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The changing taste of Malbec: from fruit bomb to subtle elegance

First published in The Irish Times, 25th January, 2020

Who doesn’t like Malbec? It seems to be the red equivalent of Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that pleases all and grows in popularity every year

Who doesn’t like Malbec? It seems to be the red equivalent of Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that pleases all and grows in popularity every year. While these two favourites come from opposite sides of the globe, Argentina and New Zealand, they do share something in common; consistently good quality across the various styles and price categories. Both also have a recognisable taste profile that just about everyone enjoys.

When it first arrived on our shores, most of the wines were big, extracted fruit-bombs, the kind favoured by wine drinkers who prefer power over substance. But Malbec from Argentina has changed; there has been a move towards higher-altitude vineyards that produce lighter more elegant wines, and winemakers are seeking to produce wines with a sense of regional diversity. Although you still wouldn’t ever describe them as shrinking violets, there is much more subtlety to the wines now.

Typically, they are medium- to full-bodied with lush ripe fruit and soft tannins. Some have a lovely fragrance and good acidity, giving them a real elegance. Provided they haven’t been overoaked, also less common than it once was, most of the wines have wonderful pure dark fruits. The big wines haven’t gone away completely; done well they can be very welcome on cold winter evenings.

Cahors in France is the other region that majors on Malbec. South-west France could be described as the original home of this variety. In the past many were fiercely tannic and sometimes very earthy. But while Argentina has taken most of the limelight, the wines of Cahors have improved hugely and can be every bit as good as their South American counterparts, although different in style. It is rare to find Malbec in Spain, but the wine featured below is well worth trying.

Happily, for those on a budget, less expensive Malbec can be very good indeed whether from France or Argentina. Dunnes Stores has the French Levalet Malbec for €10 and the Alamos Ridge for €12.50, Aldi has the Exquisite Collection Malbec (€7.99), Spar & Londis has Las Celia, Marks & Spencer has a wide range, and O’Briens the Norton wines. All of these are good well-made wines that don’t cost too much.

At the top end, there is no shortage of great wines; my own favourites include Amalaya, Colomé, Mendel, Catena, Altos Las Hormigos, all widely available, Achaval Ferrer (JNwine), Susana Balbo (Wines Direct). From Cahors, Clos des Gamots (Wicklow Wine), Le Combal (€19.50, Terroirs) and Causse de Théron are worth seeking out in independents, as is Château de Croisille (€19.95, O’Briens).

Both styles of wine are great with food. Steak remains the favourite to accompany Malbec, but the lighter styles are well-suited to other red and white meats, including Mexican food, game and, for vegetarians and vegans, rich bean casseroles.

Ocho y Medio Malbec, La Mancha, Spain, 13%, €12.95

Ocho y Medio Malbec, La Mancha, Spain, 13%, €12.95
Ocho y Medio Malbec, La Mancha, Spain, 13%, €12.95

 An easy, light, juicy Malbec with clean blackcurrant fruits sprinkled with a touch of spice. This would sit nicely alongside pork chops with a tomato sauce.

From: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie.

Pascual Toso Malbec 2017, Mendoza Argentina, 13.5%, €13.95-14.95

Pascual Toso Malbec 2017, Mendoza Argentina, 13.5%, €13.95-14.95
Pascual Toso Malbec 2017, Mendoza Argentina, 13.5%, €13.95-14.95

 A perennial favourite and a perfect example of Argentinian Malbec; rich meaty ripe dark fruits, rounded tannins and good length. Perfect with all kinds of red meat. The Toso Selected Vines (€19.95) is even better.

 From: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Ely64.com; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; Drinkstore, D7, drinkstore.ie; Egans, Portlaoise; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny, Thewinecentre.ie; O’Donovan’s, Cork, Odonovansofflicence.com; McCambridges, Galway, Mccambridges.com; Dalys, Boyle.

Zorzal Terroir Unico Malbec 2018, Uco Valley, Argentina, 13.5%, €18.50

Zorzal Terroir Unico Malbec 2018, Uco Valley, Argentina, 13.5%, €18.50
Zorzal Terroir Unico Malbec 2018, Uco Valley, Argentina, 13.5%, €18.50

  A medium-bodied wine with lovely pure sweet ripe plum and loganberry fruits, a meaty concentration mid-palate and a clean lightly tannic finish. Very good value for money. With steak, roast shoulder of lamb or pork chops with chimichurri.

From: La Touche, Greystones, Latouchewines4u.ie; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3 clontarfwines.ie; Sweeneys D3, sweeneysd3.ie. 

