For most gourmands, whether food or drink be your vice of choice, a definite highlight of travelling is discovering the wonderfully foreign delights on offer in each country you visit.
Who hasn’t visited France determined to sample snails, frog’s legs and foie gras? Or haggis, black pudding and fried mars bars in Scotland? Although, granted, there are certain delicacies I imagine only the most adventurous of us would voluntarily try; German griebenschmalz, essentially spreadable pig fat, is one such example that quickly springs to mind.
When it comes to drinks, I personally love Italy for the fantastic, and seamlessly never ending, array of unusual wines, spirits, liqueurs, bitters and even non alcoholic beverages on offer. Long before it was fashionable to drink in London and New York, I remember a summer spent indulging in glass after glass of bright orange Aperol Spritz in Piemonte. That rates up there with my recent joy at discovering Crodino, Sanbitter and Venezzio Bitter, wonderfully adult non alcoholic aperitifs which make a refreshing change to the stock standard soft drink staples to choose from when pregnant.
Yet Italy doesn’t have the monopoly on the world’s weird and wonderful drinks, although it does offer some interesting contenders. So whether you find yourself in Europe this summer or next, here are a few of my favourites to search out for and bring back to brighten up your liqueur cabinet:
After that introduction it’s only fitting to start with Italy, and Cynar has always been the name which has piqued my interest the most. Who wants a drink made from predominantly artichokes? Turns out this bitter liqueur is actually to quite a few people’s tastes and is especially popular in Switzerland and Germany where it is often mixed with ... orange juice. If that doesn’t sound appealing, try taking it neat, or mixed with soda water, cola or bitter lemon.
Made from a whopping 43 ingredients, hence the name, Licor 43 is a Spanish staple that claims a history dating back to Roman times. The exact recipe is a heavily guarded secret known to a select few, but all the ingredients come from the herb and citrus families and produce a rather bright yellow liquid with flavours of vanilla, honey and orange. So, how do you drink it? On the rocks or be inventive and add it to your favourite cocktails, such as a Cuba Libre or Margarita.
THE KING’S GINGER
At the turn of the 20th century, King Edward VII commissioned legendary British wine merchants Berry Brothers and Rudd to create a drink that would revive him during his morning rides. The King’s Ginger was the result! Made from numerous varieties of ginger, this rich and spicy liqueur is still as relevant today as it was more than 100 years ago, and can be enjoyed alone, in cocktails or added to your mulled wine when the nights start getting cold.
KILCHOMAN BRAMBLE LIQUEUR
Whilst we’re in the British Isles, let’s head north to the Scottish Isles, Islay in particular; where the whisky distillery Kilchoman has their own take on your traditional black fruit liqueurs. Brambles are a very British word for a wild blackberry bush and here they are macerated in whisky, honey and the distilleries own new spirit. The end result is unique; the fruity flavours mixed in with distinctly smoky aromas. It’s a liqueur bound to please any whisky fan.
An unusual blend of wine and liqueur, Lillet comes in three colours (white, red and rosé), and is aged like a fine Bordeaux wine! You may have already enjoyed this French “tonic wine”, the drinks category that it falls into, as it’s a key ingredient in cocktails such as the Vesper, made famous by 007. Whilst the grapes may be familiar (either Sémillon or Merlot), the liqueur comes from Spanish and Moroccan sweet oranges, Haitian green oranges and a quinine liqueur made from a particular Peruvian plant bark. No surprise then that it’s best served on ice or mixed with tonic water and garnished with a slice of cucumber and mint.
If you find any of these continental cocktail gems on your travels, they can be easily and securely transported back to your home drinks cabinet in our Wine Check Luggage or the WineCradle … they are not just made for wine, remember!@RivieraGrape as she explores the wines of the French Riviera and Italy's Liguria.
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Having just come back from a two week trip to the Mount Etna region of eastern Sicily we thought we'd share some of the best wine stores we came across travelling in the region. I must say I love the "enoteca" concept in Italy, where you can come for an aperitivo, taste local wines by the glass with some food, and then purchase bottles that you've tasted and liked. We loved visiting and tasting wines directly at the wineries of course, but the experience of tasting different producers side by side, and the ability to try older vintages can only be done at an enoteca.