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Who is Mr Vine?

A very good question and I shall answer it thusly…

Mr Vine is a brand spanking new (launched this week) free app that helps you discover, order and drink a new realm of wines that you are unlikely to have ever come across going to the supermarket. The reason for this is that Mr Vine is an online marketplace with over a 1,000 interesting wines across all budgets that are all brought to you by a dozen or so different independent UK wine merchants (and growing).

Setting up the app is easy. It just requires a few taps to plug in your preferences and then Mr Vine does all the heavy lifting, suggesting a stack of wines that fit your criteria. The layout is   simple and clean with a focus on ease of use. You see the image and price of the wine, then just a click takes through to a short description and the option to order. Nice. Orders are placed in-app and delivered to your door. Sadly it’s currently only available on IOS, but fear not non-Apple people! It will soon be launched on Android as well; you can download the IOS version here.

Now you must be asking yourself ” This is all very nice Nate but why are you plugging this app? “. ” What are you getting out of the deal? ” How cynical of you! You don’t know me at all! I may just be doing it because it’s a tale I want to tell, like all of my blogging/vlogging.

Seriously though, I am involved with the app. “How came someone of your narrow talents to this” you guffaw? Well, I’ll have you know that my dear pal Matt Walls (acclaimed auteur, serious scribe and vino virtuoso) asked me to join his merry band of tasters some months ago. Sworn to secrecy on pain of excommunication I joined a highly accredited wine loving panel that features Richard Hemming, Helena Nicklin, Zeren Wilson, the aforementioned “M” Walls and moi. “Crack team” I hear you mumble. Indeed!

As with all great ideas, they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the grey matter of fine wine trader Charlie Martin and former retail director at Majestic Greg Jones, who had a modern vision for getting great wines to ever more selective and curious consumers.

Each month the plan is that we’ll be locked in a room with a bunch of bottles which we’ll taste blind, scoring the wines out of 100, and each of us providing a tasting note. Last but not least we’ll argue, intimidate and threaten our way to picking our top five of the night. Now these may not necessarily be the ones that scored highest; an expensive, classic wine might get a high score, but we might want to champion others that we feel are great value for money or doing something that little bit different. Too right!

Normally we’ll be given a theme, tasting a selection of wines available via the app. At said tasting, the finest offerings should rise to the top in their particular style with us shouting out the best examples. All of wine, of course being available from our fine independent wine shops.

Despite not having a theme we all got together a little while back to hear from our creators, take a few promo shots and get our palates warmed up for the big tastings to come.

Here are the results:

First place: Côte Mas Piquepoul Frisant 2013 (Vin de France, 12.0%, £9.95, Soho Wine Supply)

This refreshing fizz made from the increasingly popular Piquepoul grape has bags of grapefruit, lemon and green apple flavour and was something of a revelation. The saline finish is very moreish and just begs you to take another sip. For under a tenner, this must be one of the best sparklers on the market. 89 points.

Second place: Stag’s Leap Petite Sirah 2009 (Napa Valley, USA, 14.1%, £25.00, Soho Wine Supply)

Luxurious and velvety, brooding and smoky. This is an intense, concentrated wine with flavours of blackberry, coffee bean and black cherries. The overall impression is punchy and polished, but it retains a sense of elegance and balance. Beauty and the beast all wrapped up in one. 91 points.

Third place: Boroli Quatro Fratelli Barbera d’Alba 2011 (Italy, 13.5%, £13.99, Soho Wine Supply)

A lovely, classic Barbera: bright and perky, with pure, crunchy red cherry and cranberry flavours. Versatile and highly drinkable, this just cries out for some good Italian food. Thirst quenching and juicy. 89 points.

Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2014 (Franschhoek, South Africa, 12.5%, £10.99, Hard to Find Wines)

This rose-gold coloured white is made from the same grapes commonly blended in Champagne. It’s fairly weighty, with deep apple and melon aromas and a silky texture. Clear, clean and just a little bit different. 87 points.

Clos des Menuts Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2009 (France, 13.5%, £19.20 Nichols and Perks)

Serious stuff: this is classic claret, with strong black fruit and a gamey, savoury, smoky character. It’s pretty dry, but with some soft, sumptuous fruits and a slightly furry texture. Deserves to be drunk alongside a plate of something meaty. 87 points.