Causse de Théron “Terrasse” 2015, Cahors, 13% €22.99

Causse de Théron “Terrasse” 2015, Cahors, 13% €22.99
Causse de Théron “Terrasse” 2015, Cahors, 13% €22.99

Lively lifted aromas, silky smooth red and black fruits – raspberries and blackberries – with a soft, lightly tannic finish. Perfect with roast duck or pork, lamb shanks, or baked mushrooms.

From: Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; The Malt House, Trim; Lucey’s – The Good Food Shop, Mallow, luceysgoodfood.com; Wineonline.ie.

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Four wines worth a few euros more

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 18th January, 2020

Four to try taht are worth spening a little more more on

Can a bottle of wine be worth €500,000? In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned two bottles of 1945 la Romanée Conti, a very fine Burgundy, for just over $1 million (€894,000), making these the world’s most expensive bottles of wine.

This seems a bargain compared to the $1.9 million (€1.6 million) paid for a bottle of Scotch, the Macallan 1926, last year.

People delight in giving wine lovers tastings designed to make them look foolish. Wine tasters are one of the few groups of critics who regularly submit themselves to blind tastings. You could apply similar tests to lovers of other drinks, food, perfume, fashion and art with similar results. Our senses are notoriously unreliable judges of value, although professional wine judges are usually pretty accurate.

The truth is that no wine is worth half a million euros, or even five hundred, any more than a designer bag can really be worth €5,000 or more, or a Ferrari upwards of €200,000. At a certain stage, you are paying for rarity and slick marketing. For some, it is an investment, related to resale value, for others simply a way of announcing to the world that they have accumulated wealth.

Posh bottles

Leaving these luxury items aside, most of the time, most of us can tell the difference between a €10 bottle of wine and one costing €30. If a producer is lucky enough to own vineyards in the right place, and knows how to nurture vines and make really good wine, why would they sell it for €2 a bottle when they know a buyer will pay multiples of that? Conversely, if a winemaker forces vines into producing huge yields, and indulges in all sorts of perfectly legal interventions, they can sell at their wine a much lower price. But the wine won’t taste as good.

Given our high duties rates, all wine in Ireland will usually be more expensive than in other jurisdictions. The new alcohol regulations are designed to do away with ultra-cheap wine (often sold below cost) and the incessant promotions used by the multiples to entice us into their shops. I hope it will encourage us to drink less wine, and also to drink better wine.

Over Christmas, I opened up quite a few posh bottles, wines that cost me anything from €20-€50 a bottle. Only one was disappointing. The rest were a joy to drink, and good value for money, particularly when compared with wine prices in restaurants.

I made a resolution to drink less, but better in 2020. Believe me, once you go over €10-€12 a bottle, you will notice the difference. This week, four wines, all available from independent wine shops, that are worth a few euros more.

Muros Antigos Vinho Verde 2018

12.5%, €14                         

Floral aromas, succulent green apples and pears, with zesty citrus peel. Fresh as a spring morning. Try it with light leafy salads, and fish with herbs and lemon.

Stockists: Wines on the Green, Dublin 2, celticwhiskeyshop.com; Nolan’s, Dublin 3, nolans.ie; McCabes Wines, Dublin 18, mccabeswines.ie

d’Arenberg Hermit Crab 2016, Mclaren Vale

13%, €16.95

A perennial favourite of mine, rich in mouth-watering textured apricots, peaches and cantaloupe, finishing on a dry, refreshing note. This would be great with herby, spicy Asian seafood dishes; Vietnamese prawn salad?

Stockists: Donnybrook Fair, donnybrookfair.ie; Deveney’s, D14; Grapevine, Dalkey, onthegrapevine.ie; Shiel’s, Malahide; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; The Malt House, Trim; La Touche, Greystones, latouchewines4u.ie; Egan’s, Drogheda; 1601 Off-licence, Kinsale; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; O’Donovan’s, Cork, odonovansofflicence.com

Mitchell & Son Claret 2015, Bordeaux Superieur

13.5%, €15                   

A very well-priced Bordeaux with elegant ripe blackcurrants and red cherries with soft tannins and an easy finish. Perfect with the Sunday roast.

Stockists: Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue & Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; Myles Doyle, Gorey; Wilde & Green, Dublin 6, wildeandgreen.com; O’Driscolls Off Licence, Co Kerry

Colle Morino 2017, Barba, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

2.5%, €16.50                         

A fresh, light easy-going wine with supple red cherry and damson fruits and not a tannin in sight. Instantly gluggable, this is a great all-purpose wine to go with lighter red meats, most white meats and hard cheeses. Perfect pizza wine too.

