Drink With Me Blog
Champagne. Is there any more luxurious word out there? To me, it conjures up visions of fireworks, popping corks and all-out celebration. It is by far my most favoured alcoholic drink (although English sparkling wine is very much giving it a run for its money) and to visit the region is #1 on my bucket list. But what is it that makes this one word evoke feelings of excitement, intense emotion and general happiness?
Quietly tucked away north-east of Paris, the Champagne region is the most northerly wine region in France. This is particularly important because of its climate which is crucial to the make-up of the wine. There are three main vineyard areas: Côte des Blancs, Vallée de la Marne and Montagne de Reims. It is a sparkling wine which means bubbles and loud popping corks, although some still Champagnes do exist out there! Champagne is only made from 3 grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, all in differing ratios according to what the Champagne house wants to make. The wine is so popular with consumers that almost every other region in the world that produced sparkling wine used the term Champagne on its labels and Champagne had it legally bound that only sparkling wines from the Champagne region in France can actually use the name Champagne, thus making it properly protected.
Why is Champagne so expensive? Simple: the way it is made! Making Champagne is laborious and time consuming, which means costs to the winery which are of course passed onto the consumer. That and marketing each brand so people feel one is more special than another. Making Champagne ain’t easy, but nothing worth it is, right? Champagne is made by a process called Méthode Traditionnelle or Méthode Champenoise, the Classic Method. It starts off as any other still wine would, but with Champagne yeast and sugars are added to the wine in the bottle to start a second fermentation inside the glass! The wine reacts with the yeasts and sugars to produce carbon dioxide which is the trademark bubbles we all love. Then this wine has to legally be aged for at least 15 months on its ‘lees’ (dead yeast cells) to create extra maturity. During this time the bottles are turned very slowly – a process called riddling – which in the not so distant past used to be done by a person but now by machines. This gets the yeast to the top of the bottle which is then expelled in a process called disgorgement. The wine is then topped with sugar and a wine known as dosage – essentially a top up wine – and then bottled! It then needs the heavier duty cork and cage to protect the pressure from exploding the bottle but which will give it that ‘POP’ when you open it!
You can also have different Champagnes; the blanc de blancs (white from whites) means a Champagne made only from Chardonnay grapes; blanc de noirs is a white wine made from the red grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Champagne isn’t loved by everyone and it is definitely an acquired taste. Some people prefer the taste profile of the more fruity Prosecco and Champagne is, for the most part, certainly drier than other sparkling wines. But each Champagne house certainly has its own distinct flavour profiles. Some flavours are biscuit (think Bollinger), lemons, brioche and vanilla (Veuve Cliquot) and citrus and nut notes (think Moet & Chandon). There are differing flavour profiles for Champagne, ranging from very dry (Brut Nature), little sweeter ( Extra Brut), the most popular type of Champagne, Brut, and then the sweeter and less common Champagnes, Dry, Sec, Seco, Demi-Sec, Doux, Dulce, the two latter types being the sweetest. The ones you’ll have in your fridge are probably the Brut ones – now you know what you’re looking for on the label!
You love it, you always have a bottle in your cupboard and everyone has heard of the G&T (no thanks to Pat Butcher #showingmyage?) and you definitely have a couple of those balloon glasses to enjoy it with. But do you actually know what gin is? A long time ago I worked for the great Vinopolis down in London Bridge. Unfortunately that place has now gone (sad times) but it was one of the first great jobs I had in the drinks trade. Bombay Sapphire sponsored a room there and within it you could go round smelling and getting to know all the botanicals that go into making a gin. So let me take you back there, to when I was running around London in my early 20s, holding down 2 jobs (one day job and Vinopolis in the evening to learn about drinks) and learning as much as I could about all things with an abv...
Gin is basically a flavoured vodka. Simple! Both spirits are made from a neutral spirit (think grain), which needs to be at 96% abv (ooph!) which you then with botanicals, the predominant one being juniper, to turn vodka into gin. Gin must be bottled at 37.5% abv minimum, mainly I think to make sure that on Friday night when you pour yourself that gin you are definitely going to get the chance to relax and get a bit tipsy!
