Category Archives: Uncategorized

The perfect Christmas party drink

My father started inviting his children to his Christmas parties when we were old enough to hand around canapés and pour champagne.

For some years, he had made his living as an art dealer. Back in the eighties, the London art world was a rather splendid melting pot of colourful and eccentric figures who had more style than most, and much more scurrilous anecdotes…..

We learned a lot, as we wove through the throng waving bottles of fizz, and scoffing smoked salmon when Dad wasn’t looking.

My favourite job was making the Champagne cocktails, and to this day, it remains a copper-bottomed Christmas classic – very simple, rather sophisticated and decadently delicious.

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  • Take one sugar cube.
  • Apply 2-3 drops of Angostura bitters.
  • Drop into the bottom of a champagne flute.
  • Cover (generously) with decent brandy (not the cooking stuff).
  • Leave until a guest arrives, and then top up with moderately good champagne (no need to use the Krug, but for God’s sake please don’t attempt with Prosecco)
  • Thereafter, circulate and top glasses up with fresh Champagne, and gradually the Angostura and sugar melts away until, by the second top-up, guests are drinking pretty much pure Champagne

As we approached our later teens, we were allowed a glass or two each.

The problem was always that I would put my glass down half finished, and then forget where I had put it (or someone else would pick it up), and I’d have to start another, with a fresh slug of brandy.

After three of these. I found the room would spin pleasantly, and everyone was much kinder, funnier and I became less shy and more talkative.

The parties were always hugely fun, and there was often an after-party that would end up in one of the many Indian or Lebanese restaurants that dotted the Edgware Road. Occasionally these would become rather loud.

After three or four of these parties I began to find my social footing, and discovered that interesting conversations only need a little bit of small-talk to get them going.

And I have been rather fond of Champagne cocktails ever since…..

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The magic of BYO

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One of the reasons we started the Domaine of the Bee Wine Club was to give us more excuses to crack open bottles of wine, and to share them with lovely people.

And for the second year, we have encouraged our members to have a fossick in their wine rack, and to pull out a bottle of something they wanted to share with us.

Last night, we gathered in the upstairs room at Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes, where we had negiotated a ‘zero corkage’ deal in return for filling the room for the evening. This meant that we had three fabulous courses for a mere £45 a head.

And what a great list of wines we enjoyed. Here is a list of what we drank, along with an approximate current retail price (where available)

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Hart of Gold 2010, Herefordshire, England – n/a, but would be around £35 a bottle
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2016, Western Australia – around £20 a bottle
Kumeu River ‘Hunting Hill’ Chardonnay 2015, New Zealand – around £30 per bottle
Taronja de Gris 2017, Roussillon, France – £30 – http://www.domaineofthebee.com
‘Our Fathers’ Shiraz 2014, Barossa, Australia – approx £25
Domaine of the Bee ‘Les Genoux’ 2011 – £45 a bottle – only a few bottles left
Rustenberg ‘Peter Barlow’ 2015, Stellenbosch, SA – around £40 per bottle
Quinta Vale D.Maria 2008, Porto, Portugal – around £40 per bottle
Cote Rotie 2009, M+S Ogier, Rhone, France – around £40 per bottle
Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2000 Vieux Telegraph – around £40 per bottle
Chateauneuf-du-Pape ‘Deux Freres’ 2005, Usseglio – around £90 a bottle
Chateau Suduiraut 2001, Sauternes – around £70 a bottle

Everyone who brought a bottle was asked to say a few words about why they liked it, and then pass it around the table.

All of these wines were made with love and care, by interesting people, with interesting stories to tell, and it is such a pleasure for a winemaker to see that their bottles are tasted with attention, discussed and dissected, and then slurped with abandon.

We’ll certainly do it again next year, and maybe will introduce another such session in the summer too – please come along to the next one, and if you are not yet a Wine Club member, it’s not too late to join!

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Making Mulled Wine – Justin’s secrets revealed….

I can’t understand why anyone would buy a pre-mixed mulled wine.

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Available from supermarkets at this time of year, they cost between £4-£6 a bottle for a lightly spiced, sweetened red wine of about 9% alcohol. They are frequently brewed up in Germany using Europe’s cheapest source of thin red wines, and then industrially flavoured with cloves, cinnamon, orange, and other Christmassy flavours. When hot, they taste thin and weedy and artificial. Waitrose’s version maybe better than most, but still……

Here’s two methods that will guarantee you a decent drop.

1. The quick and easy method with a pre-bought syrup

– Buy a bottle of Mulled Wine syrup, or sachets of mulled wine spices
– Buy an inexpensive red, with a soft generous flavour, I find simple Cotes du Rhone a very reliable bet, or any other red that is ripe and not too tannic. If you are a millionaire, and you want to use Domaine of the Bee, that is fine by me, but it might be a bit of a waste….
(I sometimes use up red wine that has been sitting around open for a few days, as mulled wine is a bit more forgiving if the wine has become a little tired.)
– heat the wine in the saucepan with the recommended amount of syrup – or with the infusion of mulled wine spices steeping in the wine.
– add sugar or honey to taste
slice an orange into quarter slices and float in the wine
– be careful not to boil
– serve in heat-proof glasses when piping hot.