Stockists: Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, Dublin 2, Kells, Co Meath, Galway, sheridanscheesemongers.com; siyps.com; Ely 64, Glasthule, ely64.com

 

 

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How to make your own kombucha and kefir John Wilson: Fermenting your own is more fun and less pricey than buying it in shops

First published in The Irish Times, 11th January, 2020

Captain Kombucha California Raspberry, SynerChi Ginger & Lemon, Blakes Always Organic Natural Kefir and A&K Real Food Ginger Kombucha

While kefir might seem a modern obsession of clean-eaters, it has been around for at least 3,500 years, according to Holly Davis, writing in her excellent book Ferment. Every generation seems to rediscover it.

Milk kefir, water kefir and kombucha are all made using a scoby – a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeasts – which, given the correct culturing medium, environmental conditions and time, produce a fermented drink.

It is argued that they are full of various healthy pre- and probiotics, as well as vitamins and all sorts of other beneficial nutrients. More importantly, they taste delicious and are virtually alcohol-free (kefir and kombucha can actually contain between 0.5 per cent and 3 per cent alcohol, depending on how they are made. Most commercial versions contain less than 0.5 per cent and can therefore be labelled non-alcoholic.

To make milk kefir, you need to get hold of some kefir grains – small, rubbery lumps that look a little like cauliflower. Milk kefir is simply milk that has been left to ferment with grains at room temperature for 24 hours or so. It is an acidic, sometimes creamy, occasionally lightly fizzy drink, not unlike a runny yogurt. The grains need to be fed regular doses of fresh milk, but otherwise the procedure is fairly simple.

Water kefir is made by fermenting water kefir grains (small glassy globules), water, fruit and sugar together for two to four days. It is generally refreshing, and mildly fizzy. You can ferment it a second time with various fruits, berries, spices and herbs to create an effervescent and very enjoyable complex drink.

To create kombucha, you add the starter culture to sweetened green or black tea. A kombucha scoby is a strange sight: a large, floppy, rubbery, jellyfish-like object that grows to cover the surface of your fermenting brew. As with water kefir, you can add flavours and ferment a second time.

Kombucha is made from tea, so it will contain caffeine. Some commercial drinks producers add sugar or stevia to make them taste sweeter. Commercial water kefir is not easy to come by. The best I have tasted was from Ballymaloe Cookery School (a hive of bacterial activity); it is available from the shop there. There are plenty of other drinks to try out too, such as kvass and ginger bug.

You can, of course, buy ready-made kefir and kombucha in many shops, but making your own at home is fun, costs much less and allows you to experiment with flavours. Scobys can be bought in health shops, online, or from the burgeoning online fermentation community. Once you get started, so long as you keep your scoby alive, you can simply reuse your own grains time after time.

Captain Kombucha California Raspberry (organic, vegan)
€2.75-€3.75 for 400ml
I’m not quite sure why we need to import kombucha from Portugal and raspberries from California, but this was a refreshing, fruit-filled kombucha. It was certainly the sweetest of those I tasted, but pleasant nevertheless.
From Health-food shops and SuperValu

SynerChi Raw Organic Live Ginger & Lemongrass Kombucha (organic, vegan)
€2.95-€3.10 for 330ml
Made in Co Donegal, this was a mild, refreshing kombucha, with light citrus and a subtle kick of ginger. A very attractive drink that would please those new to kombucha.
From Health-food shops and SuperValu

Blakes Always Organic Natural Kefir
€2.80 for 250ml
An organic milk kefir made in Co Leitrim. This was smooth and creamy with a good kick of acidity, and a lightly cheesy note. A great way to start the day.
From Health-food shops

A&K Real Food Ginger Kombucha
€2.95 for 330ml
Made in Co Wicklow, this was my favourite kombucha, fizzy, fresh and tangy, with a full-on spicy gingery kick. Highly recommended.
From Health-food shops.

 

 

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Sober reflections on alcohol-free beer

First published in The Irish Times, 4th January, 2020

With the surge of interest in alcohol-free drinks, the range of low- and no-alcohol beers is growing annually. Both Heineken and Guinness have produced their own versions.

Guinness released its Open Gate Brew lager in 2018 – made, the blurb claims, “using a special yeast strain that only produces a very limited amount of alcohol”. The international craft brewers have been at it for years; the Danish Mikkeller’s Drink’in the Sun and Brew Dog, Punk AF (.5%) and Nanny State (1.1%) are probably the most popular.

