Category: Travel

Spotlight on: Languedoc-Roussillon

Earlier this year I went to the Languedoc-Roussillon for a tour around an eclectic mix of vineyards and wineries.

Vineyard, Abbaye de Valmagne, Villeveyrac

Although I had written about wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon before on here and elsewhere, being at the winery and actually seeing the different philosophies on wine making has really helped me get into the heart of it.

What was most interesting, for me, was the fact that while there were plenty of wineries that had been making wines as far back as the 12th Century, it feels very much like an emerging wine region. Much of it has come down to the fact that many of the younger generation of wine makers aren’t so set in their ways about how they made wines and were happy to experiment. What’s more, the region’s mix of AOC and IGP statuses allowed them to without prejudice. They’re not trading on century old brands but rather, cult statuses.

With that in mind, I thought it was rather apt to gather some small postings about the wineries in the region I visited and written about (more to be posted in coming weeks):

 Abbaye de Fontfroide

Abbaye de Valmagne

Cazes

Château d’Anglès

Château de Flaugergues

Château de Lastours

Château de l’Hospitalet

Château Les Carrasses

Château Mourgues du Grès

Château Pennautier

Domaine Gayda

Domaine Haut Gleon

Paul Mas

Riberach

Visiting Elixir d’Anvers

Elixir d'Anvers, Antwerp, Belgium

Earlier this year, I visited Antwerp in Belgium.

As well as plenty of beer, Antwerp was also home to Elixir d’Anvers.

Situated on an obscure residential street, the humble location of its distillery is not altogether different from the set up at Sipsmith gin. Except Elixir d’Anvers has been around since 1863. And the same distillery also produces advocaat, Elixir de Spa and some jenevers.

You’ve probably seen Elixir d’Anvers as part of a cocktail menu. It’s one of those age old cure-all liqueurs invented by a chemist to, well, cure-all. Made with 32 exotic herbs and spices from all over the world, it’s a viscous canary yellow liqueur with a distinctive flavour.

Can you tell what’s in it by the taste? Unlikely.

Removing distillates, Elixir d'Anvers, Antwerp, Belgium

When I visited its distillery, I was lucky enough to be in time for the end of the distillation when all the herbs and spices were being removed from the still. Recognisable were the coriander seeds and citrus peels but beyond that, after hours of maceration and distillation, it all looked a bit like steamy brown mush.

Indeed the liqueur goes through a complicated and lengthy process of production.

The ingredients are first macerated in pure alcohol before being distilled. After distillation, the “alcoholate” is then blended with pure water, sugar from sugar beet and yet more alcohol. Finally, the mixture is aged in French oak barrels for at least five months before being released for consumption.

Warming, complex and seriously intoxicating, it’s easy to see why after so long in production, it’s suddenly seeing a revival on the cocktail scene.

FX de Beukelaer, Haantjeslei 132, 2018 Antwerpen

Tasting Talisker Port Ruighe in Skye

Tasting Talisker, Isle of Skye

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland for the launch of Talisker Port Ruighe, the latest release from Talisker and a new permanent addition to the Scotch malt whisky’s portfolio.

The name, Port Ruighe, is a nod towards the Gaelic way of writing Portree, the location of the distillery on Skye, and the port casks that the whisky has been finished in. In essence, Talisker Port Ruighe is the Talisker 10 finished in casks that had previously contained port.

In the company of journalists from UK, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, we tasted both the Talisker Port Ruighe and Talisker Storm (another recent release).

While Talisker Storm is spicy, smoky and an obviously more potent version of Talisker 10, Talisker Port Ruighe was a softer, silkier and, for me, more elegant expression. The fruit is brought forward while the spice and peat is pulled back by the port cask finish which worked really rather well. It’s noticeably sweeter too but perhaps that doesn’t work so well for everyone.

We tried two other approaches to the whiskies – tasting with food and an blending exercise.

In the food session, we tried both Taliskers with food that picked out aspects of the whisky such as black pepper for the spice and strawberries for the fruit. While it highlighted what the blender, Maureen Robertson, had tried to achieve, it also helped to show how they might be paired to food, and desserts in particular.

