Does Bottle Aged or Wood Aged Port make the best festive match?

So there’s about a week to go before Christmas, which mean I, like a lot of us, am planning my menu and thinking about what wines to serve. Since my recent trip to the Douro Valley, Portugal, I am giving far more thought to which Port to buy than I have done in previous years.

Broadly speaking Ports fall into two categories: those that are aged in bottle, such as Vintage or Late Bottle Vintage (LBV). They are red/purple in colour and have a black/red fruit and chocolate flavour profile. Then there are those which are aged in wood barrels, such as Tawnies or Colheitas, which are more oxidised so are browner in colour and have a caramel, nut and saline flavour profile.

At Christmas I like to be a generous host which means at various points over the holiday: mince pies, Christmas cake, pudding, walnuts, stilton and my, some would say ubiquitous, Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes will all make an appearance. This means the food that I serve with my port (if I group together the dried fruit baking) will also have three very different flavour profiles. So the big question is: what foods go best with tawnies and which go best with bottle aged ports? Surely this is a question that is worth mulling over! So I decided to do a taste test and I invited two willing friends: Paul and Samantha to join me.

I opened a bottle of Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny, a gift from my charming host at the Quinta do Bom Retiro: Sr. João Nicolau de Almeida. It is a fantastic port with lots of caramel and toffee flavours off set with notes of almonds and seaweed. This is a top-notch Tawny.

The second, W&J Graham’s Late Bottle Vintage 2003, I had bought from my new favourite wine shop: The Good Wine Shop in Kew, London http://www.thegoodwineshop.co.uk/ for a very reasonable £15.00. It was sweet and chocolaty with lots of plum and dark cherry fruit. It might not have had the quality of the Ramos Pinto, but then it is a mere 6 year-old colt. It is nevertheless a good example of a bottle-aged style.

For the food we had a festive spread of Stilton, Mince Pies, and a lovely light Christmas Pudding made by professional pudding maker Susan Gardner and this year’s new, traditional favourite, Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes. This is what we found:

W&J Graham’s LBV 2003 Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny
Stilton The contrast is too marked. A taste in two halves. A melodious match. The saltiness in the Tawny matches the saltiness in the cheese. The wines sweetness makes a good underlay for all the flavours.
Mince Pies Works wells. A good dark, fruity combination. Less good. The wine becomes over sweet.
Christmas Pudding A terrific match! Juicy and festive. Delicious. Interestingly this makes the pudding taste nuttier than when it is served with the LBV. A good match.
Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes Fabulous! The great marriage of chocolate flavours with a spank of chilli on the finish.

Not so good. The flavours of the two components are individually complex enough; together it is too complicated.

So our conclusions are: go for a bottle aged Port (LBV or splash out on Vintage) with the cake, pudding, mince pies and chocolate chilli cupcakes and a Tawny with the stilton and walnuts. So yes you will need two bottles: no matter it’s Christmas!

Here are a few other ports I particularly enjoyed on my trip to the Douro:


Quinta do Crasto, Vintage 2007

This port has an opaque, black colour which shows how young it is, plus the alcohol is still very obvious on the nose, further proof of its juvenility. But there are a myriad of flavours on the palate: plums, chocolate, raisins and spice and the texture is so thick, juicy and robust that this wine will definitely age and improve for years, perhaps decades, yet.

Quinta da Gricha, Vintage 2007, Churchill Graham Ltd

A sweet smelling nose with notes of dried flowers and hay. The palate has lots of fine damson notes and a touch of spice. An elegant and feminine port which I hope to re-visit when it has aged a little more and no doubt become even more graceful.

Porto Calem, Late Bottle Vintage 2004

A fresh young ruby colour. Rather than having a strong sweet /alcohol fortified wine smell, the nose is quite ‘winey’. The palate has herbaceous notes with a touch of chocolate.

Portal Vintage Port 2003

Far more elegant than an LBV, this port is very juicy with a complex range of flavours: plums and prunes, rosemary and mint, coffee and chocolate. The alcohol is still fairly obvious but will meld into the wine with time.


Quinta de la Rosa, Colheita 1997

A pretty Tawny colour with a nutty, woody nose. The palate is intense and very, very nutty with a long finish. Tasty!

Kopke Colheita 1978

The colour is like beeswax polished wood with a hint of green. The nose has an attractive vegetal/saline note which reminds me of seaweed salad in Japanese restaurants. The palate has notes of pepper, salt and almonds. A distinctive wine.

Burmester Colheita 1963

The colour is of a French polished antique table. The palate has flavours of barley sugar and linseed oil. It is very, very intense.

