Thursday, 28 April 2011

Roll out the barrel for a right Royal romantic street party

Never let it be said that the drinks trade doesn't know a bandwagon when it sees one. Tomorrow's royal wedding has prompted all manner of English beer and wine producers to bring out special editions of their wares, in the hope that we will grab a bottle of their particular brew as part of our patriotic celebrations.

Windsor and Eton go for the romantic angle
Beer has more flexibility than wine when it comes to releasing short-lived special editions – along with a well-known penchant for punning labels. Windsor Knot Ale, produced by the Windsor and Eton brewery, is “yours to have and to hold, while stocks last” and available from Taurus Wines of Bramley for the, ahem, princely sum of £1.99 a bottle, or £39.99 for a case of 24. It has, apparently, a refreshing taste and exotic fruit aroma.

Suitably kitsch label from Castle Rock
Nottingham-based Castle Rock brewery's Kiss Me Kate ale has managed to garner international attention, with Time Magazine, CNN and French TV channel M6 all giving it exposure. Nottingham is a long way to go to sample the draught version, but Morrison's are stocking the bottled incarnation for £1.50.

Adnam's good taste label
Adnams have, we hope, put more effort into the brewing than they have into the naming of their unimaginatively titled Royal Wedding Ale. We are pleased to note, however, that one of the key ingredients is heather honey – bound to be delicious!

Buckingham Palace has thus far refused to lift the veil on what wine will be served at the wedding breakfast, but we can only hope that they have done the decent thing and chosen at least one English wine to toast the happy couple.

Our home produced wines get better with each passing year and some of the sparkling wines produced in this country certainly bear comparison with many from around the world. We may not have anything quite to rival Dom Perignon just yet, but there are many English fizzes which consistently scoop international awards and deserve our support.

So what are you eating on THE DAY? Perhaps simple but always welcome British bangers with a home-made English apple chutney, or more sophisticated fare such as Scottish smoked salmon with Hampshire watercress and Devon crème fraiche. Or maybe you are going to be cooking up what is now recognized as the most popular English national dish, curry. Whatever your choice, have fun and the following wines will add a festive sparkle to your celebrations.

Camel Valley in Cornwall is on a roll, with a list of awards as long as your arm, including a gold medal and trophy for best sparkling rosé in the world at last year's International Wine Challenge for their 2008 Pinot Noir Rosé Brut. That vintage has, not surprisingly, sold out, but you can try their Camel Valley Brut 2008 for £22.95 at Waitrose.

Closer to home, Mike Roberts of Ridgeview vineyards in Ditchling, Sussex was one of the first to insist on using the classic Champagne grape varieties, when many English winemakers were trying to fashion a silk purse out of the sow's ear of hybrid varieties like Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner. His dedication has paid off and, for our money, offers the most consistently successful range of English fizzes around. His 100% chardonnay Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 scooped the award for best sparkling wine in the world at last year's Decanter World Wine Awards and is available online at for £24.95. And remember, these are competitions where wines are tasted blind against the best of the best, including smart Champagnes.

Nyetimber, near Chichester, make only sparkling wine and set their sights on making the best quality fizz since day one, back in the mid-nineties. Word has it that her Madge (by which we mean the Queen, not Madonna) has previously served Nyetimber wines to visiting foreign dignitaries (we do hope it was Jacques Chirac). Will she stick with the tried and tested? Their 2001 Blanc de Blancs won a well-deserved gold medal at the International Wine Challenge last year and you can pick up a bottle for yourself for £24.99 from Taurus Wines of Bramley.

Some of our homegrown wine producers are commercially savvy enough to spot a royal marketing opportunity and a few have managed to bring out limited editions of their wines to tie in with the wedding.

Chapel Down, England's largest wine producer, has brought out a special edition sparkler called The Union 2006, a blend of chardonnay for elegance and finesse and pinot noir, which gives depth and texture. You can get hold of it to celebrate along with Will and Kate (or save it for your own celebration) for £75 for 3 bottles from

If you'd like to celebrate with others, but don't have a street party in the offing, for £55 you can join Denbies for their Royal Wedding Celebration Ball, where you can eat from the same menu as was served to HRH the Queen and Prince Philip in 2004, accompanied by Denbies wines, of course. Tiaras optional.

If you are the creative type you can of course knit your own Royal wedding scene, likewise Lego have brought out their own version to build - even anticipating the marriage outfits. However if, like us, you do not feel the need to do anything other than pop a cork, then just relax and enjoy as you either shed a tear of joy at this happy and romantic national celebration of love, or just give hearty thanks for a day in the sun, released from the daily grind.

