International Wine Challenge

Earlier this month the Yorkshire Post’s wine writer Christine Austin invited readers to compete for a place as her apprentice at the prestigious International Wine Challenge.  We were delighted when Squidbeak’s wine writer Helen Scott, won the place. Now read on…


Christine Austin and Helen Scott


OK, so I think I know a bit about wine. In the past, I’ve got to the final of a couple of wine tasting competitions.

I’m also a wine nerd, and read wine columns and websites, including Christine Austin’s weekly page in the Yorkshire Post. Every year Christine, who is a panel chair for the world’s biggest wine competition, the International Wine Challenge, offers the chance to become her apprentice for a day. Could I dare to put my skills to the test in front of the wine professionals?

Reader, I won, and with thumping heart joined Christine to taste – and judge – over 90 wines. No sipping, just smelling and spitting and applying a range of marks to each wine. You then reveal your marks to the panel chair, taking it in turns to go first. Thankfully, Christine is not Sir Alan, taking apart his apprentices. Her skills and knowledge are impressive, and she’s firm. If there’s any doubt about a wine going through to the next stage, it’s tasted again. My marks held up, and I don’t think I was wildly out on any wine, but boy, did it show me how much more there is to learn.

An afternoon alongside Oz Clarke, one of the competition’s co-chairs (senior judges), confirmed this. Tannin in the wrong part of the mouth – a clumsy wine. Bubbles (in a still wine) at the side of the glass shows there’s still some yeast activity, not always a good thing. And so on.

What did we taste? Champagne, made with pinot noir grapes (yes please) and my personal nemesis was probably a flight of South American reds from Brazil and Mexico. Via Ozzie chardonnays, riojas and lesser known Italian whites. But all blind. The wines we put through will all be tasted again in the second round.

The winners, announced next month, will be entitled to have that little medal sticker on the bottle which persuades us to buy them. A lot at stake. And for me, as I now want to see if I can join the judging panels in my own right next year. Just go to pass a few wine exams first.


Squidbeak Dinner

So. Who would be mad enough to organize a pop up restaurant in a room above an art gallery in a tiny fishing village on the Yorkshire coast? And on two consecutive nights? We were. And did it work? Not half.

Our first Squidbeak dinners were held last weekend at the Staithes Gallery. Fulsome praise goes first to the amazing Lisa Chapman who somehow produced fabulous food* for 55 people from a domestic oven without throwing a single cheffy tantrum. Well almost. Her two unflappable co-workers Susie and Alison who made the room look lovely with white linen, tea lights and gleaming glasses are next in line for a round of applause followed closely by Al Milnes who owns the gallery and who somehow pulled the whole thing together with her customary charm and good humour.

You might well ask what Jill and I had to do with anything. Well we plied the unsuspecting diners with La Dolci Colline Prosecco and dusted down our waitressing skills under Susie and Alison’s expert tutelage and managed not to spill much at all. Not down a customer anyway. People came from far and wide; all sorts of folk, many of whom had never clapped eyes on us or one another before. The crowd included teachers, a photographer, a judge, a couple of café and B&B owners and Gus the musician from Baildon who just happened to be walking down the street in search of fish & chips and booked in on the spur of the moment. Nice one Gus, good to meet you.

Wines from Flourish and Prosper in Howden were from Chile: Montevista Reserve Viognier and a bio-dynamic Emeliana Reserva Pinot Noir. Even the coffee was served in mugs designed by resident Staithes artist, Rob Shaw, and the lovely people from Priorat Produce brought us a mighty bottle of their fab olive oil to raffle and generously distributed free samples to all. Thanks Tina and Neil.

There are few things more rewarding than witnessing a room full of happy eaters chatting away, glasses clinking, laughter rising. It was a blast and we can’t wait to do it all again 22/23 June and 28/29 September. Be there or be square.

*Yorkshire asparagus with hollandaise sauce went down a storm as did the shredded duck with honey and hoisin dressing. Lemon sole with herby butter was a winner and the slow cooked pork belly was just as good. There wasn’t a single portion of Lisa’s famous crème brulee with berry coulis left (grrr) so we had to content ourselves with a shared plate of chocolate roulade. It’s a tough job ..


York Wine Club

Jim Helsby & Terry Herbert of The Wine Club

We’ve long been fond of the York Beer and Wine Shop, a specialist shop tucked away off Fishergate that does what it says and more.

Jim Helsby is the man behind it and a bit of a York legend. There’s been his long-standing beer column in the York Press and he’s been running this precious little shop since 1985.