‘WTF is a botanical?’ I hear you cry: nothing groundbreaking to be honest, but they do create serious flavour in gin. They are seeds, berries, roots , fruits and herbs. The oils from these botanicals seep into the spirit to create the distinctive gin taste. The most common botanicals used in gin are: juniper, coriander, angelica, lemon, orange, orris root, cardamom, liquorice and cassia bark.
Here comes the history bit…concentrate (ladies 5 points for remembering which advert I’m harking back to here 😉). Gin derives from the Dutch spirit genever which just means juniper. It was, back in the day, a simple distilled malt wine flavoured with juniper.
Fun fact alert! The term ‘Dutch Courage’ came about when British troops fought in the 80 year war in the 17th Century and the Dutch, already well versed in genever, initiated the Brits into it by drinking it before going into battle. Hence the term! Now I just use it for when the Outlaws are arriving imminently.
The Brits bought this genever spirit home with them and my lord did it take off here in Britain. King William III of Orange saw the potential in genever (very soon shortened to gin because no one could really be arsed to say ‘genever’ all the time) and let people produce it in their own homes - major error! A further decree that got people out of having to have soldiers stay in their pads if they were making their own gins meant that there was literally a gin explosion and by 1730 there were over 7000 gin shops in London alone! (If I tell you there are today only 3,500 pubs in London, what does that say to you…?!) and by 1733 people were drinking on average 1.3l of the stuff PER WEEK. Now I like a drink but seriously 1.3l of pure gin per week?! That surely cannot be good for anyone’s livers. Coupled with the fact that this wasn’t the nice legal 37.5%abv; oh no this stuff was 160%abv?!!!!!
Ever heard of the phrase ‘Mother’s Ruin’? Blame it on the gin (not the screaming kids in the background). For the first time, women were (shock!) allowed to drink gin in the same pubs and it apparently led them to neglect their children and starting to turn tricks because of the gin. Not sure this type of folklore would pass today but it’s a ‘humorous’ (?) anecdote…
The government tried to intervene but really they just made things worse. (Wonder if they had gin at the Downing Street parties last year? I’m sure Cummings will publish the cocktail menu shortly 😉). Thankfully the then cabinet did pull their finger out and sorted out this debacle; they shufted a few laws and basically made it too expensive for punters to produce the gin themselves and that literally put paid to that.
Today gin is actually a very respected spirit; indeed, Her Majesty herself reportedly enjoys a gin and Dubonnet of an evening. But, like wine, One can get bogged down with all the different types of gin out there. Here is a little cheat sheet for next time you’re in the gin aisle:
This festive season, when we can finally (fingers crossed) be together with our loved ones once again, is one laden with the possibilities of delicious food and wine to enjoy with friends and family. Amongst this plethora of delicacies, Port has to be up there in the top 5 of choice for Christmas fare. I don’t think there has been a single Christmas where a bottle of Port hasn’t graced my house and been promptly consumed and highly enjoyed. But what exactly is Port?
Port was essentially produced by the British, for the British, which is why if you look on the majority of Port bottles, the names are British. During the 17th Century when importing French wines into Britain was banned, we turned to Portugal to satiate our thirst. The only problem was that the wines of Portugal were too thin to really withstand the journey to Britain and by the 1850s winemakers discovered that the addition of brandy resulted in a stronger wine which could not only survive the journey but actually provide a rather pleasant dessert wine!
Port is the quintessential sweet, fortified wine, meaning a wine which has had alcohol added to it before, during or even after fermentation (the process to create the wine). Authentic Port is only made in the Douro Valley region of Portugal and its name is derived from the coastal city of Porto. There are over over 50 red and white recommended grapes that can be used to make Port, the most common being the local Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz (which is the same as Tempranillo). To make Port the delicious sweet sticky wine that it is means it has to undergo a different production method to other wines.