In the second session, which is sadly not available to the public, we tried our own hand at blending. We were given three liquids (whiskies at various stages of ageing) which we had to blend by taste and by smell to try and achieve a mystery liquid. Let’s just say it’s significantly harder than it sounds and it already sounds pretty impossible.

The sessions and the trip itself was a great insight into how much of a skilled task blending whiskies is; it’s certainly hard not to be in awe by the end.

Read more about Skye and whisky on Culture Explorer

Read more about other cask finished options at Yahoo!

Here are a few snaps from Talisker:

Talisker had kindly hosted the trip to Skye.

Georgia on my mind, Georgia for the wine

Man by grape crusher at Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia

Somewhere in the back of my mind was always the idea that knowledge should have solid foundations; maybe it’s a philosophical thing about justified true beliefs or maybe it’s the way I’ve always been taught. But when I began exploring wines more extensively, it seemed apt to start from its origins – Anatolia.

Often referred to as Asia Minor, Anatolia is the ancient region comprising the modern day countries of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. A place that’s fertile in soil, accommodating in climate and rich in cultural history, Anatolia has been shown by scientists and archaeologists alike to be the oldest region in the world where grapes have been cultivated and wines produced.

With hundreds of varietals and thousands of years of wine making history, where do I start?

I travelled to Georgia to begin my journey.

Hailed as the cradle of wine, and that of natural wines in particular, Georgia claims to boast some 8,000 years of history in wine making. With a plethora of indigenous varietals and a landscape of terroirs, the scope for interesting and unique wines is a connoisseur’s dream. Wine is also an integral part of Georgian culture and economy and the thing which links the country’s history to its present day affairs.

The majority of Georgians make wine at home for personal consumption but it also helps to ease the economic burden of regular toastings during Supras (Georgian feasts). After all, no guest is truly welcomed until they’ve experienced the hospitality of a Georgian fare complete with toasts made by the Tamada (toastmaster). Naturally, no toast would be complete without wine and Georgians are very hospitable people.

As a nation, Georgia also made wines for export. In fact, wine was consistently one of the top three products for export. During the Soviet era, its wines were distributed across the rest of the USSR and was recognised as being of the highest quality. After the dissolution of the USSR, Georgian wines continued their popularity in Russia and Central Asia. Over 80% of the wines exported from Georgia went to Russia so it came as no surprise that when Russia banned all import and sale of Georgian wines, the two came to blows.

Georgia is no stranger to conflict of course – its history is peppered with battles. It is said that the statue of Kartlis Deda in the capital Tblisi bears a bowl of wine in her left hand to greet those who come as friends and a sword in her right for those who come as enemies – the perfect personification of Georgian character.

But it was really the traditional Georgian method of wine production that caught my eye and enticed me to learn more.

Qvevris, giant handmade vessels of rounded clay amphora with a pointed base and no handles, are buried up to the rim in the earth. Crushed grapes – stems, pips, skins and juice all go straight into the qvevri which is then covered by a stone slab and sealed with wet sand. The subterranean conditions maintain a stable temperature in the qvevri and fermentation occurs thanks to the natural yeast found on the grapes.

Six months to a year later, occasionally even longer, natural wine is produced – nothing added, nothing taken away.

Wines produced in this way are very different to its European-style counterparts. Red wines, typically made with Saperavi grapes, produce a deep plum stain. White wines, made with Rkatsiteli grapes alone or blended with Mtsvani grapes, take on an auburn hue. Then of course there’s the spectrum of colours created by the other indigenous varietals. Tasting the wines straight out of the qvevri at the Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Kakheti, it’s impossible to deny the vibrancy of the fruit and natural sweetness of the wine. And there’s really few phrases which would describe that feeling well, except perhaps “the overwhelming sense of being alive”.

Is it just because it’s a natural wine? Having tasted a sizeable selection of other natural wines and  non-qvevri Georgian wines, I’m not so sure. There was definitely something about the qvevri which gave the wine its special characteristic, unrepresented anywhere else. Perhaps that’s why qvevri wine production has gained increasing popularity outside of Georgia with Josko Gravner in Italy being one of the most well known amongst the international wine crowd. Sadly, production and export is so limited that it’s extremely rare to find qvevri wines for sale.