For more info on the app and how it works, check out mrvine.co.uk

Mr Vine Tasting Team Photo

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Devil’s Peak Brewing

In this video I sample an American Pale Ale and The King’s Blockhouse IPA from Cape Town brewery Devil’s Peak. As well as bigging up two other Cape Town craft brewers Jack Black’s Brewing Co. and Cape Brewing Company.

http://www.devilspeakbrewing.co.za/

http://www.jackblackbeer.com/

http://capebrewing.co.za/

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Two Majestic Spring Whites

There was a bit of a false start a few weeks back, but upon arriving back in London yesterday after a lovely Easter weekend in the North East it felt like spring had sincerely come. To celebrate, I thought I would recommend a couple superb white wines that I recently tasted from Majestic.

Majestic Wine despite increasing online competition continues to do an excellent job providing good wines at fair prices. We got a a blindingly good Cremant de Loire for a our wedding

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 16.16.24The first was from excellent Kiwi producer Marisco Vineyards. I was introduced to this Malborough superstar at a Majestic tasting a few years back and liked their Kings Thorn Pinot Gris so much I matched it with some fish and chips in a video tasting. Many people may know them for producing the good value The Ned range, especially the Sauvignon Blanc.

But this time round it was one of their chardonnay’s, specifically The Kings Legacy 2011 that had me impressed. This £14.99 wine comes from grapes at two sites (older vineyards from the Wairau and younger from Brancott) and is aged on the lees (yeast) for ten months in French oak with the help of mostly wild yeasts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 16.09.41What comes out is top class and has a purity that I would expect of a Grand Cru Chablis. Crisp green apple, richer hints of stone fruit and some richer nuttiness. But super clean, balanced and defined. Mrs. DnE and I had it with a pork loin with an apple celery brandy and mustard sauce to mark our six month anniversary. The combination was superb and if any wants the recipe for the pork post a comment and I will try to recall what I did to make it so tasty.

The second wine was nothing short of a revelation and it was a Muscadet.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 16.10.09Now I know what you are thinking but this ain’t no ho-hum wallflower of the Loire. Partially aged in oak and given some time to mature Muscadet Le Pallet 2009 blew my flipping doors off. Produced by Les Dix du Pallet, which ironically is a co-op of 10 growers based in Le Pallet, a ‘cru’ village in the southeast between those famous rivers Sevre and Maine.

The nose gave off whiffs of french patisserie; baked and biscuity. But then there was tropical pineapple, ripe white melon, fragrant buttercup, toasted almond and waxy lemon. 

My first sip seemed to set in motion some sort of sensory Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I was zapped by laser guided mango, pummeled by popping passionfruit, my breath frosted by mineral crispness, stung by slivers of cedar, needled by hints of pine and then finally warmed with a sensual spicy lick of white pepper. The finale was a bit of a nod to Diana Rigg, but the wine was sublime while that installment of 007 was merely sub. 

I was spent. What a tremendous wine and on at for an amazing £9.99 right now. 

If you won’t take my word on these two bottles being real beauties then take perhaps Decanter might sway you. Both won gold and the regional trophy in 2014 at their prestigious yearly wine awards.

Kings Legacy 2011

Le Pallet 2009

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Top Out Brewery

Last summer I was working the Edinburgh Foodies Festival and came across the stand of a brewery that was unfamiliar to me. The branding was eye-catching (has to be these days) so I inquired of the squire whether I could sample his wares. He most cordially agreed. Had he not, this story would have been much shorter.  

The brews were the work of Top Out Brewery which sits nestled between Bilston and Loanhead just south of Edinburgh and east of the mighty Pentland Hills Regional Park. I liked what I tasted (barring an elderflower ale that had gone astray in fermentation) and some months later I received a box of their beers in bottle to try in earnest.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.06.05Rather appropriately I started off with Schmankerl Bavarian Wheat. Schmankerl is a Bavarian term that essential means a ‘treat’ but further can refer to an appetizer or amuse bouche. Something to get the palate juiced up for the main event. Sure was inviting to the eye, all hazy summer golden with lively long lasting tadpole foam head.

Aromas of sour yellow plums, proving sourdough bread and characteristic clove studded banana with just a glimmer of white pepper. Balanced at 4.9%, beginning clean and sharp then moving to lactic rounding dry banana skin and celebrating the 70’s with piña colada on the denouement. Tasty.