Today it  stocks 250 bottled beers from home and abroad with the likes of  Cropton’s ‘Monkman’s Slaughter’, Hambleton’s ‘Nightmare’ as well as scores of German and Belgian beers and Timothy Taylor’s on draught. Then there are ciders, both draught and bottled, and some of the loveliest well-cared for cheeses anywhere: Berkswell, Stinking Bishop, unpasteurised Brie de Meaux.

Wine, though, is a relatively new addition. An interesting selection, particularly strong on Spanish wines  that led to the collaboration in 1995 with wine merchant Terry Herbert and together they run The Wine Club.

Once a month they email you with the offer of one or two mixed cases of good value wines from growers you don’t find in supermarkets. You can collect or – within reason – they’ll deliver. Click here for this month’s offer. It’s a fair indication of the range, value and unfussy style of the club.

Terry will also organise a personal wine tasting for groups of 8-12 and every few months he organises wine tastings with supper. In April it was at Melton’s, on 11th July it is the Dawnay Arms at Newton on Ouse, for a tutored tasting of Langeudoc wines, a three course supper, plenty of wine, all for £35. Not surprisingly at such prices, these events are usually a sell-out so book now. We’ve booked our table, so watch this space, we’ll be reporting back.

Flourish & Prosper

Helen wrote about Flourish & Prosper earlier this year when owner Sean Welsh selected half a dozen autumn wines for us.  We were so taken with his selection, his wonderful shop in Howden and his wife Julie’s delicatessen, that they were our first port of call when we wanted some decent wine for our Squidbeak Dinner.

Sean will make a selection of wines to match the food at our dinners to be held over two weekends 11th & 12th May and 22nd and 23rd June. For more information and to book your place at the table, click here.

We’ll be writing more about Sean’s wine in the coming weeks. In the meantime have a look at Sean’s selection at Flourish & Prosper available by mail order.

Wine Champion

We know that we think Yorkshire folk are the best at everything, but we can now claim a world champion in our midst. Step forward Karen Hardwick, who has just been crowned the Wine Educator of the Year by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Karen, who runs the Wine Academy in York was the only individual through to the shortlist which contained big training and PR teams – and received her award from Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. In previous years the award has gone to outfits in the US and Australia.

Before she had her children, Karen worked her way up in the drinks industry and ended up working for Californian wine supremo Robert Mondavi, representing him all over the world. Doing a fund-raising wine tasting for her children’s playgroup launched her independent career as a wine trainer. It’s expanded to working with the trade, running public tastings and being involved in the York Food & Drink Festival (where Jill can confirm how enjoyable her tastings are).

Pupils of hers have gone on to become winemakers, work in top restaurants and in the retail sector. One waitress from Meltons Too in York joined Asda’s wine team after Karen’s training and is now one of the 10 most influential women in the wine trade.

The wine landscape  in Yorkshire has incredible breadth, according to Karen, with great independent merchants and restaurants with good lists. Anywhere which offers good champagne by the glass goes to the top of the class, and the lists at the Pipe and Glass, South Dalton, J Bakers in York, the Durham Ox in Crayke and Harvey Nicks in Leeds get Karen’s best ratings for the choice of wine without having to buy a bottle.

She’s passionate about wine but never poncey. You can join her for monthly tastings at Harvey Nichols, Leeds, Meltons Too in York and Chapters in Stokesley which are good fun and affordable. See her website for listings


Designing a Wine List

At Squidbeak we’re passionate about interesting restaurant wine lists, offering us good descriptions and tempting us to try something a little different – perhaps a notch up from the house wine.

But wine waiters can play their part too – few Yorkshire eateries have full time sommeliers – if they are confident and know about the wines they have on offer.

I was invited to join Simon Chant from Enotria as he introduced staff  to some new additions to the wine list at Salvos in Leeds. Although it was a training session, it was much more informal with a tasting and swapping of thoughts about the wines and what they would go with.

There were two wines from Campania, two from Calabria and two from Sicily – none of them household names but good drinking and great matches for regional Italian food. Simon is passionate about his job and passes on the sort of knowledge and stories which will help the waiters make suggestions if asked. In short he makes wine fun.

The staff were posed interesting questions like how do you sell a rose wine to a table of Yorkshire blokes and their girlfriends ( try suggesting the pale pink Planeta rose with a well designed label which doesn’t look girly) and what would you suggest if someone asks for a medium white (a Costadune Grillo Chardonnay, from Sicily which has gentle fruit flavours)

In preparation for one of the Salumeria’s Meet the Winemaker dinners, a pair of  unusual wines from Calabria were opened. It’s the often wild woolly and previously lawless (according to Simon!) heel of Italy and the wines come from a smallish producer called Librandi, who has vines planted in concentric rings like alien crop circles.

