Northampton Wine Connection – Lots of Gin

Wine ConnectionThat sounds rather disreputable, doesn’t it, gentle reader? The truth is, I was passing by the wine shop the other week and thought I’d stock up on some basics (you have to every so often), and while I was there it was mentioned that they’d just widened their range of local and independently produced gin. It was the morning though, so I resisted the temptation to have an early morning gin tasting, as it would wreak havoc with my productivity. But, as it happened, I was in the same neck of the woods a few days later, and it was the afternoon, so I just popped my head in, and lo and behold an impromptu gin tasting took place.

Having the Wine Connection close by has made Mrs Chrisparkle and me turn into wine snobs. No longer are we happy to be fobbed off by a Wetherspoon’s special. No longer do I look at the top of the wine list and work my way down a little – I start at the bottom (and tend to stay there). Don’t get me wrong – we’re not looking to spend as much as possible on wine, far from it, a bargain is nearly always tastier – but we now have a de minimis quality threshold on our tastebuds, and if it isn’t reached, we tend to shoot each other sorrowful glances, as we put up with consuming calories and units but without the big taste payback. We’ve never yet tried anything from the Wine Connection that wasn’t absolutely superb, even in the cheapie range – so it’s that confidence in what they sell (as well as being a very enjoyable buying process!) – that keeps us coming back.

Warner EdwardsIt was the Wine Connection that introduced us to the local Warner Edwards range of gins a year or so ago, and their Harrington Dry Gin – “an exceptionally smooth gin handcrafted by lifelong friends Tom Warner and Sion Edwards in a barn in Harrington, Northants, including ingredients from their farms in England and Wales. A truly fabulous creation of which all of Britain can be proud.” That must all be true, as it says it on their label. But it is, it really is. It’s no good having a gin like that with a supermarket tonic either. I hadn’t realised that the tonic made such a difference to the gin. I thought they were all the same – apart from the obvious difference of “low calorie” or “full fat”. But it’s true – something underwhelming like Morrison’s own brand or something sledgehammery like Schweppes doesn’t do your decent gin any favours. Hence the recommendation for Fever-tree tonic. If we’ve just got shop brand tonic in, we’ll go with our Bombay Sapphire (which, when we discovered it eight years ago came as a fantastic alternative to the Gordon’s I’d grown up with). But the mix of Warner Edwards and Fever-tree is pretty sensational.

But the idea of this tasting was to broaden my gin buds, so Graham (for it was he guiding me through this spiritfest) suggested I first tried a little Warner Edwards because I knew it and I knew I liked it, and then I could compare it with a few new alternatives. It was to be something of a “man’s tasting” as they’d run out of tonic so I had to have it all neat. Ah well, the trials and tribulations of a self-denying seeker for the truth, tsk, just one of those things you have to put up with. The Warner Edwards was as warm and smooth and yummy as I remembered.

Two-BirdsSo for contrast number one Graham poured me a little Two Birds. It’s a London Dry Gin produced in Market Harborough, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. My initial sniff was a delightful surprise. It was really light and fragrant, and made a considerable contrast with the Warner Edwards. You know how when you walk through a department store (especially with a lady) and assistants jump out at you with strips of card with perfume on for you to have a sniff – well the “scent equivalent” would be that the Warner Edwards smells rich, warm and mature whilst the Two Birds is young, floral and cheeky. It’s very satisfying on the tongue and just reeks of quality. Surprisingly, at 40% strength, it’s 4% less than the Warner Edwards. I was really taken with it. “Lovingly handcrafted in small batches, our Great British gin is delicately distilled and infused with the finest countryside botanics”. That’s the label again, not me, but who am I to disagree.

pinksterMoving on to a second gin-challenge, Graham suggested I tried Pinkster. As the name suggests, it’s pink! Not a pink gin in the traditional definition of gin and angosturas bitters, though. The source of its pinkness hits you the moment you let it near your nostril – raspberry. It’s really fruity! It actually took me ages to get round to tasting it because I was enjoying the raspberry aroma so much. Imagine a really adult Raspberry Mivvi, and you’re not far off. Not that it’s a sweet drink at all – there’s plenty of juniper in there to accentuate the dryness – but it’s just got an irreverent streak to it which made it really stand out. I think I missed out the full experience with this one by not sampling it with tonic, but nevertheless, it’s still a treat neat.

little birdAnd a third extra offering – another London Dry Gin called Little Bird, this one actually made in London. It’s another serious contender for your top quality G&T. Very smooth, very full in flavour, and very lingering. Taste is, of course, totally subjective, and whilst I enjoyed it very much and expect it would be great with some Fever-tree, I didn’t feel it had the subtlety of either the Two Birds or the Pinkster. Still you’d definitely choose it over the majority of other gins you might get offered.