Friday, 15 April 2011

A moveable feast

Easter is, to quote Ernest Hemingway, a moveable feast. 24th April is apparently the second to last date on which Easter can possibly fall. In case you were wondering, the earliest possible date for Easter is 22nd March.

All this shifting around can cause confusion and create challenges for schools – some children will have finished their “Easter” holiday before the religious festival has actually happened this year. In order to avoid being caught out, supermarkets take the sensible precaution of stocking Easter eggs and hot cross buns from January onwards.

While we have another week to wait for the onslaught of chocolate and general pigging out which characterises Easter, people in Thailand are already in the throes of celebrating Songkran, or their new year festival. Instead of happening in the dead of winter, the Thai festival falls in the hottest month of the year in that country, when temperatures can reach 40ºC or more. Understandably, they choose to mark the festival by indulging in large scale water fights, with hoses, buckets and water pistols all entering the fray. The celebrations last for 3 days, with time being stretched to fit: 13th April is the last day of the old year, 14th a transition day between the old and new and 15th April is the first day of the new year - now why didn't we think of that?

If you fancy indulging in a Thai banquet to get into the Songkran spirit, you will doubtless be wondering what drinks to serve with it – aren't you? Well we are.

Tsinga is of course the authentic Thai beer that is perfect with your pad thai. However, you might find the fizz and the highish alcohol a little unwelcome if you plan on trying things from the spicier end of the spectrum. A green curry has a tricky combination of sweet, sour and hot flavours – but try a cloudy wheat beer and you might find that its fruity, sour edge stands up well.

Wine lovers have to think carefully when matching wines to strongly-flavoured, spicy foods. Heather D was once challenged to come up with wines to accompany a Thai buffet and the undoubted star was an unfashionable but delicious German riesling. Bassermann-Jordan Riesling 2008/9, £9.99 from Waitrose, has just the right balance of apricot-y sweetness and citrus acidity to cope with both green and red curries with aplomb.

You could also try Tim Adams Pinot Gris 2009, from the Clare Valley in Australia (£11 from It's a pretty pale mink colour and has plenty of really juicy greengage-y fruit, coupled with crisp acidity that makes light work of cleansing the palate. Probably a better choice away from the hottest curries, but fine with Thai flavours.

What doesn't work? With your best interests at heart, Heather D managed to find a “good” bad match – a bone dry rosé. The sweetness in the food made the wine taste unbearably dry and stripped out all the fruit from the wine – more of a mouthwash than a palate cleanser. You should also avoid tannin (which rules out most, if not all, red wines) as this will fight with the chilli and spices.

Now all you need is a water pistol.

Back to Blighty and the impending Easter celebrations. For some of us, this is the most welcome feast of the year, coming as it does after the self-imposed privations of Lent. We must confess that we are not much given to depriving ourselves of anything for Lent, but enjoy participating in the excesses of Easter nevertheless.

Lamb is the traditional meat for Easter and it is happily a very wine-friendly meat. With Easter so late this year, it's just possible that the first spring lamb may be available – if your purse can stretch to it. These lambs are essentially reared indoors and fed only on their mother's milk prior to slaughter (let's face facts), producing tender, light pink meat with a delicate (some would say bland) flavour.

Such delicate flavours shouldn't be subjected to anything too overwhelming. If the weather is kind, then a chilled rosé could be fun. Try Château de Sours 2009/10 (2010 if you can find it), £.9.99 or buy 2 for £7.99 each at Majestic. This is the rosé that spawned a thousand (or lots of them, anyway) imitators, leading the way with its ravishing light ruby colour, lashings of plummy fruit, while remaining bone-dry and food friendly.

We prefer to save the spring lamb for later in the season, when the price isn't so eyewatering and the meat has perhaps a little more bite, but also more flavour.

Hogget, or year-old lamb, will have much more flavour at this time of year. Roast lamb with Jersey Royals and green beans is a meal to makes the mouth water. Having saved some money on the lamb, you could splash out on a fancy wine to go with it: Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007 (£21.99 at Waitrose, Ocado and – but down £5 at Ocado until 26 April). Pinot noir is a great friend to lighter red meats and is lovely with lamb. Russian River Valley, in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, has long had a reputation for fine pinots, largely thanks to the coastal fogs which act like natural air conditioning, keeping the temperatures low. Enticing perfume of lilies, roses and a hint of cinnamon, lead onto a lush palate of raspberry and cherry fruit with a lick of vanilla oak. A suitably hedonistic wine for a time of feasting.