Returning from Georgia, my mind was filled with abstract ideas on wine – the trip has certainly whetted my appetite. Tours around Pheasant’s Tears vineyard, Schuchmann Winery, Twins Old Cellar and Alaverdi Monastery all offered detail and perspective on the Georgian wine story. But have I found the wine grounding I was looking for? Perhaps a little, but mostly on natural wines.

I was sure of one thing though – my next learning destination will be Turkey, a lesser known wine destination offering even more indigenous varietals.

See more photos from Georgia here

(First seen on BespokeRSVP)

The long road to Mother’s Ruin

Garage door at Sipsmiths Distillery

Behind one nondescript blue door on a quiet residential street in Hammersmith, a single garage is the home of the microdistillery producing award-winning spirits. Located on the site of a former microbrewery, Sipsmith is the brain-child of Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall. Taking advantage of a little wintry sunshine, I went to meet the makers to learn a little more.

Through the blue door, the distillery is clear – the still is at the back, the ingredients in the middle and the office just a couple of steps in. The office was already a hive of activity when I enter. Although Sipsmith is still a relatively small operation, it already seems to be bursting at the seams with five core members of staff and the occasional intern. Sam gives me a brief introduction to Sipsmiths before handing me over to Fairfax.

Prudence still at Sipsmiths Distillery

The inspiration for the microdistillery came in 2002.

Sam was working for Fuller’s in America and Fairfax had just started an MBA there. During their time abroad, they saw an explosion in the popularity of microbreweries and microdistilleries due to changes in legislation and were both fascinated by the processes involved. Having visited many establishments and sampled the small-batch beers and spirits, they were surprised and impressed by the quality of the products. Sam and Fairfax soon found themselves drawn to the idea of opening their own distillery in London, the home of gin.

Back in the UK, the idea lay dormant and Sam continued to work for Fullers while Fairfax went to work for Diageo. But it wasn’t for very long because in January 2007, they both quit their jobs, sold their houses and put all their effort into making their dream a reality.

Of course it wasn’t as easy as simply leasing the premises, getting the equipment and creating the recipes to set up shop. They needed a licence for the distillery.

Botanicals at Sipsmiths Distillery

Given that the last licence issued in London for a distillery was for Beefeater almost 200 years ago, the application process was long and tedious. For one, the procedure was dusty and unclear, and then there was the slow rotation of the bureaucratic clog itself. Sam and Fairfax pushed on nevertheless. And finally, after almost two years, they were rewarded with the licence to open a distillery in December 2008.

Today the inconspicuous certificate hangs proudly by Fairfax’s desk. As he tells me the trials and tribulations of obtaining this document, the birth certificate of the distillery, he hands it to me. It looked like nothing more than a small piece of paper encased in a wooden frame but for them it meant a lot of hard work and persistence.

Sam and Fairfax commissioned a copper still from the family run still manufacturers Christian Carl. The still needed to be one that allowed them the flexibility to make different spirits and of a suitable size so they can make it in small batches. Copper was chosen because it purified the spirits during the distillation process, extracting sulphur, ethers and fatty acids, so it didn’t need to be filtered post-production. They also employed the skills and knowledge of drinks historian Jared Brown to craft the recipe for their barley vodka and dry gin.

On the 14th of March 2009, Prudence, Sipsmith’s new still, produced its first batch of vodka from British barley and soon afterwards, dry gin. It wasn’t until the end of June 2009, though, that Sipsmiths crafted the final product.

Their hard-work has certainly paid off. Sipsmiths have won 10 international gold awards in the 17 months since their first bottle was sold and most recently, they won the award for Best Newcomer in the Observer Food Monthly Awards. This last one is currently occupying pride of place between Sam and Fairfax.

Inside the still at Sipsmiths Distillery

These days Prudence sits at the back of the garage space reliably distilling spirits in small batches. So small in fact if you type the batch number on your bottle of Sipsmiths into their website, you can find a little anecdote about the day that the batch was produced. The small batches also helps to maintain the quality of the spirits produced. And to demonstrate, Fairfax offers me a sample.