Portal 40 Year Old Aged Tawny Port

An attractive polished old oak colour with a greenish tinge, typical of older tawnies. The nose is very pungent and nutty with notes of linseed oil. Very rich.


Katrina’s website

Last Sunday I tasted something which was on a par with some of the greatest gourmet treats that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. For a second I thought it was all over and I would no longer care for fine wine and good dining. It was a freezing day and my sister and I were walking a 20 mile ‘challenge walk’ organised by the Long Distance Walkers Association. (We were the light-weights, there were plenty speeding past us doing the 30 mile event.) At the first checkpoint, 10 miles in, we were given a glass of blackcurrant juice and a digestive biscuit.

Rarely has anything tasted so sweet, so delicious, so nourishing and thirst quenching. Partially it was the effect of exercising outdoors on a cold day, every nerve was tingling and alive including, it seemed, my taste buds. But equally I have rarely been so conscious of food and fuel, the link between energy and eating. The sugar in the drink and biscuit seemed to race to my muscles (I’m not sure how long it takes sugar to convert to energy but surely longer than this) giving me an instant lift, helping me to bounce off for the next 10 miles.

 I’ve had this experience before, also on a cold day, part-way through a day of strenuous hiking. A few years ago I went trekking in Nepal, its not the exquisite curries that stick in my mind or the yummy mo-mos, but a meal knocked up by the sherpas who were guiding me and the rest of a band of hapless foreigners along the way, just below the snow line. On camping stoves they knocked up a meal of chips, coleslaw and a jam sandwich, all served on the same plate. Again the cold, the hunger, the need for energy made this simple fair taste far more wonderful than it would in normal circumstances.

 Usually, for me, food/cooking oscillates between necessity and absorbing hobby. I am aware of the need for a balanced diet, but often that can be reduced to a battle between excess calories and the love of good food. But that juice and biscuit, (just as the odd Nepalese thali had been) were a timely reminder of the correlation between nutrition and physical well-being. Just how profoundly what I eat affects the way I feel.

 So while I once again have made a mental note to be more conscious of nutrition, I also realise that there are those rare moments in life when the most ordinary food will taste exquisite and nourishing in a way that the finest haute cuisine never can. And those odd moments will always creep up on me unexpectedly and must be cherished for their simple beauty, the taste of good food. 




Katrina’s website

Understanding umami can add an extra dimension of deliciousness to the most humble credit crunch dishes while for more glamorous affairs playing up umami can be truly sublime.

 Originally defined in Japan, the concept of ‘umami’ has been knocking about in UK foodie circles for a few years now. It is called the fifth sense. It has been embraced by some and derided by others, but personally, I’m a believer. So what is umami? And does it actually matter to good cooks and good eaters?

The Umami Information Centre (oh yes!) www.umamiinfo.com describe it as:

 … a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.

Or in layman’s terms, umami is the thing that entices a person who has been vegetarian for 10 years to eat a bacon sandwich. It is the desire and enjoyment of protein.

Umami is not just a faddish contemporary dietary concoction; the great 19th century French food writer, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who famously wrote ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who are’ was aware of umami. He called it Osmazone:

It is in Osmazone that the principal merit of a good soup resides; the brown of roast meat is due to caramelization of ozmazome; and it is ozmazome that gives its rich flavour to venison and game.

 Foods rich in umami include: meat, oily fish, mushrooms, soya beans, parmesan cheese and yeast.

 So what does acknowledging umami add to the cook’s repertoire? For those of us on a budget it is the awareness that a simple ingredient like rice will be so much more appealing when it is cooked in umami rich stock to make a pilau or risotto. The umami adds a satisfying dimension which is more than just perfume.

Equally a shaving of parmesan on spaghetti with tomato sauce will turn ordinary fare into something delicious, just as the addition of soy sauce to stir fry will turn a handful of vegetables into a complete meal.

For cooks with a bit more cash to splash putting umami rich meat, fish or cheese at the centre of a menu will be appealing not just because of their flavour and traditional role as pride of place, but because they provide the palate with a physical sense of pleasure as well as belly-filling fulfilment.

So what about umami and drinks? As umami is found in yeast any fermented liquid will have some umami including: beer, sake and wine. One example of the later is sparkling wine which is made with a second edition of sugar and yeast known as liqueur de triage. It is this secondary fermentation which creates bubbles.

Other yeast/umami rich wines are those which have ‘lees’ contact. Lees is the yeasty sediment that collects at the bottom of the fermentation tank. Deliberately letting wine absorb the flavour of this yeast not only adds flavour but a more viscous texture. Many opulent, but unwooded, Chardonnays have had considerable lees contact. Many red wines will also be left on the lees to increase their colour from the crushed skins and pick up umami on the way.