Chocolate – there's no way to escape it at this time of year. If you're looking for the secrets to matching wine and chocolate, then have a look at our previous column, now available on Your Liquid Assets blog:

Whatever you are celebrating, have fun and enjoy. Next time – toasting Wills and Kate or, any excuse for a party.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Every day is Mother's Day

This Sunday, in case you need reminding, is Mother's Day. And yes, technically this is a religious festival and the mother in question is supposed to be the mother church. But try that line with the mum in your family, as you explain that there is no lie-in, breakfast in bed, slap up lunch or just a cheery bunch of flowers to look forward to and, well...don't say we didn't warn you.

A popular choice, at least in the two Heathers' households, is a nice bottle of something – and preferably something with a bit of sparkle to it. If you would like to follow suit, then in the interests of familial harmony, Heather D has conducted some entirely unscientific research on your behalf, to help guide you in your purchases.

A crack team of highly qualified tasters was assembled, ready to pit their finely tuned tastebuds against a selection of five popular pink fizzes, ranging in price from £7 to £37. In order for our, ahem, research session to stand up to scientific scrutiny, the wines were all tasted blind, so that the tasters did not know what they were drinking. The mums (for that was the entry qualification for this taste-off) slurped, sniffed and failed to spit out all the wines on your behalf and the results are produced here.

Good news, bad news
First the bad news – there were two pink Champagnes in our line-up and they came in first and second place in our results table. Top of the fizzy pops was Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé NV (RRP £36.99), followed by Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé NV (same price). The mums rated these two above the others for their “light” and “dry” style, with some detecting a hint of blackcurrant in the Moët. A couple found a slight bitter aftertaste in the Veuve, but obviously found it pretty attractive overall.

The good news for hard up sons and daughters is that equal second place in the line-up was Jacob's Creek Sparkling Rosé, around £9.49 and widely available. “Very drinkable” was a phrase that cropped up when discussing this wine – though, come to think of it, “very drinkable” cropped up quite a bit throughout the tasting...hmmm.

Cava is often the fizz we go for when we're in a hurry, but can't afford the posh stuff. However, Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Cava Rosada Brut Vintage (£7.99) was lacklustre on the night: “watery” and “crude” were just a couple of the damning comments it drew.

However disappointing the Cava, however, it did trounce the Millione Vino Frizzante from Italy (£7.97 from Sainsbury's and elsewhere). It's the kind of wine that you want to like, as it is a social enterprise, where each bottle sold contributes to humanitarian projects in Sierra Leone. Buying it might make you feel good, but drinking it, perhaps less so, if the comments of our tasters are anything to go by: “strange” and the pithily concise “yuk”.

The moral, dear readers: a bottle of Jacob's Creek would undoubtedly be welcome, but a smart pink Champagne has it beaten on looks and taste. And if the mum in your life appreciates the good things in life, the ultimate pink fizz is Bollinger Grande Année Rosé 2002, £85 from Selfridges. Pale salmon in colour, the lively strawberry fruit and hints of rose petals draw you in. Delicate, but with great depth of flavour, wonderful to sip on its own, yet equally lovely with suitably elegant food. Definitely a grand gesture wine, but you might get to share it, don't forget!

Along with the fizz, a favourite gift to accompany is a bunch of flowers – and sorry, our remit doesn't go as far as testing garage forecourt bunches versus an artistic creation from a proper florist. However, if you're plumping for that other standby, a box of choccies, then we are your, er, men.

In fact, the indefatigable Heather D went to far as to attend a wine and chocolate tasting – purely in the interests of research you understand. There were some brave matches (which is code for uh, no), including a pretty dry Riesling with an almond-cream filled milk chocolate. In our experience milk chocolate is so mouth-coatingly sweet that it's a tall order for any wine, red, white or fizzy to get along with it.

Much more successful is a really fruity red wine with dark chocolate – so the lady may love Milk Tray, but perhaps she should give Black Magic a try if she also likes a glass of red wine. We tried a dark chocolate praline with 2008 Penfold's Koonunga Hill 76 Shiraz Cabernet (RRP £10), which accomplished the neat trick of toning down the exuberant fruit of the wine and making the chocolate taste less sweet too.

However, the best match of the night was an Australian version of Tawny Port, served in this case with a ganache-filled dark chocolate – though I suspect just about any chocolate would work. The sweetness, power and layered nutty complexity of Tawny Port is THE wine to choose if you want to find a match made in heaven for your box of chocs. The Australian version we tasted is not currently available in the UK, but a 20 year old Tawny Port will have the right depth of raisin, nut and caramel flavours. The big names such as Graham's or Taylor's 20 year old tawnies are widely available for around £35. If your budget doesn't stretch that far, then a 10 year old such as Warre's Otima, widely available for around £13 for a 50cl bottle, may not have all the exquisite depth, but delivers plenty of rich nuttiness for the price.