Next was Staple Pale Ale (4%) which I had really enjoyed on cask at the fair. Sadly it came over a bit starchy in bottle. Very herbaceous, pithy dry and wasn’t the thirst quenching beauty I recalled. Some variation perhaps?Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.05.57

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.05.32They surely had the shit together when they brewed this batch of their Smoked Porter because it poured out glorious and lively with an ashen pancake batter head. The neb (nose) was very impressive with aromas of cocoa, smoked mackerel, mure (blackberry) liqueur, melted milk chocolate, chocolate covered blueberries and blood pudding.

That confection theme continued on the palate with dry dark cocoa, dried Highland blackberries and subtly smoked venison. It had a fresh lactic character, the feel was clean, lean and muscular with a dry espresso finish. Top notch. 

Last but not least was the Cone IPA which enchanted from the off with its pillowy-billowy meringue head. Greeting my sniffer as I raised the glass was a fine pine forest, that had some folks camping in it. Their dinner consisted of grilled pineapple, lemon meringue pie, and raw scallop. An eclectic bunch indeed.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.05.42Not overly boozy at 6.8% but my first sip was like a sap edged razor bite. Sharply astringent followed sticky resinous. Thankfully by the 4-5th sup it was softening, showing very dry pineapple, white grapefruit pith and seed. There was some bracing lemon zest and earthy wet tobacco. Deeper still I found passion fruit. The finale? Dry and complex, like some foreign film. Serious like. You get me?

Thanks so much to Top Out for providing the beers. They are one to keep an eye on.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Here are reviews from two esteemed colleagues The Beer Cast and Beers I’ve Known

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Why Mess with Perfection

Whatever your opinion is of Camden Town Brewery they must be given real kudos (along with a couple other London breweries) for breaking the chokehold that dull macro beers had on London (and further afield of course). They are sometimes accused of not brewing the most exciting or experimental range of core beers but have cut loose when “collabing” with other breweries. Personally I don’t give a shit if they’re unlikely to brew a salmon, swiss chard and satsuma Double IPA (Oh I want a credit if someone actually makes a Triple S DIPA).

What they are doing very successfully (something that also seems to upset some people) is brewing very drinkable beers that are broadly enjoyed by a wide range of consumers. The type of people they are converting (in large numbers) used to probably drink Fosters, Stella or in the case of my wife, white wine before her exposure to Hells Lager.

I like their Unfiltered Hells, Pale Ale and Camden Ink is a nice alternative to Guinness. But for me the jewel in the Camden Town crown is IHL aka India Hells Lager. A hybrid that Vulcan mind melds those two styles into one of the Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 17.43.59most dangerously delicious beers I have tasted. A roller coaster combination of crispness, tropical fruit, offering total refreshment and drinkability. In short, pure pleasure.

unnamedSo it was with some excitement when I was invited to their launch of Barrel Aged India Hells Lager the other week. Brilliant I thought, a pimped out IHL.

The result was anything but. A subdued nose hinted at hay and tinned pineapple. The palate was slightly antiseptic, very firm, resinous with a woody tannic feel and a far off agave heat.

I found it painfully dry, a touch astringent, but sadly lacking body and any discernable fruit flavour. It wasn’t undrinkable, but I didn’t enjoy it. It made me a bit sad really, by putting IHL into those barrels they purged everything that (in my opinion) made it a truly great beer. A real waste of perfectly glug-able IHL.

More cynically the timing of the launch made me question the inspiration behind putting that wonderful beer into bourbon and tequila barrels in the first place. The reason for my scepticism is that CTB happen to be in the midst of launching a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to build a new brewery. Becoming a Hells Raiser looks an interesting investment if you like their beers and want to “diversify your portfolio”. At the time of writing, they had reached their intended target but it’s still open. 

I couldn’t help feeling that the release of a below par, barrel-aged version of their newly anointed gold winning beer was nothing more than a well-timed PR stunt. Marketed with much pomp and ceremony as some treasured one off, whose purpose was simply to drive more investment. That’s me being cynical mind. 

All that said I have a lot of respect for CTown and it’s going to take a lot more than the abuse of my dearest IHL to get me to poo-poo them on a permanent basis.

