

Hamilton says that making your own booze is easy and great fun. “I start out with existing cocktails and ingredients and try to make my own versions, substituting with foraged stuff where possible. I wanted to make my own Campari, but there is one ingredient only grown in the Caribbean; I am currently looking for an alternative. I have been making my own vermouth for a while. It seems complicated, as you have to infuse about 10 different things, but actually it’s really easy. I’ll make it up by grabbing a bottle of wine and add a few infused spirits – I have at least 10 on the go at any time. It sounds pretentious, but it is my flavour library.”

His favourite drink at the moment is gin flavoured with foraged Alexanders, although he is also adding sage to a few things at the moment – “just put it in vodka for a real toffee flavour”, he suggests. He even made his own Buckfast recently, adding that it tasted just as bad as the genuine article.

I tried my hand at the two recipes on these pages. My own gin was easier and more successful than my tonic water. Both were a strange pale brown/yellow colour, as they had not been filtered the way commercial products are. The gin was very good, full of juniper, citrus, with a light herbal note, probably from the lavender and rosemary.

The tonic on the other hand was far too sweet for my taste. I crushed some of the allspice berries before adding them, making it too earthy and spicy. The next time I make it, I will cut down on the sugar and add less allspice.

I did, however, manage to find a very good homemade tonic. I came across Claire Davey of the America Village Apothecary ( in Galway through an article by John McKenna in the health section of this paper.

Not only did Claire kindly supply me with a bottle of her tonic syrup, she also sent samples of her other syrups, bitters and cocktail mixes. These are foraged where possible and sometimes seasonal too, using herbs, flowers and vegetation. Her tonic and my gin made an excellent combination, full of lively, zesty citrus underpinned by complex notes of herbs.

I also recently came across Irish forager, chef and nature guide Mary Bulfin from Co Offaly. Otherwise known as Wild Food Mary (see, she is responsible for the delicious wild beech leaf liqueur that three of Ireland’s Michelin star restaurants now serve or use in their desserts. I enjoyed it lightly chilled as a digestif.

Caught up with the spirit of the thing, I used my second bottle of vodka to create three of my own flavoured spirits. My lemon vodka is very good, and will make an interesting addition to cocktails. The cucumber and dill has very intense, heavy cucumber flavours, and could make an interesting ingredient in gravadlax. Strangely, the dill was less obvious – I was hoping for a Danish aquavit.

These two were simple to make. Simply add the desired ingredients to the vodka in a clean Kilner jar and leave for a week or two, tasting every now and again.

Chocolate vodka has quite an online following. There are plenty of recipes that include chocolate bars, Mars being the most popular. Some suggested dishwasher vodka, made by placing a sealed bottle with chocolate or boiled sweets in the dishwasher and running a full cycle. Apparently, the heat dissolves the chocolate or sweets into the vodka.

I melted my chocolate in a bain marie, gradually adding the vodka. As I am not a fan of sweet things, I used a dark chocolate with 72 per cent cocoa solids. It tasted a bit too bitter, so I added a few teaspoonfuls of Claire Davey’s Pine Syrup No. 1, which worked very well. The result was not unlike a boozed-up chocolate sauce. I suspect it would work very well with whiskey, as proven by Baileys and various other cream liqueurs. However, I am reluctant to waste a good bottle of whiskey on the experiment.

One website suggested that I freeze the vodka. It turned solid, and on defrosting, remained a gel-like substance, not unlike a very pumped-up chocolate mousse.

Most wine people look on homemade wine with a certain distain, usually with good reason. I strongly suspect distillers will frown on my efforts in a similar way. My gin was certainly not as complex or refined as the Irish gins I featured here a few weeks ago. However, it is a delicious drink and I find it more interesting than some of the cheaper gins on the market.