So how do these umami rich wines match food? Well it is the umami rich foods which are their most successful partners. Muscadet sur Lie and mussels is a classic and delicious pairing. Red wine and cheese/meat and increasingly fish is well documented. As for sparkling wines, matching a glass of yeasty Champagne with an umami rich English/Scottish breakfast is one of the best food matches ever. If you haven’t got a reason to try this decadent pleasure then make one up. There really is no excuse!

Katrina’s website

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin The Physiology of Taste Trans. Anne Drayton Penguin Classics 1994. First published as La Physiologie du goût 1825

A chance meeting at The Wine Show made a celestial match – or perhaps that should be fiendish marriage. 

So that’s the Wine Show done for another year, four days of unrelenting wine talk, still overall a good time was had by all. I made two discoveries this year. The first was Argentinean winery Doña Paula, 96 bottles of their wine passed through my hands over the weekend, but the one that left a lasting impression was Los Cardos Malbec. You’d be hard pressed to find a more supple and juicy glass of red, especially for £5.99 a bottle (Oddbins).

The second discovery was a weird and wonderful chocolate mix. Opposite the Wines of Argentina booth, where I was putting in the hours, was a stand for a company selling/promoting organic chocolate called Cocoa Loco (www.cocoaloco.co.uk) manned by owner Rory Payne. He took a shine to my colleague, the beautiful Rubenesque Rachel and threw chocolates across the aisle at her. But then Rachel is a woman who deserves to be pelted with truffles, so it all made sense.

As well as the usual delicious chocolate guises Cocoa Loco dished up chocolate bars flavoured with chili pepper. It’s an odd but very successful combination as the melting bitter opulence of the dark chocolate combines with the exhilarating heat of the pimento in a surprisingly smooth juxtaposition. But the pleasure isn’t limited to the palate, there’s also a natural high.

The chocolate releases seratonins in the brain creating a happy feeling, as seratonins are used to counteract depression it is a singularly potent ingredient. However combined with chili, which releases natural endorphins also giving a sense of physical and mental well-being, this confectionary is truly mind-altering.

The Aztecs knew about the power of these ingredients and believed them to be an aphrodisiac. They brewed a potent drink and ‘doubly’ hot chocolate is still probably the easiest way to serve up this flavoursome twosome.

Cocoa Loco offer both white and dark chocolate bars enhanced with chilli, (the latter are far superior in my bitter loving opinion). They also make wonderful squidgy brownies and suggest adding chocolate to chilli con carne to make a deep dark sauce. So there are clearly many ways to play this pair.

 However I have decided that such an exotic marriage of ingredients merits a presentation that also lifts the heart as well as the mind and that has to be the chocolate chilli cupcake. The cupcake has to be the most frivolous of cakes (although I’ll agree that the macaroon makes a close second). So imagine a chocolate cupcake individually iced with the darkest chocolate and laced with fiery chilli. Could a patisserie be a big tease? Now I just need to find some brave souls willing to taste these Lucifer’s fairies. Any takers?

 Katrina’s website

The poor relation, bitter loses out to easy to please sweet, robust salt and even mean and lean sour. But as cooks are we also losing out by not consciously including bitter in our dishes? Is being bitter really such a crime?

‘Delicious, this is really bitter.’ Why does that sound so wrong? The other tastes don’t get such a bad press. No one curls up their lip at the phrase ‘lovely and sweet’ or a proffered salty crisp or even the prospect of a salvia-smacking sour grapefruit segment, but bitter never raises a smile.

Of course, the palate does have a natural aversion to bitter, because this is how many poisons taste, as do many medicines. For example quinine, used to treat malaria, is also a flavour component of tonic water and bitter lemon. But if we ignore the potential of bitter are we missing a culinary trick?

I have a recipe from the Cantinetta Antinori in Florence, a restaurant which always receives rave reviews, for crostini cavalo nero, or black cabbage on toast. I have never cooked it. Partially because I suspect it is a dish that needs to be tried in situ and would get lost in translation away from Tuscany, but also such a show of bitterness seems less than appealing compared with say sweet tomato or salty cheese or even tangy leaves laced with vinaigrette.