They are a brewery with purpose, vision and a great following. Their success and pervasiveness have become such, that I have even started to take them for granted when beer spotting as I walk into a pub. My eyes are accustomed to their logo and the pioneer in me keeps scanning for something a little more off piste.

But you can guarantee they’re what I’ll order every time if the alternatives are just plain “piste”.

 

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Craft Beer Rising 2015

It was my first time to this yearly London event but before I even walked in the door I decided to focus only on breweries whose beers were totally new to me. Was I taking a risk skipping the likes of Beavertown, Wild Beer, Camden Town and Thornbridge for those brews less tweeted? Are was I to be rewarded for seeking out some of those ales less supped?

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.17.03Things got off to a roaring start with a Catalonian import that goes by Beer Cat. Conceived of and created by ex Londoner and former criminal lawyer Peter Bonner in the Cava producing region of Penedes near Barcelona with their four offerings on keg full of diversity, vibrancy and packed with character. I kicked off with Pa i Roses Wheat Beer, infused with lime zest and coriander. Lager in appearance; textured yet bracingly fresh, with hits of tart lime but never cloying, sticky or banana bombed. A beauty of a bbq beer, sunshine in a glass.

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The Further WestCoast IPA lived up to the name; nice complexity of citrus and dry hop but not too much bite. Black Irish is a very grown up and accomplished stout, dry cocoa, bitter coffee, but velvety in body and supremely clean.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.16.52The beer of the day and most certainly slotting into my “top twenty most delicious beers I have ever drank” is their flagship Barcelona Blonde. Crisp and refreshing but packed with some of the juiciest tropical fruits I have yet sampled. My taste buds were literally dancing the Fandango. But never was the beer sweet or the esters too overpowering. A pale ale of the highest order.

Currently only imported into the UK by Instill Drinks in the bottle at the time of writing, but they are working on trying to get kegs to market here.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Peter and his cool Beer Cats will be one of the breweries to watch this year. Really. Tremendous. Beers.

On the advice of a few fine folks I swung over to Elgood’s Brewery to sample their sour beers and blow me down, they’re good! Classic Belgian Lambic in their execution, they are not for the faint of heart. Tart as hell, but so many layers of complexity and refreshing in the extreme. My favorite of the Coolship range trio of Blonde, Fruit and Dark Sour had to be the Fruit. Raspberries and blackberries bouncing around my mouth as if I have just picked them, but all the sugar is gone and you are left with a long lingering sensation as if you’ve sprayed your gob with a heady berry du toilette.

I was fascinated by their decadent QE Apple and Vanilla Wheat Beer. It managed to be utterly indulgent and rich but somehow finished clean. A real beauty.

My only criticism is that the branding looked very slapdash. Perhaps it was only temporary? At any rate, packaging is absolutely vital these days with so many edgy labels and pump clips clawing at your eyes for attention. Elgoods Sours and QE range deserve to look as good as they taste.

Another brewery whose labels could do with a rethink is Bear Hug Brewing. The brewing/storage practice could do with some fine tuning as well though their flagship Hibernation White IPA was pretty good. Best of the lot was however was Himalayan Red Rye whose texture and complexity left me feeling somewhat charmed.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.18.02There was a quite good Amarillo Mild from Hop Stuff Brewery in Woolwich and I enjoyed chatting with Alix their sales manager.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.17.44Really liked the ethos of The Beer Collective. In an ever competitive market, Niki (director at King Beer, as well as one of the founders of TBC) explained how bringing breweries together under one distribution hub was making life easier for the four strong members of the Sussex based group. Along with King were very eco-focused Bedlam Brewery, Uckfield’s 360° Brewing Company and Brighton based brewpub Laine’s Brewing. Tasted stuff from most of them and they’re making pretty decent beers.