Over Christmas, I tried two Irish alcohol-free craft beers several times and enjoyed both. Dungarvan Main Sail, introduced in 2019, is light and fresh with a good hoppy herby touch and plenty of refreshing citrus. It is 0.4% and therefore qualifies as alcohol-free. Claire Dalton of Dungarvan says: “We use the same brewing technique, using less grain and therefore less sugar which means less alcohol. The challenge was to get some body and flavour into it – so we used a wide variety of grains. It has been very well received.

“Initially, we did it as a once-off to see if there was an appetite out there, but we’ve brewed it several times since. People are definitely looking for no- and low-alcohol beers, but want a more full-flavoured version. The Main Sail ticks their craft box and their flavour profile too.”

The other alcohol-free craft beer I enjoyed was Moonlight from Wicklow Wolf brewery in Newtownmountkennedy. It was maltier, with a pleasant fruitiness and crisp citrus on the finish.

Beer without alcohol doesn’t taste quite the same. Part of that is down to the process used in making it. Also, as with wine, alcohol is part of the taste and carries other flavours. But if you are spending an evening in a pub, frequently it is the best option.

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Four wines to try if Dry January is not for you

Cepa Lebrel Rioja, Campaneo Old Vines Garnacha, Laurent Miquel Albarino and Exquisite Collection Wairarapa Pinot Noir.

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 4th January, 2020

We are fast approaching Blue Monday, the day many believe to be the worst of the year, when credit card bills must be paid, diets have failed, the days still don’t seem any longer and the weather is still miserable.

If dry January is not for you, and your credit facilities are maxed out, this week I bring you four widely available wines, all costing €10 or less. I have been lukewarm about inexpensive supermarket wines before, but these four offer genuinely great value for money.

As well as producing some of the most exciting wines around, Spain is a ready source of great glugging wines at very reasonable prices. In addition to the Garnacha and Rioja here. O’Briens has the ever reliable Protocolo, currently €10.95, but often on offer at a bargain €9.95. Most independents should have a well-priced Tempranillo, Garnacha or possibly Bobal from the centre of Spain, an area that produces massive quantities of wine, often at bargain prices.

Cheap Rioja can be awful and I generally avoid it, but the unoaked Cepa Lebrel Joven included here is an exception; I prefer it to the more expensive Cepa Lebrel Reserva and Gran Reserva. I bought my bottle for €5.99 before Christmas, but the price has returned to €7.55 now. You won’t mistake it for that fine Rioja you splurged out on for Christmas, but it really offers great value. In general, I am a big fan of unoaked Rioja. Some of the better producers make lovely clean elegant wines, but you will need to visit your independent wine merchant for these.

Laurent Miquel and his Irish wife Neasa planted Albariño vines in their high-altitude vineyard in the wilds of Corbières in the Languedoc. These were and probably still are the only Albariño vines in France. The wines were always good but have been improving every year. At €10, they represent a real bargain, less expensive than most Rías Baixas, the home of Albariño.

Until recently you had to look hard to find a Pinot Noir that didn’t cost a fortune. But first Chile and now Romania and New Zealand are producing very tasty wines at prices that are very affordable.

O’Briens Romanian Wildflower Pinot Noir is currently €9. The Aldi Exquisite New Zealand Pinot Noir (they also have a very decent Australian Pinot) used to come from Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine producing region, but last year it switched to Wairarapa. Wairarapa is less well-known than Marlborough, but the wines, red and white, can be every bit as good, and the Pinots better.

Cepa Lebrel Rioja Joven 2018
Cepa Lebrel Rioja Joven 2018

Cepa Lebrel Rioja Joven 2018
13%, €7.55
Light and juicy with clean damson and dark cherry fruits. Refreshing acidity and free of tannins. Try it with pork or chicken dishes.

From Lidl, lidl.ie

Campaneo Old Vines Garnacha 2017, Campo de Borja 
Campaneo Old Vines Garnacha 2017, Campo de Borja 

Campaneo Old Vines Garnacha 2017, Campo de Borja 
14%, €8
Medium to full-bodied with spice, milk chocolate and smooth dark fruits. Try it with red meats; a steak or lamb casserole.

From Tesco, tesco.ie 

Laurent Miquel Albariño 2018, IGP Aude
Laurent Miquel Albariño 2018, IGP Aude

Laurent Miquel Albariño 2018, IGP Aude
13%, €10
Zesty citrus aromas, with toothsome elegant pear fruits and a crisp dry finish. Drink it solo, with shellfish or simply cooked white fish.