Production of Port wines begins as other still wines. One charming feature of Port is that traditionally people would stomp the grapes once they are harvested with their feet in granite troughs called lagares to start the fermentation process. Nowadays that is generally done by a machine but there are a few houses that still use the old fashioned (and rather fun!) method. Just a few days into the fermentation process, a grape based spirit (usually brandy) is added to the wine which stops the fermentation process and helps to produce the rich fruity flavours of the Port which we know. Another result of this addition is that there will be more sugar left in the wine than in other still wines, which gives Port its rich, sweet, fruity and exquisite taste. Then typically the wines are placed into barrels and/or bottles to age.
Port is not just a one size fits all wine. There are actually several styles of Port which can be confusing for the drinker. Let’s look briefly at these possibilities so that you can make the perfect purchase this Christmas.
Typically, there are 2 main types of Port: Ruby and Tawny.
Ruby Port: these are your more budget friendly Ports, with an average of 3-5 years’ ageing. These are typically sweet and fruity and won’t break the bank! Ruby Ports tend to have more notes of blackberry, raspberry and chocolate notes.
Reserve Ruby Port: these are aged for longer than traditional Ruby Ports (average of 5-7 years old) and can be a blend of wines from different years blended together, like Ruby Port. These are full-bodied with rich fruit properties but with a little more complexity due to the longer ageing in cask.
Late Bottled Vintage Ports (LBV not to be confused with LBW!) are Ports made from a single year (vintage) and are aged for between 4-6 years in barrel which result in seriously delicious complex red fruit flavours.
Crusted Port is (unlike its rather off-putting name) is a delicious Port that is a blend of 2 or more years which is then aged in wooden barrels for up to 4 years then aged in the bottle for typically 3 more years to produce rich fruit notes. Its name is derived from the fact that it is unfiltered when it is bottled which produces a ‘crust’ of sediment which is to be removed before drinking.
Single Quinta Vintage Ports are Port wines that are made from one quinta, or estate from one particular year.
Vintage Port: this is the finest Port that you can buy. It simply means Port produced from one specific year. It is usually aged for 2-3 years in a barrel then aged in the bottle for a long period of time, resulting in full, rich and tannic wines that benefit from 20-40 years of ageing in the bottle! These are serious Ports for serious Port drinkers!
Tawny Port has two general styles; the first is a combination of white and young Ruby ports which produces more wallet friendly but still palatable Ports. This Port is aged for typically 2 years in barrels for an extended period of time to soften its flavour profile. The little bit of air let in through the barrel means that the wine is oxidised which creates the tawny brown colour. The other, Reserve Tawny, has been aged for at least 7 years in oak cask, allowing smooth notes of figs and cloves.
Colheita: This is a Port that is from a single vintage (year) which is aged in barrels for a legal minimum of 7 years (better quintas age them for longer) until just before their release. These are effectively very great Tawny Ports with real caramel and nutty flavour profiles.
Tawny Ports with age indications on them (10, 20, 30 or 40 years) has the year of bottling on the label. The number of years is actually an average of the years blended together in the bottle. These are complex and at times, exceptional (and not so purse friendly!). These Ports generally have typical notes of caramel, nutmeg and chocolate flavours.
There are also 2 other lesser known types of Port, White Port and the new Rosé Port.
White Port is a wine with notes of apricots, baked apple and citrus and are made from white grapes including Rabigato, Viosinho and Malvasia. This type of Port is usually drunk as an aperitif in a refreshing drink called ‘Port Tonic’ which brings out its citrus flavours. It is typically aged for a year in oak tanks and then is aged further in larger casks.
Rosé Ports are a new style of Port which have notes of strawberries and caramels! Best served chilled, these Ports have deliciously fruity notes of strawberry, raspberry and caramel flavours. Made from the same grapes as red Port, this is a refreshing alternative for the summer months!
So there you have it; you thought that Port was just one type of wine; well, think again! There is literally a whole world of Port out there for you to try this winter. Let us know which ones you try and what you think of them!