A shout out must go to Little Jack Horner’s for it’s blindingly good sausage rolls and other assorted pastry wrapped delicacies. My classic pork and sage hit the spot as I was flagging.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.18.34I finished up tasting a couple beers from Yorkshire’s Wharfe Bank Brewery and in the process met a minor beer blogger hero of mine in Leigh “LeighGoodStuff” Linley. I have enjoyed reading his blogs and tweets the past few years so was good to finally meet the man. He quit his regular job last year to become brand manager at WBB where another twitter comrade, Tyler Kiley is head brewer.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.28.34I liked (but didn’t love) the couple of beers I tasted at the stand but I did very much enjoy the Black Geld Black IPA in bottle that Leigh gave me to take away. It was a web of aromas and it took my nose some time to pick out the maple syrup, pecan pie, boysenberry, iron-rich soil, and marmite. Then on the palate there was burnt toast, walnut, earthy black pudding, savoury dry herbs and faint molasses finish. It wanted some food but really grew on me. Good effort Tyler and not too boozy at 6.5%. (Image is a screengrab, courtesy of Wharfe Bank website as I seemed to have misplaced my photo).

It was a great day out and by forcing myself to try unknown/untasted breweries I gave my mind and palate a broader education as well. It’s getting way too easy to just gorge on ones favorite rockstar breweries these days.

So the next time you are at a festival, why not try to make some new discoveries for yourself.

You just might like it.

 

 

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Two Stouts & Irish Stew

I am a lover of porters and stouts especially when there’s a chill in the air. There’s something as comforting as a roaring fire and supping a beer the colour of coal.

With St Paddy’s day coming up, I thought I would pair a couple opposing beers on the stout spectrum with an Irish stew and soda bread. First from the micro world I Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.02.02uncapped an Oyster Stout from Bristol based Arbor who are making some very good beers these days. My first introduction being an excellent one off De Rokerij rauchbier or smoked beer.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.05.43Coming in at a very reasonable 4.6% their “seafood seasoned” stout gave off lovely snoot blasts of salty liquorice, sweet raisin bread and coal. On the palate, there were seams of rich iron and the pillowy, creamy texture was punched through with sea salt, bitter coffee grinds and a smooth as pearl finish. Yum!

My macro had to be a Guinness Foreign Extra which I embarrassingly had never tried before. Substantially more boozing at 7.5%, the nose sang a sticky treacle, sweet malt loaf, sweaty prune ballad. Pressing it to my lips I received a caress of sour ripe fig, unfermented grape must and a fine dry dark chocolate finish. Quite good, but perhaps not altogether to my taste. Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.05.28

The Arbour was certainly the better match for the stew with the GFE being more of a pudding beer in my humble opinion. But whatever style takes your fancy on St Patrick’s Day, when you raise your glass make sure it’s brimming with the black stuff.

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Too crafty for our own good?

You would think me being a beer lover, that I would be finding the manic pace at which new breweries are opening up around the country universally positive. Well, you would be mostly right. 

On the bright side, it can be thrilling to spy a never before seen logo on a pump clip as you sidle up to the bar of well-stocked alehouse. That fizzing sense of discovery, a bubbling quiet joy every time you raise a glass to sip an unfamiliar nectar, as yet so full of potential. 

Speaking of alehouses, the number of pubs and restaurants dedicating themselves to good beer increases at breakneck speed. Thus offering an even broader stage, from which the ever multiplying men and women who brew are given voice to shine. 

And it’s not just us drinkers that are being given a new lease on life, many of these breweries are literally enriching their communities by providing gainful employment (after years of decline in manufacturing and primary industry). Plus those opening up a brewery tap can bring social regeneration and the creation of a hub to come together in neighbourhoods robbed of their pubs by closure and conversion into a Tesco Metro.

So what’s the dark side?

Well, if everyone was brewing great beer, there wouldn’t be.

Case in point; I recently bought six bottles from three newish microbreweries (2 beers from each) that were all local to me in SE London. I had visions of the glowing reviews I would write, shouting the praises of the fine craft breweries in my own backyard. But unfortunately I found the beers in the main to be: lacklustre, poorly executed or just plain faulty.Rather than name and shame them, here are my tasting notes, with beers 1 and 2 being from the same brewery and so on.

Beer 1 – Hazy brown, fluffy head. Fragrant mango and pineapple, subtle pine. Brown bread, creamy yeast, savoury, pithy, ultra dry, iodine, some clean lines, nice texture, complex. Decent.

Beer 2 – Volcano, lava head, just pouring out, lively deep muscovado. Green mango, hints burnt sugar, faint watermelon, killer dry, woody tannins, bit sharp. Ok.

Beer 3 – Flat. Hazy. Cardboard. Faulty.