From Dunnes Stores, dunnesstores.com

Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir 2018, Wairarapa, New Zealand
Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir 2018, Wairarapa, New Zealand

Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir 2018, Wairarapa, New Zealand
13%, €9.99
Light, vivid black cherry and damson fruits with a nice refreshing backbone. Perfect with tuna, salmon, or roast duck.

From Aldi, aldi.ie

 

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Four fantastic wines to go with your Christmas dinner

Christmas dinner wines: Muga Rioja Blanco; Les Deux Cols; Château Perron; and Greywacke Pinot Noir

First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 14th December, 2019

What to drink with turkey? It is not too difficult, really. If you are a white-wine drinker, go for a fairly rich, full-bodied oaked Chardonnay or similar style of wine, either from its home territory, in Burgundy, or possibly from New Zealand or Australia.

I tasted the lightly oaked Muga Blanco Rioja (€13.99-€14.99, below) a few weeks ago and couldn’t believe how good it was; wines of this quality usually cost more than €20. This would also go very nicely with smoked salmon and other richer seafood dishes. For an alternative, try a Godello from Valdeorras, or a rich Chenin Blanc from South Africa.

 If your budget is generous, start proceedings with a glass of Champagne. Otherwise, Marks & Spencer Cava Brut NV (€10.50) or Tuffeau Blanc de Blancs Nature (independents, about €20) will certainly help kick-start the celebrations. To go with fishy starters, serve a Rías Baixas from Spain (O’Briens has the succulent Lagar de Costa Albariño for €16.96, currently down from €19.95).

If you prefer red wine with your turkey, a fruity Beaujolais, a Pinot Noir (including Burgundy) or a mature Bordeaux would all do nicely. If you enjoy Spanish wines, you could try a Rioja crianza, reserva or gran reserva, or, if you are feeling adventurous, a Garnacha from DO Madrid, or a Mencía, from northwest Spain.

If your preferences run to fuller-bodied wines, a southern Rhône (including Châteauneuf-du-Pape) or a rich Barossa Valley Shiraz will go well with turkey as well as with any rich stuffings.

Over the past few years I have ended up serving a good red Burgundy. Pinot Noir goes really well with turkey, goose and ham provided you steer clear of the cranberry sauce, which is not kind to any sort of wine. I have also enjoyed some pure Syrah from the northern Rhône.

This year I may well try either the Greywacke Pinot Noir or the excellent Chemin des Fonts, both of which feature below. In fact, the same producer’s Zephyr would do very nicely as a white wine if you wanted to try something different.

If you are entertaining a crowd, Aldi Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir (€9.99) or Aldi Côtes du Rhône Signargues (€8.99) will put a smile on everyone’s face. Also, Molloy’s Liquor Stores have a good selection of inexpensive Côtes du Rhônes on offer at the moment.

Alternatively, watch out for the keenly priced Cune Rioja Crianza (€11.50 from SuperValu, Dunnes Stores and Tesco), which is great with turkey, beef or goose.

With the Christmas pudding, offer a modest serving of tawny port; even those who profess to dislike port may suddenly change their mind.

Whatever wines you choose, make sure you have decent wine glasses, plenty of water to hand, and an alcohol-free option for those driving.

Muga Rioja Blanco 2018, Bodegas Muga, 13%, €13.99-€14.99
Lively apple and nectarine fruits with light toasty notes, refreshing citrus acidity and a crisp, dry finish.
From Donnybrook Fair, donnybrookfair.ie; Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Kilcavan Stores, Gorey, Co Wexford

Chemin des Fonts 2018, Les Deux Cols, Côtes du Rhône, 14.5%, €28.50
A very refined glass of wine, with lifted aromas of spice, dark fruits and liquorice; the palate is silky-smooth, with plum fruits, black olives and a lingering finish. An excellent all-rounder that would be perfect with turkey, beef or duck.
From Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, jusdevine.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin, searsons.com; Deveney’s, Dundrum, Dublin 16; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; siyps.com; Avoca, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, and Rathcoole, Co Dublin, avoca.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie

Château Perron 2016, Lalande-de-Pomerol, 13%, €28.95
A finely balanced, refined Bordeaux with clean damson fruits, a touch of dark chocolate and light tannins on the finish. One to serve with a roast of beef or goose.
From Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, Co Dublin, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath, mitchellandson.com; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie

Greywacke Pinot Noir 2016, Marlborough, 13.5%, €42.99
A medium-bodied wine with concentrated, ripe sweet-sour dark-cherry fruits, subtle spices and herbs. This will happily partner turkey, duck or goose.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; Fresh branches, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; wineonline.ie

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Find your Christmas treat: The perfect sherries for the season

First published in the Irish Times, Wednesday 11th December, 2019

At Christmas I swop my usual fino sherry for another of my favourite wines; aged dry sherry and Madeira. Every year, I make sure I have at least one bottle open, my personal Christmas treat, to dip into when the time is right.