Still there are plenty of home grown examples where bitter is an essential component to a dish: bitter/sweet Oxford marmalade, carrot and walnut cake, endive salad with Roquefort and walnuts. But these are ‘homeopathic’ portions; they tease the bitter appreciating papillae on the tongue without causing them alarm. Even bitter dark chocolate with 70% cocoa solids is off set with fats and sweeteners and a few hardy souls may knock back a sugar-free espresso but most of us succumb to a cube of sugar, milk or diluting hot water rather than take a shot unadulterated.

But as a cook I can’t help but wonder if I shouldn’t be making a more conscious effort to include bitter flavours into my repertoire. After all as a wine lover one of my favourite grape varieties is Chenin Blanc which comes in many styles but even in its dessert wine guise it usually distinguishes itself with a bitter taste of pithy grapefruit. Fish Hoek, Chenin Blanc 2007 from the Western Cape (£6.99 in Tesco) is a good example and if you would like to upscale then Jacky Blot, Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, Remus, Montlouis Sec, Loire, 2006 at £101.52 for six bottles on www.everywine.co.uk is fantastic.

So should I come out and proclaim: I love bitter! Surely it is better to be a maverick than ignore one of the most exciting primary tastes? To live with meals only three-quarters enjoyed? Yes! I will no longer neglect my bitter taste buds. They will no longer cry out for attention only to be chastised with a spoon of medicine. I shall include radicchio and endives in my salads, I will braise brassicaceae, add coffee grinds to anything that they might possibly enhance, I will make bitter chocolate sauces and serve them with roast meats but will I make cabbage on toast for lunch? No. That one will have to wait for a visit to Tuscany. After all if it all goes wrong it could leave a worryingly bitter taste in my mouth.

To see Katrina’s webpage visit http://www.katrinaalloway.co.uk/

While building up a mental list of recognisable smells may be the key to analysing and understanding wine, it is still the involuntary memories that a glass can evoke that bring the greatest pleasure.

How many times have my non-wine loving friends dissolved into laughter after I have emerged from a glass and asked them if they too have discovered an aroma of tar and roses or pencil shavings or wet sheep in its depths? OK, I’ll admit, I sometimes play to the crowd.

But what I, and anyone who has more than a dilettante interest in wine, do, is call upon a memory bank of smells (pencil shavings and wet sheep amongst them) that provide clues to identity: variety, region, vintage, quality etc.  All wine enthusiasts deliberately work on turning what could be just a series of involuntary and random associations into a catalogue of olfactory trigger points that help navigate through the many sensory stimuli that a glass of wine creates with the goal of making a cool and objective assessment.

I had to work at this. I remember going through the spice rack and memorising aromas: turmeric, nutmeg, mace etc so that when I came across the smell of cloves in a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape my mind raced back to that hour spent with my nose in the kitchen cupboard and I slotted the smell into ‘Southern Rhône associations’.

Other smells came to me unexpectedly. I remember standing on the platform of an old fashioned London bus after a perplexing tasting of German wines when I got a blast of diesel in my face. ‘Now I understand Riesling,’ I thought as I jumped onto the pavement.


But despite all of this cool-headed aromatic analysis, one of the great pleasures of wine tasting for me will always be the unexpected associations; the uncategorised smells that trigger involuntary thoughts. Like the glass of Champagne Veuve Clicquot demi-sec with its perfume of muscovado sugar which makes me remember being in the Swiss Alps, and one snowy morning when somebody once spoilt me with a glass of this wine. Or the taste of Chinon from Domaine Baudry Dutour, Domaine du Roncée 2007 which smells of Autumn leaves and dark, fresh Cabernet Franc grapes. It is so evocative that the noise in the room around me fades and I am once again crouched amongst the vines picking the very fruit that made this wine.

Neuroscientists call these involuntary memories triggered by smell the Proust effect, in homage to the description in Remembrance of Things Past when the protagonist eats a madeleine:           

And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madelaine which on Sunday morning at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I             went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my Aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom.[1]


To be able to truly analyse the smell of wine: for a buyer to recognise a wine’s commercial viability, a winemaker to assess the liquid’s progress, for the amateur to build up a wider understanding of all the variations and permeations to be found within a region or variety, then cool unsentimental analysis is essential. But still, no matter how useful and important my ability to recognise and assess the aromas of different wine maybe, this will always just be an academic thrill or professional necessity.


What brings real pleasure, and is one of the many reasons why I love wine, are the involuntary memories: the Proust effect. The glass of Sauvignon Blanc that reminds me of dancing late into the night at a harvest party in Sancerre or the face of a friend with whom I shared a similar bottle while we ate a particularly delicious brace of seabass and his laughter as I described our wine with an increasingly outlandish stream of adjectives.


[1] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, In Search of Lost Time, Trans. Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, London 2002