Beer 4 – No head, no fizz. Deep mahogany brown. Copper filings, metallic, burnt coffee, nutty, sweaty. Faulty.

Beer 5 – Golden fizzy but no head. Old fashioned sweets, cloying butterscotch. Woody, tannic, burnt sugar, flat, medicinal, vegetal. Faulty.

Beer 6 – Deep chestnut, fine foam. Nutella, intense Reese’s peanut butter cup. Sour, slightly sickly chestnut. Tastes fake. Drinkable, but not enjoyable. Poor.

Now I feel it’s worth giving fledgeling breweries a chance to bed in and find their feet. With any new operation, you expect some teething issues. So I am all for second chances.

But what needs to happen fairly quickly is to establish two or three core beers that can be counted on regardless of how (cask, keg, bottle or can) or where they’re served. Nothing is more galling to a commentator than to share their excitement about a great new beer only to have a colleague try it and say it was shite. The amount of inconsistency out there is truly worrying. Now admittedly there be a will few cases that the venues are to blame for a piss poor pint (too old, wrong temperature, improper handling/storage or inadequate rest after delivery), but I would argue that below average or faulty beers often arrive that way.

Even some of the more successful craft brewers get it wrong sometimes. I tasted a pumpkin ale from an established player a few months back and it was so awful I nearly spat it back in the glass. Arguably, people are experimenting and trying to break new ground with their beers, which is to be applauded. But why put out a sub-standard beer? Are some microbrewers under such intense financial pressure that pouring a flawed or substandard brew down the drain is simply not an option?

Now not liking what’s on offer from some breweries isn’t down to “bad beers”, it’s personal taste and I totally respect that. Sometimes…

“There has never been a more exciting time to be a beer drinker” was the chanted mantra at the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards last December (see the video produced by yours truly here), it was the same the year before, and ditto the year before that.

It’s true, but there’s also never been a more hit and miss time for adventurous beer drinkers.

My issue? Craft has become some kind of byword for quality, which ironically in some cases can be quite the opposite. I’ve certainly had my fair share of dull, faulty or undrinkable craft beers. What’s more, if you hit a bad run, one could quite easily develop a “fear of faults”. A creeping dread that begins to take the place of that childlike excitement.

And it’s not just me that’s getting wary. Airing my concerns over beers with two esteemed industry compadres, I was surprised to hear them passionately echoing my feelings of reserve when it came to trying “the new beer”. Often preferring to stick to the craft they knew rather than risk shelling out good money for a crap or faulty beer from an operation they were unfamiliar with.

In September 2014, according to CAMRA there were 1285 breweries in the UK, with 170 born in the previous 12 months. Now it’s the pessimist in me but how long can this upward trend be sustained? Speaking to an established London brewer about a year ago, he confided in me that he already thought there were too many breweries in the capital. Perhaps feeling the heat a bit, but I thought it was very telling.

Despite all the collaborations and questionable bonhomie craft beer is becoming an intensely competitive market in the UK with it only set to get more challenging with new breweries literally springing up underfoot on this wee island. Not even mentioning imports from powerhouse US, Belgian, Czech and German outfits.

The sad reality is that the many who simply aren’t good enough, sufficiently financed, or properly marketed will die off. Over time, fewer and fewer will take their place while the stronger established craft breweries mop up more of the market.

But I must end on a more positive note as it’s far from doom and gloom.

Here’s a soothing soundbite from that rogue of a scribe, entertainer and thrice Beer Writer of the Year Ben McFarland who quoth “The fact that we in the midst of a beer renaissance…”.

Renaissance,  a rebirth. Because the glory days of beer are indeed back again. There’s more than enough talented, passionate brewers brewing excellent beer out there to keep us all happy for a very long time.

It is my sincere belief that beer lovers will remain spoiled for choice in terms of the diversity, high quality and complexity of flavour we have come to expect, never returning to those dark days of the 80’s and 90’s.

At least hopefully, not in my lifetime…

*Artwork by Mr DnE

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Barre Pilsner and Weizen

Now when I say Lübbecke what comes to mind?

Perhaps a small child trying to say Rebecca for the first time?  An extremely drunken American sportscaster referring to a ferocious sack made by SF 49ers star linebacker NaVorro Bowman?

Though vaguely humourous both would be incorrect.