Once opened, a bottle will keep for a week or so and makes the perfect indulgent treat; a glass of Oloroso, Amontillado or Palo Cortado sherry, or a dry Sercial Madeira with some cheese, a few crackers, and maybe some nuts. Pour a small measure into a proper large wine glass to release the amazing aromas.

Dry Amontillado Los Arcos, Lustau

€13.50 per half bottle , 18.5%
A delicious, rich, rounded Amontillado with walnuts and hazelnuts, dried fruits and a touch of toffee. Drink it with firm cheeses and nuts.
From: Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue & Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny, thewinecentre.ie; Gibney’s, Malahide, gibneys.com

Callejuela Amontillado

€32, 18%
A superb precise intensely flavoured sherry with toasted almonds, mahogany polish, tangy crisp citrus acidity and excellent dry length. Serve lightly chilled with fried salty almonds, a few slices of chorizo or some pâté and toast.
From: Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3 clontarfwines.ie; The Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, ely64.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown, whelehanswines.ie

Hidalgo Oloroso Faraon

€16.50 for a 50cl bottle, 18%
A very elegant bone-dry sherry with toasted hazelnuts, citrus peel and raisins finishing on an attractive saline note.
From: jnwine.com

Fernando de Castilla Antique Palo Cortado

€45 per half litre bottle, 19%
An exquisite sherry, elegant and concentrated with orange peel, toasted almonds, finishing long and bone dry. Try with blue cheese on sourdough toast.
From: Ely Wine Store, Maynooth; elywinebar.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, searsons.com

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Four port wines that offer great value for money

Maynard’s, Krohn, Kopke and Offley; 10-year-old tawny ports

First published in the Irish Times, Saturday, 30th November, 2019.

There can be few nicer things than sitting down in front of a fire, or cuddled up on the sofa, with a glass of warming, sweet fortified wine on a cold winter’s evening. A mince pie, a slice of Christmas cake completes the scene. Or, if like me your tastes are more savoury, a hunk of blue cheese, a few walnuts and some crackers. Either way, it creates a sense of hygge (Scandinavians love port but prefer Glogg or mulled wine) and provides a barrier to the cold outside. So, this Christmas make sure you have a bottle of something decent to hand. I will take a look at dry fortified wines next week, this week tawny port. A fortified wine is simply a wine that has been boosted by the addition of some grape brandy. This is done during fermentation and kills the yeasts off, leaving a naturally sweet wine.

Port has moved away from the images of crusty gout-ridden colonels sitting in their club sipping a glass of vintage port. A new generation of wine drinkers see it as something to enjoy with food. These days tawny port is more often drunk lightly chilled with a dessert or as an aperitif or even with savoury dishes.

Vintage and late-bottled vintage port are aged in the bottle, whereas tawny matures in barrel for periods of up to 40 years. Younger tawny port, such as 10-year-old still retains some ripe sweet fruits. As it ages in barrel port becomes nuttier and woodier.

The age statement is an average age; a 10-year-old will be a blend of various wines ranging from five to 15 years old. A Colheita tawny port is from a single vintage. All tawny comes ready-aged, and doesn’t need decanting.

Although we are happy to drink sweet soft drinks and medium-dry appassimento wines, some wine drinkers feel port is too sweet or too high in alcohol. The quality of all ports across the range is higher than ever. All four wines below offer great value for money, and would make a great Christmas present too. Aldi’s Maynards 10-year-old is an amazing bargain.

You can of course enjoy tawny port alongside sweet treats such as fruit cake and mince pies, but it also goes very well with pecan pie and walnut tart. I suspect it might go well with rich eggy pasteis de nata too. On the savoury side I have also enjoyed it with chicken liver parfait and firm cheeses. At the table, tawny certainly tastes so much better if served lightly chilled, in proper wine glasses too. Why not try it out this Christmas?