For the vodka, only the first heart cut (the portion with the highest quality) is bottled producing a spirit which is smooth and rounded with a hint of sweetness. The second heart cut is distilled again with 10 botanicals including juniper berries, citrus peel and coriander seeds to produce the very refreshing dry gin. The Sipsmiths likes to drink theirs with two parts Fever-Tree tonic to one part London Dry Gin, just add ice and lime. The head and tail cut of the distillates are currently wastage although, Fairfax tells me, a Sipsmith vodka car is on the cards.

With that I leave the Sipsmiths to their business. As I step back out into the sunshine, I can’t help but smile and think of Hogarth. It’s barely 11am and there is just a hint of gin on my lips.

Sipsmiths is at The Distillery, 27 Nasmyth Street, London W6 0HA www.sipsmith.com

(First seen on Foodepedia)

A hop and a skip to malt at Sambrook’s

Sambrooks brewery pull clips

Sambrook’s Brewery, Battersea, is a place full of reinventions.

The brewery’s co-founder, Duncan Sambrook, was a City accountant before he threw in the towel to become a brewer in 2008. The brewery’s premises in Battersea was a television studio prior to having its double-panelled floors stripped bare, the walls resprayed with hygiene paint and 20 barrel-capacity brewing equipment installed, transforming it into a microbrewery in the heart of London. In some respects the whole operation is rather like the revival of the brewing industry, with smaller microbreweries becoming increasingly popular compared to larger industrial manufacturers.

Reinvention has certainly suited Sambrook’s. Since its first cask was tapped in November 2008, over one million pints have been served to thirsty punters across London. Junction, one of its two permanent ales has even won Beer of the Festival at this year’s Battersea Beer Festival. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I headed down to Sambrook’s to see what the fuss is all about.

When I arrived for the tour of the brewery I was met by Duncan Sambrook in a reception area decorated to look like a pub. On display at the bar were the pump clips of the cask ales produced by Sambrook’s – Wandle and Junction. The Wandle is named after a tributary of the Thames, from where Sambrook’s draws its water, while the name Junction is derived from Clapham Junction, Sambrook’s nearest station. It all feels very local, which is exactly the ethos that Sambrook’s is trying to maintain – a London brewer making beer for Londoners.

We were also joined by a group of beer connoisseurs from Brighton CAMRA who were very enthusiastic about the pint of Wandle to start the tour. It was light, slightly sweet and very refreshing.

Given that my last tour of a brewery was the Guinness factory in Ireland, I had expected huge containers for the brewing and even bigger warehouses to store the hops and malt. The kind of place where you start to feel drunk just by breathing in. Sambrook’s was tiny in comparison so it was surprising to learn that by brewing four times a week, Sambrook’s actually produces around 27,000 pints. That’s a lot of thirst quenching.

Unlike most breweries, Sambrook’s likes to mill their own malt. It’s so that they get “just the right amount of sugar” to kick off the process. That much at least will be drilled into you by the end of the tour.

The milled malt goes into a vat called the mash tun where hot water is sprayed on top to create wort, the brown sugary liquid used for the beer. The wort is then pumped into the copper where it is boiled; hops are also added for flavour and preservation of the beer. The resulting liquid is allowed to cool before it is fermented for six days.

So a week later you have your tasty Wandle or Junction, depending on the mix of malt and hops used, ready to be pumped into firkins, kilderkins or barrels and delivered by Sambrook’s drivers to any of the 120 or so pubs within the M25 that serve their ales.

The tour was a real insight into the world of microbrewing and it’s quite obvious that Duncan Sambrook is as enthusiastic about his brewing now as he was on day one. This is a man who is proud to welcome visitors to his brewery, where tours with tastings are run Mondays to Thursdays plus Saturdays. And of course it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t end the tour with a pint of Sambrook’s other permanent ale; the award-winning, darker, stronger and slightly bitter, Junction.

Sambrook’s is at Unit 1&2 Yelverton Road, Battersea SW11 3QG www.sambrooksbrewery.co.uk

(First seen on Foodepedia)

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