Homemade gin
750ml vodka (preferably 50% ABV)
2 tablespoons juniper berries (or more if you like lots of juniper flavour in your gin)
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1/4 tsp whole allspice
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
4 cardamom pods
2 peppercorns
1 torn bay leaf
A small sprig of lavender
A larger sprig of rosemary
Small piece of dried grapefruit peel (no pith)
Small piece of dried lemon peel (no pith)

A Mason/Kilner jar
Muslin or cheesecloth

Tonic Syrup 
Whipping up a batch of tonic water is fairly easy. The hardest part is finding all the ingredients, but a trip to a herbalist or a quick online search should furnish you with all you need.

1lt water
500g sugar
Zest and juice of 2 limes
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 orange
28g cinchoa bark
28g citric acid
1-4 sticks of lemongrass
2-4 cardamom pods
10 allspice berries
Soda water

You will need
An accurate small scales
A large saucepan
A wooden spoon
Small sieve
A bottle or two

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The Beauty of Burgundy The Irish Times 16th May, 2015

Nothing can touch red Burgundy at its best

The use of the Burgundy name is now restricted solely to wines made in the region, which has become a destination of choice for many Irish holidaymakers

Beaune: many of the  old buildings have been restored making it a very pleasant town to stroll around, with plenty of shops offering wine, food and much more Beaune: many of the old buildings have been restored making it a very pleasant town to stroll around, with plenty of shops offering wine, food and much more
 Two of the world’s most famous grapes originate in Burgundy (or Bourgogne as it is officially known). Virtually the only white grape variety grown here is Chardonnay, with Pinot Noir holding the same primacy for red wines. They produce some of the world’s greatest and most sought-after wines

Producers around the world abused the name Burgundy for many years, using it for any wine they felt appropriate. Thankfully, its use is now restricted solely to wines made in the region. Now, it seems, the region has become a destination of choice for many Irish holidaymakers. A growing number of friends and acquaintances have spent a happy week wandering or cycling along paths through vineyards, stopping for lunch in cafés, before resting in a B&B for the night.

Beaune is a good place to start. A bustling town of 22,000 citizens, it is the centre of the wine trade. Many of the very impressive old buildings have been restored making it a very pleasant town to stroll around, with plenty of shops offering wine, food and much more besides. Although tourism has increased greatly over the past decade, the town retains a charming character.

On my last two visits it was the beauty of the countryside that struck me. Drive 10 minutes out of Beaune, away from the motorway, and you are travelling through some of the most famous wine villages in the world. Another five minutes, up into the hills, and you are in la France profonde, a picturesque countryside of rolling hills, quiet lanes and pretty villages. Cycling and walking take a little longer, but either is a far better way to see any countryside. The BIVB., the body responsible for wine in Burgundy, has produced a very handy booklet with details of wine producers and restaurants in the region. It can be downloaded from bourgognes- wines. com. The site also suggests well-marked cycle and walking routes. I would be very tempted to lose myself in the beautiful bucolic wooded hillsides of the Mâconnais-Beaujolais.

Returning to the wines, the story is less cheerful. For many years Burgundy was too small and the wines too inconsistent to appeal to collectors, particularly those from the Far East. As a smaller region, there simply wasn’t enough wine to “make” a market. Apart from the hideously expensive wines of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, investors tended to head straight to Bordeaux.

This has all changed recently, and worldwide demand now far exceeds supply. Whereas some top Bordeaux château can offer 20,000 cases of their wine each vintage, there may be only a few hundred cases of an equivalent in Burgundy, to be divided up amongst a growing band of buyers from all over the world. The prices of the very best grands crus have rocketed, making them only affordable to the super-rich. Even the premiers crus are moving rapidly upwards in price.

Should we be concerned about these rising prices? If, like me, you love Pinot Noir, the answer is yes. Other parts of the world – Germany, New Zealand, Chile and the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Australia – are producing some very tasty Pinot Noir, but none can touch red Burgundy at its best. At a more reasonable price, the top domaines produce small quantities of Bourgogne Rouge, often the produce of younger vines, or a vineyard located on the wrong side of the N74, the main road to the east of the Côte d’Or, or simply wine not considered good enough for their grand vins. But these days, Burgundy has much more to offer than these elite estates. Further south and west, the Mâconnais, Hautes- Côtes of Beaune and Nuits can offer canny buyers wines of real interest. And the Bourgognes Rouges produced by the larger négociants have shown real improvement. They may lack the individual character of the small estates, but these days, some offer good value, in Burgundian terms at least.