Maynard’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port
Maynard’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port

Maynard’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port
20%, €13.99
A rich complex Port with sultanas, raisins, hazelnuts and milk chocolate. Perfect with fruit cake, chocolate desserts or even a box of chocolates.
From Aldi, Aldi.ie

Krohn 10 Year Old Tawny Port
Krohn 10 Year Old Tawny Port

Krohn 10 Year Old Tawny Port
20%, €27.50
A delicious warming fruit-filled port with sweet plums, dried fruits, a light woodiness and good acidity to stop it cloying. One to dip into over Christmas.
From Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown, whelehanswines.ie

Kopke 10 Year Old Tawny Port
Kopke 10 Year Old Tawny Port

Kopke 10 Year Old Tawny Port
20%, €30
Concentrated dried and candied fruits with toasted walnuts and a whiff of old wood. Perfect on its own, or with chocolate brownies.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Ely64.com; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3 clontarfwines.ie; Lilliput Stores, Dublin 7, lilliputstores.com; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie

Offley Ten Year Old Tawny Port

Offley Ten Year Old Tawny Port
20%, €34.99
Some rich damson fruits alongside the grilled hazelnuts, dried citrus peel and butterscotch. Not too sweet, and a lovely glass of wine. With chicken liver parfait, pecan pie or Christmas cake.
From The Cinnamon Cottage, Cork, cinnamoncottage.ie; The Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Donnybrook Fair, donnybrookfair.ie; Terroirs, Dublin 4, Terroirs.ie; Thomas’s of Foxrock; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny, Thewinecentre.ie; Wineonline.ie.

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Four of my favourite Christmas party wines, and how to choose yours

 Domaine Antugnac Pinot Noir, Aduna Rioja, Villa Des Croix Picpoul de Pinet and La Raspa Blanca Seco

First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 23rd November, 2019.

Having a party this Christmas? Choosing the right wine is not too difficult once you keep a couple of guidelines in mind.

Supermarkets have plenty of sub-€10 bottles, but cheap wines really only benefit the taxman. To send your guests home happy, be prepared to spend €10 or more a bottle. If you can stretch to €15, you will certainly notice the difference. If your budget is tight, don’t worry; I list a few of my favourite €10 supermarket wines below. Either way, it is worth buying one bottle first and trying it out at home, maybe with a few friends.

Richer, more alcoholic wines – white as well as red – are best avoided; a hefty 14.5 per cent red wine will overwhelm the palate and have your guests reeling after a glass on an empty stomach. Far better to go for lighter wines that refresh. Heavily oaked white wines are best kept for food, so avoid these if at all possible. With red wines steer clear of those with drying tannins; again, great with food but unpleasant on their own. There are plenty of wines with 11-13.5 per cent alcohol that will go down so much better. Lastly, remember wine stimulates the appetite and also tastes a lot better with food; a few nibbles, even bought-in supermarket party trays, will provide welcome soakage.

There is a huge range of low-alcohol white wines, including Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (always popular), but remember that Chile and the Loire valley also produce very good versions. Spain offers Verdejo from Rueda and Rías Baixas; Portugal has some great white wines, including Alvarinho and Vinho Verde, and from France I would go for Muscadet, Picpoul de Pinet or Côtes de Gascogne. Italy has a range of light whites, my favourites being Verdicchio and Soave, but a good Pinot Grigio would work too.

Light, fruity red wines include inexpensive Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay/Beaujolais, unoaked Rioja and Valpolicella and Bardolino.

My recommendations from the multiples include the Les Courtelles Picpoul de Pinet (€11) and Silver Moki Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (€10.50) from Dunnes Stores, Picouto de Cima Vinho Verde (€11.95) and Rizzardi Bardolino Classico (€14.95) from O’Briens, and Exquisite Marlborough Sauvignon (€9.99) and South Australia Pinot Noir (€8.99) from Aldi. Lidl has Laurana Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi and Madame Parmentier Régnié (both €9.99). Marks & Spencer has a Verdicchio (€10.50) and a light, fruity Valpolicella Valpatena (€10.50).

 

Domaine Antugnac Pinot Noir
Domaine Antugnac Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir 2017, Domaine Antugnac, Haute Vallée de l’Aude
13%, €14.58
Lovely sweet, ripe red-cherry fruits with a slight earthiness and a supple, fruit-filled finish. Great served solo or with a variety of nibbles at cool room temperature.
From Wines Direct, Mullingar and Arnott’s, Dublin 1, winesdirect.ie

Aduna Rioja
Aduna Rioja

Aduna Rioja 2018
13.5%, €14.95
Violet aromas and vibrant, fresh dark-cherry fruits with a soft easy finish. Perfect party wine, and great with tapas.
From Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, Co Dublin, and at Avoca in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath, mitchellandson.com; Myles Doyle, Gorey, Co Wexford; Wilde & Green, Dublin 6, wildeandgreen.com