Two Birds VodkaThere were a couple of extras to this gin tasting, both courtesy of the Two Birds stable. Firstly, they do a vodka. My experience of “good” vodka is limited to blue label Smirnoff (great with a mixer) and black label Smirnoff, good enough to drink alone; by which I mean with nothing added, not you quietly knocking it back by yourself all alone in a rotting garret somewhere. Again I sampled this one neat – and I’d say it was definitely one for the boldness of just having it on the rocks and to hell with the consequences. I could imagine hordes of Russian tourists all having a very boozy breakfast with this. AbsintheAnd, as if that wasn’t enough, Two Birds make their own absinthe. Yes, I tried the absinthe, all 70% of it, and it certainly makes the heart grow fonder. A complex blend of aniseed and wormwood apparently. It hits your tongue and it evaporates, and you’re left with a knock-out sense of something very powerful and rather mysterious. I blame the wormwood. Could it be used as a mitigating plea in court? I’m very sorry, Your Honour, the Wormwood made me do it.

I thought I’d treat myself to a bottle of something that I’d tried – and in the end I plumped for the Two Birds gin. But they were all extremely scrummy. There’s another wine tasting on Saturday night – a selection of Portuguese wines. Sounds beguiling! 11 Derngate, Northampton, is the place, and I shall be there! But in any case, the Northampton Wine Connection is always worth a visit, to broaden your wine horizons and to get that certain something you definitely won’t find in the supermarket.

The Wine Connection, Northampton, Wine Tasting, 27th July 2013

Wine ConnectionGentle reader, if you’ve read between the lines in some of my blogs about theatre-going and travel, you might have come to the conclusion that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are partial to the occasional glass of something grapey before a show; and at the interval; and with dinner; and on holiday; and so on. Up until recently we would happily imbibe any old Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc that a pub, restaurant or theatre would serve us; and for home consumption, we would have been happy to stock up (half-a-dozen at a time of course, to get the discount) on happy wines from the aisles of Tesco or Waitrose without too much deliberation – we knew what we liked, and we liked what we knew.

Earls Barton CiderBut recently, we’ve noticed something rather alarming. That chirpy pub wine that always kept us contented now seems to have gone off the boil, not that you would boil wine, but you get my drift. The favourite old bottle choices in the Indian or Thai restaurants are no longer hitting the spot. Why? Because for the last six months or so, we’ve been buying our wine from Northampton’s new independent wine retailer, the Northampton Wine Connection, 11 Derngate, in the heart of the town. The shop is run by Graham, Mark and Laura and their passion for their product is palpable. What they don’t know about the wines on their shelves, really isn’t worth knowing. And it’s not just wine there either. They’re particularly hot on local producers, so they have a range of Northamptonshire beers, and the (increasingly famous) Warner Edwards gin that is distilled in Harrington. They also stock white wines from the New Lodge Vineyard at Earls Barton, and they’ve even got some really appley cider that’s made there too. Mrs C very kindly bought me a celebratory bottle of Cognac a few weeks ago, and, not knowing her Colombard from her Ugni Blanc, sought advice from them as to which of their extensive range she should buy. She bought the surprisingly reasonably priced Jacques Denis Grande Champagne 1er Cru, and, I can tell you now, it’s utterly sublime.

Wine TastingThe big question when it comes to wine is, does it taste totally yummy? There’s only one way to find out – to taste it. And that’s one of the very entertaining aspects of the Wine Connection; on the last Saturday of every month they hold a wine tasting where you can try a dozen or more wines from their current stock. We’ve been a few times now, and it’s always a jolly, sociable event, where your taste buds get to broaden their horizons and maybe try some wines that you wouldn’t normally consider.

MoscatoAt last Saturday’s wine tasting Laura took us through the first few bottles. We started off with their two Le Magnolie wines; a prosecco and a spumante rosé. They are superb. Light and celebratory, we’ve already bought a number of these and they’re great for parties or just for starting an evening off with some crisps or nibbles. Actually, we didn’t need to taste these this time round, as we feel we already know them intimately! The first wine we did taste was a Moscato 47 AD, from Roncade in the Veneto district of Italy. It has the added bonus of only being 7.5% strength – Mrs C and I always like to go for wine with a lighter alcohol content wherever possible, as they’ve got fewer calories and you’re less likely to get plastered. It’s ever so slightly sweet and sparkling, which makes it a perfect solution to the rather intoxicating alternative of the Champagne Breakfast.