Now I imagine a fair few of you sharper tacks, those of you familiar with European languages would deduce that it might be a place or an attraction; owing to its giveaway pünctuation.

You of course would be right. Lübbecke is a village in northern Germany (population just shy of 26,000) nestled in the Wiehe Mountains, about an hour and a half drive west of Hanover. A small modern town centre surrounded by hills on which sit some stunningly grand squat sturdy houses. While you visit this little town that have no real attractions, you can play some free slots and drink this amazing beer. It’s not exactly mobbed with tourists, I however found myself there on a work trip last October.

For you WW2 buffs, the area was quite important for the occupying British forces after 1945. It served as an administrative hub for the British Occupation Zone authorities who worked out of the municipal buildings and were housed in the local homes.

We actually stayed and worked out of what was an old Hitler Youth training camp. A scary prospect, but long gone were any vestiges of its darker past. Run by British Army Chaplains since the early ’80’s Chruch House had a very welcoming and serene feel. Not surprising as it serves as a home of respite and sensitivity training facility for UK service personnel.

Much to my delight, the mess bar was well stocked with the local beer. Brewed by the privately owned Barre Brewery, which was a stone’s throw from where I was stood. It was a good sign. Very. Fresh. Beer. And a bargain @ €1 for a bottle.IMG_4922

With a not quite properly translated claim to fame like “city of beer fountain” being attributed to the area, the bar (sorry I couldn’t help myself) was set quite high. I ordered a bottle of “Pilsener” from the less than effusive barman and poured into my mini stein. I loved everything about that glass. Sandblasted smooth, perfectly weighted and fitting so well in my hand that it could have been made for me. Damn I miss it.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 16.55.54Now in my opinion there is something universal about great Pilsner; the first one does a Nick Cage. It’s gone in 60 seconds. Barre Pils was most certainly in that class.  

Pale yellow and a lively soapy head. The nose was classic Pils and popped with crispness, golden grain and a touch of resinous hop. Surgically precise, clean and utterly delicious.

I brought a bottle home and had it with a daunting cabbage, apple and beetroot soup. Cut through it like a razor. Ironic as that’s what that soup did to my insides. Yikes. Open a window would you dear.

I also brought home a bottle of their Weizen (wheat). Looking at it in the glass reminded me of swimming in a muddy river as a kid, an earthy brown haze cut through with shafts of dappled sunlight.

A balanced 5.4% abv with a dense milk shake foam head it pulsed with aromas of clove oil, wet banana skin and dried coriander seed. What I got on the nose replayed on my palate but as a luxurious velvet wheat whirlpool. Stuff is dangerously drinkable. I think it lasted about 8 minutes. Very tasty. Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 16.55.44

In addition to the Pils and Weizen, Barre brew a Dark, Alcohol-Free, Festbier, Maibock and an Alt. So if you ever happen to find yourself in the vicinity of Lübbecke for whatever reason, then Barre is a must try.

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Leithaberg Wines Austria at its best

Leithaberg meant absolutely nothing to me a few months ago. No idea what/where/who it was. Never heard of it.

That was until an email invitation dropped into my inbox courtesy of Dillon Morall PR. Thanks Victoria and Allison!

Here’s what I learned…

Leithaberg is one of Austria’s eight DAC’s (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) basically the equivalent to France’s AOC status.  It’s located in the east of the country getting its name from the “Leithagebirge” or the Laitha mountains that separate Burgenland and Lower Austria.  The soils are considered quite unique (mix of gneiss, mica-slate, shell/limestone, marl and crystalline), and the winemakers feel that it gives their wines that certain je ne sais what.

Austria is famed for their native Grüner Veltliner; a white grape that in the right hands can produce wines of complexity, purity and power that rival the very best Chardonnays and Rieslings. They age well to boot.

To bear the name Leithaberg on the label, the whites (most are bottled as single varietals) must be made from the aforementioned Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay or Neuberger. Red can only be made from Blaufränkish and must be aged in oak barrels.

Despite the renown of “GV” only one of the Weingut’s (Wine Estate) had one to show, with the rest preferring Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc. Vineyards are quite diverse with other varietals such as: Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Zweigelt (a spicy red of Austrian extraction), St Laurent, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

I recognised the wacky labels of one producer from a visit to Linz last year, but the rest were brand new to me.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.46.33Probably my favorite wines were from Wagentristl, run by the family of the same name since 1888, in the minute village of Grosshöflein. Fifth-generation winemaker Rudi Wagentristl runs every aspect of their ecological 12ha vineyard pretty much by himself. No small feat.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.49.26They had six wines on show all which showed tremendous balance, purity, character and shone with happiness.