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Choosing Easter wine? Consider Cabernet

The Irish Times 4th April, 2015

It is those unmistakable aromas of blackcurrant or cassis, the whiff of cigar box, the firm structured dark fruits overlaid with cedar wood, the satisfying tannic dry finish; they can mean one thing to the wine lover, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet may have slipped under the radar a little in recent years, as we became more excited about the huge number of local grape varieties being rediscovered in Spain, Italy, France and elsewhere. A greater choice is always welcome, but we should not forget that Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s great varieties, responsible for some of the very best wines in half a dozen countries.

It also produces a huge number of mid-priced red wines that make for perfect everyday drinking. Cabernet Sauvignon has always proved an easy traveller, thriving in a variety of soils and climates. It also has the happy knack of almost always tasting recognisably of Cabernet Sauvignon, while also taking on a little local character. From its original home in Bordeaux, where it forms the bedrock of the great wines of the Médoc and Péssac-Léognan, it has spread out throughout the wine world, both old and new.

If you intend serving a roast of either lamb or beef on Easter Sunday, there are few better matches than a good quality Cabernet. Those drying tannins work perfectly with red meat. Bordeaux would be the traditional choice, but take a look at top-notch Cabernet from more far-flung parts of the globe.

California, and the Napa Valley in particular, has long produced superb age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon. Sadly most are very expensive. If you do feel like splurging, James Nicholson ( may still have a few magnums of the superb Ridge Montebello Cabernet 2006, for £190. Terroirs in Donnybrook, Dublin has a very good selection of Napa Cabernets, including Ch Montelena.

You could also look to Australia, where the Margaret River in Western Australia is famed for its structured, ripe, scented Cabernets such as Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet 2011 (€89.99) and the Cape Mentelle Cabernet 2011 (€70, independents).

Argentina makes some very good Cabernet, but this seems to get lost amongst all the noise about Malbec. It tends to be fairly big and rich, but not short on flavour.

However, our most expensive wine this week comes from Chile, home to some seriously good Cabernet. Producers here delight in holding blind tastings that pitch their best wines against first-growth Bordeaux; the results often favour Chile. I recently tasted my way through 10 vintages of Santa Rita Casa Real, a single-vineyard Cabernet from the Maipo Valley, source of many of Chile’s greatest Cabernets. It can age very well for a decade or more, but is very approachable in its youth.

Marks & Spencer, whose range of wine becomes more encyclopedic by the day, have a Cabernet Sauvignon produced by two Canada’s leading lights, Ann Spurling and Brian Hamilton. The estate is in Four Mile Creek, one of the warmest parts of Niagara, and is devoted to sustainable biodynamic viticulture. The wine is quite different to most New World Cabernet, and will fox any wine buff you invite to lunch.

I pleaded guilty recently to ignoring South African wines, partly because they seem to have dropped out of sight in a lot of wine shops, but also because many of the reds were over-extracted, over-oaked monsters. However, I have tasted some very good wines recently including some succulent tasty restrained Cabernets at very fair prices.

If you don’t intend spending over €20 for your wine, you could always opt for the Cassillero del Diablo Cabernet, widely available at around €12, or from Bordeaux, Lidl has the tasty Ch Noton 2010 for €9.99.

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Looking for the best in the world? Try a cherry-scented Pinot Noir

Looking for the best in the world? Try a cherry-scented Pinot Noir

New Zealand built its reputation on Sauvignon Blanc. As outlined here a few weeks back, Marlborough Sauvignon has become a favourite the world over. However, the country offers much more, including some great Pinot Noir.