Villa Des Croix Picpoul de Pinet
Villa Des Croix Picpoul de Pinet

Picpoul de Pinet Villa des Croix 2018
13%, €16.95
Plump, rounded melon and peach fruits balanced nicely by a lightly zesty saline acidity, finishing dry. Great solo or with lighter canapes.
From Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Deveney’s, Dublin 14

La Raspa Blanca Seco
La Raspa Blanca Seco

La Raspa Blanca Seco 2017, Bodegas Viñedos Verticales, Sierras de Malaga, Spain
13%, €19
Fresh, fragrant and elegant with inviting floral aromas and delicate, pure tropical fruits. A delight to drink. A party wine with a difference, perfect on its own or with nibbles.
From Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Lilliput Stores, Dublin 7, lilliputstores.com; Coach House, Dublin 16, thecoachhouseofflicence.ie

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Pinot Noir: A flexible friend

Magazine wine November 2019. Pinot Noir: Wildflower, Felicité, Sancerre Maulin Béle and Beaune

 

First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 16th November, 2019

Pinot Noir ticks a lot of boxes, which may explain its rise in popularity. The very best wines have a soft silkiness combined with a gentle power that together deliver a hedonistic hit that few other wines can match.

It is an instantly likeable, gluggable wine; it is the most versatile of food wines, a great partner for tuna, salmon and a host of white and red meats, as well as feathered game. If you are starting to think about Christmas, it goes very nicely with goose, duck and turkey, too. Going with so many foods, it is a great choice in restaurants, if some of your party are eating fish and others meat.

While the very best wines will keep and develop, just about every Pinot Noir can be drunk with great pleasure almost as soon as it is bottled. Light to medium-bodied, and free of any drying tannins, many wines have a seductive sweetness, despite being quite dry.

So why has it taken us so long to fall for Pinot? Until recently buying Pinot Noir, either from its home territory in Burgundy or anywhere else, was a hit-and-miss affair. But over the last decade, growers and winemakers around the world seem to have finally mastered this fussy grape. Burgundy is far more consistent, and now Germany, Oregon, California, Australia, Chile and South Africa all produce very high-quality Pinot Noir, as do Alsace and parts of the Languedoc, in France. In addition, Romania and Chile both produce some very appealing wines at incredibly low prices.

Inexpensive Pinot Noir is generally fresh and juicy. The greatest wines match my description above but are frequently eye-wateringly expensive. In between those two extremes styles vary hugely depending on where the grapes are grown. Wine anoraks love the way that two Pinots, made from grapes grown metres apart, will show subtle but marked differences. It is all down to slight changes in soil, exposure, height or mesoclimate, or a combination of all three.

Burgundy still produces the world’s finest Pinot Noir. For €20-€30 you will find plenty of very stylish Bourgogne Rouge and for around €50 some complex, sensual wines that will bring you out in goosebumps. The Beaune I mention below is one of a number of excellent wines made by Róisín Curley, a Mayo woman , in her boutique winery in Burgundy. I cannot pretend that the €9 Pinot I also refer to will reach the same heights, but it is a very attractive glass of wine. I have not included New Zealand, which produces some great Pinot Noir, as I covered it earlier this year in these pages.

Wildflower Pinot Noir 2018, Romania
12.5%, €9

A light, easy Pinot Noir, with juicy blackberry and red-cherry fruits. A great party wine, or to serve with salmon, tuna or pre-dinner nibbles.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Felicité Pinot Noir 2017, Newton Johnson, Cape South Coast, South Africa
13%, €16.95

A captivating, pure Pinot Noir with soft, rounded, ripe dark-cherry fruits, a touch of spice and gentle tannins. It displays a lovely ripeness without ever seeming in the least bit clumsy. Try it with roast game birds, duck or a mushroom risotto.
From jnwine.com

Sancerre Maulin Bèle 2017, Domaine André Vatan
13%, €19.50

A seductive, light Pinot Noir with soft, sweet, nicely concentrated red-cherry fruits and a herbal touch. Drink it with roast pork, or duck.
From Whelehan’s Wines, Dublin 18, whelehanswines.ie

Beaune 2017, Róisín Curley
12.5%, €55

A floral Pinot Noir, with fresh, clean blackberry and dark-cherry fruits with good supporting acidity and a lovely long, savoury finish. Goes well with roast duck or chicken.
From Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin, onthegrapevine.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1 and Sandycove, Co Dublin, as well as at Avoca at Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath, mitchellandson.com; Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Whelehan’s Wines, Dublin 18, whelehanswines.ie

 

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