Their Leithaberg Chardonnay ’13 had all the hallmarks of good southern white Burgundy; rounded tropical fruit, touch saline, fleshy fresh and clean. Entry level Blaufränkisch ’12 was very generous, fleshy dark fruit, with a spicy finish. Blau Leithaberg ’12 was more of the same but was more muscular, concentrated and flecked with graphite.

Loved Föllikberg ’12; a blend of Blau and Zweigelt. Inky ripe, luscious dark berry, rounded, full with sparks of woody spice. Dyno-Mite!

Was even more impressed with Pinot Noir Kreideberg ’12. If I had tasted it blind I would have said it was Cotes de Nuits or even a Volnay. Beautiful red fruit nose tinged with game. The palate; fresh mineral, grippy tannins, seductive spice with a sublime long and complex finish. A real show stopper.

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.48.45They have the right conditions in Leithaberg to produce botrytis or noble rot dessert wines and Wagentristl Trockenbeerenauslese ’13 was a beauty. Piercing pineapple, creamy stone fruit, supremely balanced sugars with a complex feel and texture.

Rudi was a lovely guy as well which makes me all the more sad that they did not have an importer here in the UK.  Hope someone snaps them up!

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.47.47The very memorably labelled Weingut Esterházy produce a very solid range. I was particularly fond of Estoras Grüner Veltliner ’12; an exploding melon and lime firecracker of a wine and available here for £11.95. Leithaberg DAC Blaufränkisch ’11 was an iron-rich, sanguine meaty beast.

They have Bourgogne nailed with a flinty buttery smoky Leithaberg DAC Chardonnay ’12 and Pinot Noir Classic ’12 complete with ripe sour cherry and liquorice.

Leithaberg by this tasting is not a region that can produce sub £10 bottles, so Weingut Nehrer should be applauded for a few potentially good value wines. Their Blaufränkisch ’13 was like a Rubenesque showgirl; full of warm plum, cigar, winter spice, fleshy, forward and fun. Leithaberg Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc) ’12; approachable, easy drinking with gentle golden fruit and creamy apple. Rounding out the trio was Leithaberg rot Blaufränkisch ’11. Plummy, inky, yet super fresh and underpinned by that complex mineral cocktail of slate, limestone and co that I had come to expect of Leithaberg “Blau”. At the time of writing Nehrer like Wagentristl, are seeking a UK Importer. Hope they find one.

Anita and Hans Nittnaus is worth a mention for Heideboden Pinot Blanc ’13; good value, bright lemony, rich melon, pure and clean. As well as an intense, focused marmalade beauty of a 60% Chardonnay/40% Pinot Blanc Trockenbeerenauslese 2006 (available @ Lea & Sandeman £19.95).

Now I am pretty sure that I have never highlighted what was served for lunch at a tasting of this sort. So this is a first. But so astonishing delicious and diverse was the spread from head chef Will Robertson that I must mention it. The fact that Will had spent some time living and working in Austria shone through in most certainly the best food I have ever had at a tasting.

I am drooling as I type the following: Slow roast duck with pickled cabbage on rye, pork schnitzel mustard and pickles, potato dumplings, herring with soft boiled egg on pumpernickel, smoked trout and cucumber cream on a buckwheat pancake and finally speck noodle dumpling and sauerkraut. Bravo Will, Vinoteca Soho is lucky to have you. Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.47.56Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 11.48.08

The only downside to this being a tasting and not a lunch per say meant that my professionalism kept me from just grabbing a few bottles and plonking myself down at the table. Oh, to have spent the rest of that grey and rainy afternoon gobbling up even more of those heavenly little morsels washed down with numerous glasses of those sublime wines.

It really was a fabulous tasting. Not only did I learn about a new region whose wines are so deserving of a wider audience but I was treated to a smorgasbord of Oesterreich delicacies. For that reason, it will go down as my most memorable tasting of 2014.

If Will ever does an Austrian dinner sign up right away and put my name down too!