My image of the New Zealand male as quietly spoken, possibly monosyllabic and dressed in a standard uniform of chinos and polo shirt, was shattered on my arrival in Central Otago in New Zealand for a three-day Pinot Noir celebration. Every event was preceded by an ear-piercing whistle and a lengthy (but usually witty) speech. All of the Otagan men competed with each other to appear in the loudest, most colourful Hawaiian shirts. There was a real sense of camaraderie amongst producers, possibly because they are so far away from the other New Zealand wine regions.

Central Otago (or ‘Central’ as they refer to it there) has come a long way in a short time. Although some form of viticulture had been practised here since the 19th century, it was only in the 1990s that the region started to make a name for itself as a producer of world-class Pinot Noir. One of the very first to plant vines was an Irish journalist, Alan Brady. Since then, the expansion has been rapid. I worked my way around 37 wineries at a tasting; apparently there are now 82. This is the world’s most southerly vineyard, with some of the most stunning scenery. Nearby Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s most popular resorts, for skiing in winter and every conceivable outdoor sport in summer.


Light cherry fruits, subtle oak, and a savoury finish.

Available from: Clontarf Wines; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Donnybrook Fair; O’Briens; 64wine Glasthule; Gibneys, Malahide;; World Wide Wines, Waterford


Available from: Redmonds, Ranelagh; DSix, Harold’s Cross; Clontarf Wines; Donnybrook Fair; La Touche Greystones; Thomas Woodberry Galway

Available from: Redmonds, Ranelagh; Clontarf Wines; Donnybrook Fair; La Touche Greystones; Power, Lucan; Gibneys, Malahide; Thomas Woodberry, Galway

In New Zealand’s only continental climate, winters are bitterly cold and summers short but hot. Central Otago Pinot forged its reputation with a series of vibrant fruit-filled wines. As the vines mature, and producers become more confident, the wines are gaining in subtlety and complexity. There were some great wines here, and great people. In addition to the wines of the week, look out for Peregrine, Mount Difficulty, Two Paddocks (owned by local boy Sam Neil), Mud House and Wild Earth.

Moving northwards, Waipara and North Canterbury, two overlapping areas north of Christchurch are among the lesser-known regions of New Zealand. However, here you will find some delicious Chardonnays (something I can see New Zealand excelling at in the coming years) and some very good Pinot Noir.

Waipara can also compete in the beauty stakes with Central Otago. I spent a day foraging around some of the most wonderful scenery. If you have a relative helping rebuild Christchurch, Waipara is less than an hour’s drive away and worth a visit.

Pinot Noir here varies greatly in style, but the best are relatively full-bodied, sometimes spicy, with delicious soft ripe dark fruits and sufficient structure to age for a few years. Look out for Muddy Water, Pegasus Bay and Waipara Springs along with the wines featured below.

Martinborough, an hour’s drive from Wellington on the North Island, has long been seen as the best place to grow Pinot Noir in New Zealand. I am inclined to agree. The region has been expanded to include two other villages and renamed Wairarapa. A large blind tasting covering the entire region provided plenty of evidence that there are some really exciting wines being made here. Sadly few are available in this country. In addition to Ata Rangi mentioned below, look out for Escarpment, Martinborough Vineyards and Paddy Borthwick. Marlborough also produces Pinot Noir, but only a few can match those from Central Otago, Wairarapa or Waipara.

The standard of Pinot Noir in New Zealand is very high; I don’t think I tasted any duds and there were some exquisite wines. Most producers seem to be trying to tone down the exuberant ripe fruit of their Pinots to arrive at a more complex, balanced style. Sadly many of my favourites are not currently available in Ireland, largely due to a combination of cost and size. Central Otago, for example, produces a mere 2.5 per cent of New Zealand’s wine. Waipara is not much bigger and Wairarapa is responsible for a miniscule 2.8 per cent of national production.

The best wines from my two favourite New Zealand Pinot producers – Ata Rangi from Martinborough and Felton Road from Central Otago – both cost around €50, prices that might bring some out in a cold sweat. (Incidentally, both make excellent Chardonnay). I would argue that compared to Burgundy, Germany and other Pinot-producing regions, they are very fairly priced.

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