Rathfinny Wine Estate and Sussex Sparkling. If you’ve not heard of them yet you soon will because Sussex is the future of English wine production. With award-winning wines spilling out of the county it won’t be long before you’ll be toasting your celebrations with a glass or two of Sussex Sparkling. Rathfinny, near Alfriston in East Sussex, is the state-of-the-art vineyard that’s on course to become England’s largest single-site vineyard. I dropped by to find out what all the fizz and the fuss is about.
Gin has long been my tipple of choice so I was delighted to find out this week that there’s a whole day devoted to everything gin. #WorldGinDay happens each year in June and began in 2009 (why did that take so long?). There are over 70 gin inspired events planned worldwide.
To celebrate I’m going to share with you some tips and a recipe to let you in on the secrets of how to make the perfect gin and tonic. So, let’s bow down to the botanicals and celebrate World Gin Day with a tipple or two.
A Visit to Graham's Port Cellars, Porto
Look across Porto’s River Douro from the cobbles of the Ribeira and you’ll see layer upon layer of terracotta roof tiles. Nestling in the cool shadows beneath are the Port Wine Cellars and lodges of Vila Nova da Gaia. You’ll find over 50 Port lodges, or caves, here with some familiar British names gracing their hoardings; Taylor’s, Croft’s and Cockburn’s amongst them. We wanted to visit one of the lodges for a Port wine tasting but with so many Port cellars in Porto how would we choose?
Which Port Wine Cellar?
Luckily, Mr Jones has a friend who knows Porto well and didn’t hesitate in recommending Graham’s Port Cellar Unluckily, as we picked out the names of the lodges from across the river, our ‘port of call’ appeared to be the farthest cellar away and at the top of a steep hill! We set off on foot from Porto’s pretty Ribeira over the Dom Luis Bridge and over an hour later we arrived at W&J Graham’s cool, white lodge. We’d definitely earned our Port tasting! The tour has a choice of tastings depending on the quality and age of the port. We went for the €20pp ‘Graham’s Tasting’. There are a wide range of tastings to suit every pocket and palate.
The History of W&J Graham’s Port
First up we were shown a short film about the heritage of the company. W & J Graham’s was founded in Porto, in 1820 by William and John Graham. Originally textile traders the brothers starting producing Port out of the Douro Valley after being given 27 barrels of port as payment of a debt. In 1882 Andrew Symington came to work at Graham’s but eventually left to set up his own business. In 1970 Symington’s bought Graham’s and the business is still run by five Symington cousins today. Graham’s was one of the first companies to invest in its own vineyards in Portugal’s Douro Valley. In the same year, 1890, their port cellar was built in Vila Nova de Gaia which has the ideal climate for ageing port wine.
The History of Port Wine
It’s said that two wine merchants exploring a remote part of the Douro Valley discovered an Abbot in a Lamego monastery who added grape spirit (brandy) to his wine early in the fermentation to preserve sweetness. They decided to use this ‘fortification’ method to preserve their own wines for the long sea voyage back to England.
Douro Valley Demarcation
The grapes that are used to make Port must be grown in the mountainous Upper Douro region of Northern Portugal, the world’s first officially demarcated wine region in 1756. This protected region within the demarcation boundaries is the only place in the world that can produce authentic Port just like the Chianti region in Italy or Champagne in France.
Traditional Port Making
The company is still mindful of the original Graham family motto, ‘Do Not Forget’ and in some vineyards still make a small percentage of Port using traditional methods alongside the modern. Some of the grapes are still trodden by foot in stone ‘lagares’, vines are grown using natural weed-control and much of the picking and pruning is still done by hand.
Transporting the Port to Vila Nova de Gaia
Until the 20th century Port was transported to the Lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia for ageing in flat-bottomed boats, known asbarcos rabelos. The last boat carrying barrels of port was said to have travelled the dangerous Douro in 1961. Nowadays the boats are only used once a year in the Rabelos Regatta, a race held on the River Douro on 24 June for the feast of São João (St. John), the patron saint of Porto.
A Tour of the Port Cellars
Next we entered the cool, dark cellars for a look at the vats and barrels and to learn how the various types of Port are aged. The stone walls are half a metre thick and there’s sand on the floor to regulate the temperature. The large vats are placed on white stones so it’s easy to spot if there’s a leak. We pass cages where the top Vintage Ports are locked away going back years and years.
Read more reviews of Graham’s Port Cellar
Port Wine Tasting
As we’d opted for ‘The Graham’s Tasting’ we by-passed the main tasting room and entered the Private Vintage Room, a large library-like room with leather armchairs. A bottle each of Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve, 30 Years Old Tawny and Vintage 2003 were lined up with two glasses of each poured and ready. There was a lit panel in the table to stand the Port on so the colour could be seen clearly. A friendly member of Graham’s staff talked us through each Port.
The flavour of the Port is due to the way it has been aged and there are three ways to age it; in the bottle, in small oak cask or in a large vat. Seasoned casks are always used in this process.