2. The slower and more complicated (but better) method by making your own syrup (serves 24-36)

Making the syrup

– boil 3-4 litres of water, and dissolve 1 kg of sugar
– when the sugar has melted, add 3-4 sliced oranges (you can also collect orange peel over 2-3 days before, and add this too)
– add 20-30 cloves, and 2-3 cinnamon sticks, snapped into 3-4 pieces
– add 5-6 star anise
– other spices can be added if you like the flavours – nutmeg and allspice are good
– allow the syrup to boil until it has reduced to half the original volume
– allow the syrup to cool a little, strain into jugs, or bottles (especially if you want to keep the syrup for a few days.

Mulling the wine

– Depending on how many guests you have, use 1 part syrup to 4 parts wine. (So 3 bottles of syrup + 12 bottles of wine will give you enough wine to serve 30-36 people)
– heat the wine (see method 1) and syrup together in a saucepan. (Don’t use all of the wine and syrup at the beginning, but brew it in batches as needed).
– float some freshly cut orange slices in the warming wine
stud a couple of small oranges with 12-20 cloves and float in the wine
– add port of brandy to taste (no more than half a bottle for 4-5 bottles of mulled wine)
– Counterbalance the extra alcohol of the brandy by adding some good quality apple juice (I find this works better than orange juice)
– balance the alcohol and fruit juice to suit your palate, and whether or not you want raucous singing and dancing on the tables
– ladle into jugs so that you can top up your guests glasses without needing to have them them cluster around the mulling pot
when you need to brew up some more, just add some more syrup and some more wine, and start again.
– if you have syrup left over, you can use it on another occasion, or even keep it for another year.

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Have a wonderful time – mince pies and Christmas carols optional…..

STOP PRESS – we’ll be serving some mulled wine and mince pies on Saturday 15th December at 44 Hertford Avenue if you stop by to buy some last minute Christmas presents, between 4-7pm.

Maybe see you then!

Libation – a poured offering….

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The day before I left Maury to come back to London, I went to visit our Carignan vineyard at La Roque, with some kind of idea in my head of saying thank you to the vines.

They had produced so much fruit this year, and they are over 80 years old, yet they produced almost as many grapes as a 20 year old vine. And such delicious grapes!

In the car, I had a box of sample bottles with the dregs of the previous year’s wine that I had been tasting to decide on the 2016 Domaine of the Bee blend. I had planned to put what remained back in the barrels I had taken them from, but I decided, on the spur of the moment, to offer a libation to our vines. To return to their soil a small amount of the wine that these old fellows had produced.

As I stood there at the top of the vineyard surveying this hectare of maybe 4,000 wonderful old Carignan vines, it occurred to me that we have many more vines than customers. In any one year, we might sell 5,000 bottles of wine to around 500 people, but we have around 15,000 vines – that’s about 30 vines for each of you.

So, as I poured a few dribbles from each bottle, each on a different vine, I said ‘Thank You’ from you, as well as from me.

I felt that you and our vines are connected somehow. And that you might think of your 30 vines, the next time you drink a mouthful of Bee.

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Harvest report – week 1

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If you’ve been keeping an eye on such things, you may know that this is one of the earliest vintages ever, all over Europe.

And in the spring, partly because of the early bud-break, the hard frosts that struck in April did serious damage to the nascent grape bunches, decimating crops from Bordeaux to Burgundy (and Chablis and Champagne were particularly badly hit).

The frosts even reached the Roussillon.

Until now, I have confidently claimed that ‘the only vineyard problem that we DON’T have is frost!’, but we had a close shave this year. A few vineyards only a few kilometres away, those low-lying plots in frost pockets, were badly hit. But our hillside vines were spared (as, to be honest, were the vast majority of other vineyards in this hottest and driest part of France).

But early – yes – this is a pretty early vintage. So much so, that almost all of our neighbours have already finished picking. Some vines (early-ripening whites) were ready to harvest in July, and many vignerons had to curtail their ‘vacances’ and rush home to pick their grapes.

Our vines grow in the foothills of the valleys that wind up towards the Pyrenees. The higher altitude and slightly higher rainfall ensure that our grapes ripen much later, often not until mid October. And we like to leave our grapes as late as possible, because we prefer the flavours and the concentration that we get from really ripe grapes, and we want to avoid any green, bitter tannins. So we don’t pick on the analysis of sugar levels (although we keep an eye on sugars and acids), but on FLAVOUR.

It has been an interesting summer, with periods of extreme heat, and strong ‘tramontane’ wines, alternating with quite prolonged periods of rain. This means that the bunches are plentiful, and the grapes are quite large.