Wine ShopStaying with the sparkling but getting much more serious we tried Vixen, a sparkling red from McLaren Vale in South Australia. At 14% it’s a heady brew; a devilish mix of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and instantly appealing as a result. It’s after trying about four or five wines at a wine tasting that you remember that you’re just meant to have a sip or two and then pour the rest away; that way you can remain relatively sober and alert throughout the tasting so that those you taste at the end are appraised just as critically as those you tasted at the beginning. That’s what you should do… but it’s terribly hard to waste such nice wine!

SoaveOn to stage two of the wine tasting, downstairs with Graham, and four champagnes awaited us. Mrs C and I are extremely fond our champagne, and will crack open a bottle at the slightest opportunity. “It’s Wednesday! Yeah! Let’s have some champagne.” The first we had to try was the Charles Chevalier Champagne which the Wine Connection have adopted as their House Champagne. It blends Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes and at 12.5% it packs a really tasty punch; also it tastes every bit as good as one twice its price. I shall definitely be stocking up on some of that soon.

Charles ChevalierThen came three champagnes from the Maison Borel Lucas, supplied by a local guy who has started up his own small champagne import business. In order, they were the Cuvee de Reserve, a Rosé NV and finally a Grand Cru. They’re all very satisfying; but I particularly liked the Rosé as normally I would expect it to be a little sweeter somehow; this example was extremely serious. Then there were two other whites to try – a 12% Soave by Serenissima, remarkably smooth and rounded for a good value Soave, which I would normally associate with a much dryer taste; and a Piantaferro Falangina which was very nice but not entirely to my taste – in an evening of taste sensations that one just sat on my tongue and did nothing much. One final rosé on offer – again by Serenissima, a Merlot rosé which is an assertive and serious wine that we’ve bought before. As we knew what it would taste like we had no need to try it again; but somehow that didn’t seem to quite matter.

Poderi Colla NebbioloThen we moved to the reds: first up, a 13% Sicilian Syrah from Piantaferro that was absolutely superb. I wonder if the first red you taste after lots of different whites and rosés always tastes great? But I thought it was yummy. Then the last two bottles in the “proper” wine tasting were the big guns. A Poderi Colla Nebbiolo, 13.5% and every 0.1% of it latches itself to your juices. Once it’s washed around your mouth a couple of times, it sticks solid; you’ll taste it for ages afterwards. This is the kind of wine you drink one evening and on the next morning you’ve got a mouth like a birds’ cage. But I really loved it. The only thing that could beat it, was the final wine of the night, a 2008 Scuola Grande Amarone. It’s like the Big Daddy of the Valpolicella family. It’s 15.5% would you believe, so you really have to stagger your drinking of it – or it will stagger you; or make sure you’re sharing it amongst a number of like-minded friends. It was simply beautiful.

Save WaterEven though that was the end of the “official” wine tasting, back upstairs Mark has an add-on treat. Every so often they keep aside a few bottles for tasting in order to get feedback from their customers as to whether we think a wine is a good choice for them to stock and whether we would be likely to buy it at any given price point. There were six extra wines to try, all from small producers in Spain. The first, a white, was simply delicious and they had already wisely decided they were definitely going to stock it. The next four were red Riojas, all at different stages of oakiness. The first was a Joven, i.e. young and without oak and everyone agreed it was a super wine and they would definitely buy it. The next three had been in the oak for six months, one year and two years respectively. General consensus was that the six month and the one year wines didn’t have that much of their own identity, and that in comparison, the cheaper Joven, or the more expensive two year wine, were a much better bet. Finally there was a wine called Ciceron, and that was gorgeous too; but by this time I was unable to take any meaningful notes to explain its wonders any more fully. I’m sure you’ll understand why.

Scuola Grande AmaroneSo if you’re into decent wines or want to broaden your knowledge and sample some classy vino, why not try attending one of the Wine Connection’s Saturday night tastings. You get a good discount if you buy twelve bottles and I can vouch for the fact that every single wine we have bought has tasted just as good at home as it did in the shop. Spend over £75 and you don’t have to carry any purchases home with you – they will deliver locally. You can follow them on Twitter (@NorthamptonWine) or Facebook too. Great fun, great tastes and great service – you can’t go wrong!