The white is made from Greco Bianco grapes and is fresh, spritzy and has a minerality which would go well as an aperitif, with fish or lighter pasta dishes. The red is made from the intriguingly named Galioppo grape and is also fresh, fruity (cherry and violets) spicy with enough guts to match spicy fish and meat dishes. They’ll be selling at about £5 more than the house wine – and you’d be getting character and flavour by the glass load.

If your appetite is whetted, winemaker Raffale Librandi will be presenting five of his wines, matched with a five course dinner at Salvos Salumeria on Thursday March 1st.

Other wine lists we like; Create in Leeds and Hummingbird Kitchen in Chapel Allerton have great lists put together by Latitude wines in Leeds.

If you know of anywhere with an interesting wine list, why not let us know and we’ll review it. You can post a message in the comment box below.





To indy Leeds wine merchant Latitude’s special fine wine and aged liquor tasting where owner Chris Hill had persuaded his distributors to show a stellar collection of their special bottles.

With nothing under a tenner  (and some bottles with stratospheric price tags) Chris’s promise that there wasn’t a duff bottle on display proved right.
What it also reinforced is that personal taste is the most important factor when you choose what to drink.

Here then are my personal favourites which I’d happily spend the money on, or be delighted if they turned up in my Christmas stocking.

Yealands Estate in New Zealand claims to be a “green wine” business with sustainable large scale premium wine production. Its vineyards are in territory with tough growing conditions and lower yields, concentrating the flavours.

Their Sauvignon Blanc certainly fits that bill, leaping out of the glass and grabbing you by the throat. It’s bursting with fresh, zingy elderflower perfume and doesn’t disappoint when you taste but it’s not as aggressive as the nose suggests. It delivers layers of flavour, which are elegant and have a delicious length. At £10.99 it’s competitively priced within its quality bracket.

The sister Pinot Noir also delivers on fruit and the slightly gamey quality of good cool country pinots. It comes in at £12.99.

The Pieropan Estate, which grow wines in the Veneto region of Northern Italy,has a similar philosophy of smaller yields bringing better flavours. They play a Russian roulette by leaving their grapes to the last possible moment before harvesting, risking rain and cold damage. Their 2008 La Rocca Soave then, is quite unlike any Soave I’ve tasted before, and combines apple fruits with an almond undercurrent, a huge but refined mouthful with a richness not normally achievable with the Garganega grape variety.

After the tasting, I discovered that this wine had won the Best Italian White gong in the recent International Wine Challenge. At £22.50, it’s a special occasion wine, but I’d justify it by staying in and matching it with a home cooked mushroom risotto for the same price as a quick pizza and plonk out.

The same estate also produces a desert wine, made with grapes harvested and left to dry naturally on bamboo mats, before being turned into a sweety underscored with lime flavoured  acidity so it’s never cloying. Just like liquid lemon meringue pie, said my Plus One. Quite. One to sip after dinner and savour every drop. Pieropan Le Colombare Recioto di Soave. £23.99 for 50cl.

As a finale, Chris suggested trying the rums from Diplomatico, which produces a premium quality liquor in Venezuela. Forget Navy rum, this is a serious product at a serious price. Their Ambassador is aged for 12 years, and then transferred into Pedro Ximenez (Spain’s sweet wine) casks for a further two years, bringing a sweetness and lightness. I’m no expert but my Plus One was ecstatic – so he should be at £195 a bottle! If you want to trade down then the Reserva and Reserva Exclusiva from the same house both come highly recommended at a more approachable price level of £27.50 and £39.99.

Maturi & Sons

To Peter Maturi & Sons, Leeds’ premier cutlers and cookstore in Vicar Lane, for one of their occasional evening showcases.  I’ve used Maturi’s for years for pots and pans. It’s a Leeds institution going back to 1899 when the first Peter Maturi, one of 25 (!) children,  started up with a barrow and it grew into the superior shop it is today. Probably, Yorkshire’s finest.

Anyway I’d never been to one of these events before – you need to be on their mailing list, which I now am – and it made for a pleasant and instructive hour. There was Barbara Govan, Manager of The Cooking School at Dean Clough, Halifax  with her new programme of  courses which included the intriguing offer of ‘Two In A Bed with Christa Ackroyd’ for £75. Just to be clear, it was a talk-in for fledgling B & B owners of which La Ackroyd is one.