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When it rains, the vines soak up the water through their roots, and pump it into the grapes, swelling them up, and diluting the sugar, flavour and acidity. And then the sun comes out, the wind blows, and the grapes shrink and concentrate again.

So, ripeness has come 2-3 weeks earlier than normal, and we have been waiting for last Monday’s rain to dry off, and re-concentrate those flavours.

On Friday, we started on the Carignan at our lovely La Roque vineyard. A bright and warm morning dawned, and around 20 pickers (most living in Perpignan, many of Spanish of Moroccan origin) got stuck in.

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The fruit was in very good condition, and we’d already been through and removed many of the ‘grapillons’ (small, second set bunches), so there wasn’t much need to select, and this makes picking much quicker. Less than 2 hours later, we has filled the 145 crates that we had brought with us, (which we calculated was enough to fill the 4 barrels that we had prepared).

We knew there were a lot of grapes on this block – we were expecting over 3 tonnes – but when we’d filled our crates, we hadn’t even got half-way through the block. So we may have as many as 4 tonnes from one hectare. We leave the second half of the block until Monday.

One sad casualty of the tractor slipping as it rounded a corner with a heavy trailer in tow – two of our lovely 80-year-old vines were crushed. This is therefore their last ever vintage after over 80 years of loyal service. Thanks old fellas. Rest in Peace.

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Genouxflecting among the Cathars

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Last Thursday, we went in search of some glimpses of the Cathars – the mystical sect that flourished in the Languedoc from the 11th century to the mid thirteenth century.

The Cathars believed in a direct relationship with God, without the intervention of a priest, they refused to believe that the bread of the eucharist was the actual body of Christ, and rather than the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, they believed in a pure and good God of Heaven, and an earthly and sinful God of the World (Rex Mundi). They believed in re-incarnation and are sometimes known as the Buddhists of the Languedoc

Not surprisingly, the powers that be of the Catholic Church didn’t really approve, and in 1208, sent the Albigensian Crusade, led by Simon de Montfort among others to crush the heretics.

Over the next thirty-five years, adherents to the Cathar faith were persecuted and hunted down, and one of the final acts was the seige of Montsegur in 1244, where 200 believers were offered salvation if they recanted, but chose instead to walk on to the funeral pyre where they were burned alive. Nice.

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We visited the most dramatic of the ‘Cathar castles’ – Chateau de Queribus – which keeps an eye above the Maury valley and the approaches from the south from a craggy notch in the mountains that separate the Corbieres from the Roussillon. And we took along a bottle of Les Genoux as a homage to the Cathars.

No blood was spilt on this visit. Only a few drops of red wine stained the ancient stones.

But the hand of the Cathars haunted us (and our photos)

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Pressing matters

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After the frantic rush of harvest time, and the heady days of fermentation, pressing time is a rather more sober and measured affair.

But when and how to press is very important.

Colour and tannins are extracted from the skins of the grapes during the fermentation, and as the alcohol goes up, it acts as a potent solvent for some of the more bitter element sometimes found in the skins and pips of imperfectly ripe grapes.

In some years, we might decide to press right at the end of the fermentation. When our grapes are not fully ripe, pressing straight away (before the alcohol extracts too much greenness) makes a lot of sense.

But when, as this year, the skins are thick and chewy, but completely ripe, and the pips are nutty and woody, and not at all green, a longer maceration can enhance the texture and richness of the flavours extracted.

So most of our barrels have been sitting for a full 3 weeks (some even as many as 5 weeks) with the grapes immersed in the wine, with a floating dish of sulphur and a clingfilm wrap keeping away the fruit-flies.

But now, after nearly a month of calm, the time has come to press.

A 500L barrel, or ‘demi-muid’ can contain 450 Kg of grapes (you could fit in more, but it would risk overflowing when the cap gets pushed up by the carbon dioxide).

When you pump away the wine, and leave behind the skins, you can usually pump out 220-250 Litres of wine.

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And if you press the remaining wet skins, you can extract another 60-90 litres of wine.

Which is a lot. And you can’t get at it without a good press. Put it into a muslin bag, and you’d be able to extract 25-30 litres. A small basket press should get you up to 50-60 litres, but a good bladder press should enable a carefully controlled pressing at a very even pressure, which will give you as much chance of extracting all of the wine as possible. And the skins that come out (or ‘marc’) are almost dry to the touch.

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So, out comes the spade, and the slippery skins slide down the stainless steel slope and into the press. Alliterations unintended.

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And three barrel’s worth of skins only amounts to 5-600Kg of skins which doesn’t go a very long way towards filling a 3 Tonne press…..!

We have now finished all of our pressing, and we’ll let each barrel settle, so as to allow the heavy yeast sediment to fall to the bottom, before we rack each wine into a new barrel, top up, and seal up for the next few months.