Reserves are a blend of young wines from different harvests which have been aged 4-7 years in barrels before being bottled. They are full and fruity with a rich red colour and slightly more refined than a Ruby Port.
Contrastingly Tawny Ports, as they’re aged in oak barrels, come into contact with oxygen. The colour changes, from a deep purple-red of the newly barrelled wine to rich tawny autumnal shades. They taste more of nuts and dried fruits. The colour depends on the amount of time spent in the barrel which for higher quality aged Tawnies can be 30 years or over.
Vintage Ports are made from the finest wines and only when a vintage year is declared by the Port producers. They are only aged for 2-3 years in wooden vats before they’re bottled where they’ll continue to mature for at least 15 years and some for over 30 years. After this they have no further contact with the air and only slow changes in the colour, structure, and character of the wine takes place.
The glasses were quite large so we took our time and spent about an hour in the tasting room, making sure that we finished every last drop! Each of the Ports we tried were quite different from each other and all were delicious. My favourite was the mellow Tawny.
View of the River Douro and Dom Luis Bridge
We emerged, slightly fuzzy around the edges and smiling, from the Vintage Tasting Room where we made our way through the light-airy shop blinking at the change of light. But the Graham’s Port Cellar experience wasn’t quite over. As we went to leave we emerged onto the terrace next to the Vinum Restaurant to be met by the most fantastic view over the cellar’s rooftops and down the River Douro to the Dom Luis Bridge. A fabulous finale to a very enjoyable Port Wine tasting.
A funny thing happened on our flight home. A gentleman – who was totally charming – in our row started chatting about Porto as he lives there and was interested to hear what we’d seen and done. Of course we mentioned our visit to Graham’s Port Cellar and what a great experience we’d had. It turned out we were talking to the CEO of Taylor’s Port and we’d been gushing over the opposition. Oops!
Do you like Port or Wine tastings – do you have a favourite? Share in the comments below…
Say hello to Aperol Spritz a cheeky little Italian apéritif. I first noticed Aperol Spritz in Venice. As the sun started to set, everywhere I looked people were sipping fluorescent-orange cocktails. In the piazzas and canal-side cafés, in bars, terraces and trattorias. Aperol Spritz.
Read on for how to make it, where to buy it and which glass you should serve it in…
Aperol Spritz Recipe
Of course I had to try it. Aperol Spritz tasted so different from any other Italian drinks I’d tasted before. I’d been Spritzed! Now, whenever I’m in Italy I have to treat myself to at least one glass and take a moment while I enjoy a sunset and the gentle bitterness of this unique tipple.
Where does Aperol Spritz come from?
The Spritz is a legacy from Austria which is why it was originally more popular in northern Italy. It’s sold in bars and cafés all over the country today and in Spain and the UK too. In fact you can buy Aperol in one of the UK’s leading supermarkets or here online. My Aperol Spritz glass of choice is a large goldfish bowl glass.
Aperol Spritz isn’t too alcoholic (11% ABV) so it’s perfect for a pre-dinner drink. It’s made with infusions of sweet and bitter oranges, rhubarb, gentian, herbs and roots – the recipe is a closely guarded secret so I can’t divulge any further. Campari is similar but not as sweet and with a higher alcohol content.
What does Aperol Spritz taste like?
Decidedly delicious; very slightly bitter with a sweet hint of orange and a light tang of herbs. The Prosecco gives it sparkle and the soda water refreshes. It’s Italy’s answer to Pimms. Summer in a glass.
Aperol Spritz Recipe
What ingredients make a Spritz?
3 parts Prosecco (75ml)
2 parts of your chosen aperitivo (50ml)
1 part soda water (25ml)
How to Make Aperol Spritz
Start by adding the ice to a large white wine glass or tumbler then pour in the Prosecco and Aperol (or whatever bitter you’re using e.g. Campari). Squirt in the soda water, give it a quick stir, adorn with a slice of fresh orange and you’re ready to spritz.
A glowing sunset, roof terrace or patio garden is the perfect setting or. ideally, drink in a Venice bar with a great view of the Grand Canal.
Have you Spritzed in Italy? What did you think?
It would be wrong to visit Tuscany’s wine region of Chianti in Italy without stopping off at a vineyard or two to sample Chianti Classico, the area’s most famous wine.
During our visit to the Chianti region we visited a variety of wine producers delivering exceptional wines. A brand new state-of-the-art winery, the oldest cellar in the region and a vineyard that’s experimenting with age-old wine production methods. Join me on a mini tour of Chianti’s best wineries.
Chianti Classico, a medium-bodied red wine with cherry and nut undertones, was one of the first to be exported and has been made in Chianti since the thirteenth century. Strict regulations are upheld to be able to display the famous Gallo Nero – the Black Rooster label DOCG. Chianti wine must be made from at least 80% Sangiovese grape – producers can add up to 20% of other grapes to the blend – canaiolo, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot are often used – but the wine must be produced in the Chianti region.