There was Chris Hill of Latitude, the indy wine merchant based in The Calls, who produced a selection of Riedel glasses to illustrate why you want to serve Sauvignon Blanc in smaller diameter glasses than Chardonnay. He had the happy knack of talking sense to both the experts and the amateurs in his audience. He was also one of the founders of the Arts Cafe in The Calls for which more respect.

Then there was Simon Chappelow from Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food who’d popped up the road from his pitch in Kirkgate Market and nattered away as engagingly as Jamie himself while lashing up a delicious side plate of stir fry. A welcome antidote to the pile it high/sell it cheap ethic which permeates so many of the stalls of Leeds’ supposedly great market.

Softened up by Latitude’s wine tasting and a shot of their rum punch, and impressed by Jamie’s man with a pan, I parted with £39.99 for a Green Frying Pan which I’m hoping will be the best, most durable non-stick pan I’ve ever owned. So far, so very good. [Jill]

Next event: 10th November ‘The Art of the Canape’ a two hour masterclass with executive chef Matthew Benson-Smith from the Cooking School, Dean Clough. Tickets £10
84-86 Vicar Lane, Leeds LS1 7JH T: 0113 245 3887

Remote Wine Tasting

How much of a wine’s character sticks in the memory – smells, tastes, colours, overall impression?

Well, this week I learned the hard way.

I was due to host an in-house introduction to wine tasting for staff at at The Cooking School at Dean Clough in Halifax. But a delayed flight back from Sicily (where I had been filming the harvest at Planeta, of which more later) and the parking angels helpfully losing my car, and then when they found it, discovering it had a flat battery, conspired against me getting there.

All The Cooking School staff plus the team from the Focus on Food Cooking Buses – 20 in all – were waiting expectantly.

What to do?  Barbara Govan, The Cooking School Business Manager offered to step in, but she didn’t have my tasting notes. We’d already agreed we would ask the staff to come up with three words to describe how the wines came across to them. So driving up the M11, I had to rack my brains and remember, without the benefit of seeing, sniffing and sipping, what my three words would be and relay these to Barbara by mobile phone.

Well, here’s what I came up with from memory on the drive back, albeit slightly more than three words.

Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference South African Chenin Blanc: Tropical fruits, golden, slight hint of sweetness, dry finish.

Tesco Finest Soave (Italy): Fruity with bitter almond twist, elegant, pale.

Tesco Finest Argentinian Malbec: fruity with tastes of blackberry, slightly leathery, soft.

Tesco Finest Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, Le Francese (Italy): Warm, spicy, hint of vanilla and cherry fruits.

Apparently I got the colour of the Soave wrong – this version is well made and was more golden than the Chenin Blanc when they were side by side. But otherwise the descriptions tallied, with one of the wine tasters actually volunteering leather for the Malbec, which proved the evening’s favourite wine.

Great audience apparently, so sorry I missed you!

So, winetasters, wine you enjoy is, above all, memorable!

What I’m Drinking Now

Marks and Spencer has just won two awards for its enterprising wine lists – the Decanter magazine Supermarket of the Year and the Innovator of the Year award at the International Wine Challenge.

Regular readers will know that Squidbeak is always up for unusual, characteristic wines, so M&S’s foray into wines from the Eastern Med is right up our street.

Top picks of their fascinating range which takes in Greece, Turkey, Croatia Lebanon and Israel are all on offer at via their website and there’s a 20 per cent discount if you buy two sets of six. The offer brings the bottle price of most down to around £6.50, which is my book is a bargain for wines of this quality.

Here’s my pick (so far) of the bunch.

Lefkos Moschofilero Peloponnese, 2011: This is bone dry, fragrant, light and Greek wine making at the top of its game. Forget about old, overoaked whites which used to dominate the scene. This little beauty jumps out of the glass with its slightly floral aromas and zesty taste. One for an aperitif, or it also cuts through Mediterranean tapas.

Cadet de Ka, Lebanon, 2008: This is made from Bordeaux grape varieties in the Bekaa Valley, much like the better known and lauded Chateau Musar. It has complex cedar, cherries and spice flavours, with a hint of vanilla from the oak ageing. Its soft and drinking now and is an enjoyable and approachable introduction to the style. Its sits nicely with chargrilled lamb, or North African inspired dishes.

Chateau Ksara, Clos St Alphonse, Lebanon, 2009: From the same region as the Cadet de Ka, but a very different style. This one’s got a dollop of Syrah as well as the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Franc which has made for a racy, raspberry driven, spicy little number with an earthy undertone of truffles. Lighter than the Ka, this one’s a match for Autumnal dishes, particularly game and wild mushrooms.

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