Antinori Cellars in Bargino
Our first stop was Cantina Antinori in Bargino. The Antinori family have been wine producers in Tuscany since 1385; that’s over 600 years and 26 generations to perfect their craft. Given the history behind Florence’s Antinori family the new cellars and company HQ, which opened in 2013, have an incredibly modern concept but at the same time are rooted in the fertile Tuscan earth in which the Antinori family history has evolved. The cellars were designed by Archea Associati architectural studio in Florence with the concept that they would have greatest respect for the environment, Tuscan landscape and eventually become invisible and at one with its surroundings.
Built into a hillside, the top of the hill was removed, the building installed and the ‘lid’ of the hill restored leaving minimal impact on the landscape. Once the Sangiovese vines on the slopes mature the building will become completely immersed into the landscape. We enter the winery from the underground car park via a vast corkscrew staircase and emerge on the cellar’s single curved terrace overlooking spectacular views of the Chianti countryside.
The minimalistic building is a brownish rust colour to match the hues of the earth and constructed with natural, local materials; terracotta, wood, glass and an alloy of steel and copper. There’s a theme of round cut-out skylights, lines are gentle and simplistic curves mirror the contours of the land.
The interior is light, airy and spacious; the lobby displays information and pieces of Antinori history and art with a contemporary backdrop.
Visitors can see the wine production in each stage, from the vineyard to the bottle, following the phases of fermentation and aging. We move from the lobby to the cellars via a wall which silently parts before us releasing the aroma of oak casks. The hill, and the terracotta tiles which line the cellars keep the temperature stable. We continue along a balcony overlooking pale vaulted cellars and cantilevered tasting rooms. It’s futuristic but at the same time church-like. We see where the grapes are sorted, only the best are selected and the huge stainless steel fermentation vats. Row upon row of Hungarian oak barrels store 300 litres of wine per cask.
Our visit finishes on the roof of the cellar in the Rinuccio 1180 restaurant where we devoured a wonderful lunch of local cheeses, salamis, olives and breads with a tasting of three delicious Antinori wines; a white Toscana 2012, Chianti Classico and a Chianti Reserva.
Fattoria di Montecchio Winery
A beautiful 18th century manor house in the oldest part of the Chianti Classico area is home to Fattoria di Montecchio. Located close to the medieval village of San Donato in Poggio the former hunting lodge is surrounded by an estate of over 273 hectares of land; 30 cultivated as vineyards, 20 set to olive groves and 40 as cropland. The historical farm complex is solely devoted to production of Chianti Classico DOCG while extra virgin olive oil is produced in the ancient oil mill.
We visited the cellars and on-site kiln where frost-proof Terracotta is made. Garden ornaments are produced as well as the large terracotta casks. The estate is currently experimenting with this old method of wine fermentation instead of using oak barrels. It was interesting to note the comparison with Cantina Antinori which was completely lined using terracotta tiles.
A light lunch followed of local cheese, salami cured meats and the exquisite home-produced olive oil. We tasted three delicious wines; a Chianti Classico Riserva, a Chianti Classico and a Rose – Pink Ponentino Tuscano.
Badia a Passignano Abbey
The Badia a Passignano Abbey is an ancient monastery dating back possibly as far as 395 AD. It’s on the road running from Greve to San Donato and the surrounding vineyards are owned by the Antinori wine family. There’s a fine dining restaurant, L’Osteria, and an Antinori wine shop near to the entrance of the Abbey.
The Benedictine Monks of Vallombrosa still use the Abbey and allow Antinori to lease the ancient cellars for ageing the Chianti Classico Riserva di Badia a Passignano wine. Although in the past the abbey played a vital role in Tuscan wine production they don’t allow Antinori to produce wine on the premises. The ancient cellars of the abbey are in stark contrast to the brand new Antintori Winery in Bargino.
We took a tour of the wine cellars and the Abbey itself where Galileo Galilei once taught. The land around the abbey has been cultivated for winemaking for thousands of years and in 1983 a specimen of “vitis vinifera” dating back more than a thousand years was discovered on the land.
The old concrete fermentation tanks used in the fifties are preserved and interesting to see but are no longer in use. The grapes cultivated on the land which surrounds the Abbey are all grafted from very old Sangiovese vines; the highest quality grapes are selected to pass through fermentation in modern stainless steel tanks. The wine is then transferred into Hungarian and French oak barriques for 14 months to age and then refined in the bottle for another year before being sold. The vaulted cellars under the Abbey are constructed of thick stone walls to keep a constant humidity and temperature.
‘The Tunnel of Love’ below as eloquently described by our guide!
So there you have just a few Chianti wineries and vineyards that we visited during our time in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa in Tuscany. I’ll be bringing you more posts on the traditional Tuscan food we ate and about the historical art and artisans in the area.
Disclosure: Accommodation, meals and tours were sponsored by the Municipality of Tavarnelle Val di Pesa but all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for the wines of Tuscany are purely are my own. My thanks to all the people of Tavarnelle who helped make the trip so enjoyable.