Les 5 du Vin

5 journalistes parlent du vin

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Scotland’s larder fills up as does its drinks cabinet

View from the Badachro Inn looking towards Gairloch  

Ever since 2011 we have been spending all or a substantial part of August in Scotland. Mainly in Newtonmore in the Cairngorms but always with a week away on the road every year. This has taken us to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, John O’Groats and the islands of Skye, Mull and Islay.

The scenery, of course, particularly on the West Coast, is very often spectacularly breathtaking. The weather can either be wonderfully magical lighting up the landscape, in particular long views over ranges of mountains or chains of islands stretching out into the far distance. It can also be spectacularly wild and foul – high winds and long periods of rain. The 60 hours of rain on Islay last year will remain etched on my memory for many years to come.

I have posted on a number of occasions about the renaissance of Scottish food. It is now possible to eat well widely in Scotland with the country’s produce celebrated whether it is from the sea or the land. It is not just at luxury establishments like Fonab Castle, where we were for a couple of nights last week and where you would expect to eat well, but in many other more modest establishments that serve excellent food.

On a day trip to Orkney last Friday we each enjoyed a very tasty bowl of seafood chowder  at the Ferry Inn at Stromness that included a very generous portion of smoked haddock. This chowder was a creamier version Cullen Skink, a traditional hearty Scottish soup, made with smoked haddock and potato. It is almost a meal in itself and certainly ideal for a light lunch.

Lentil soup is another popular and traditional dish and again a good lunchtime option. We stopped for a Sunday lunchtime snack at Balnakeil near Durness, the small town on Scotland’s north west coast and closest to Cape Wrath. Balnakeil was once a military establishment but has now become a craft village. We had an excellent lentil soup at The Whale Tale, a new and very welcoming café that only opened in April of this year. This came with good bread, which is another sign of the change. Increasingly cafés and restaurants either make their own bread or source good locally made bread. Cheese scones, which can be delicious, are also often served with soup.

Fish and chips remains a popular option – either cod or haddock. We have had some delicious examples on our current tour around the north of Scotland following the North 500, the now popular 500 mile round trip around the northern mainland of Scotland that starts and finishes in Inverness. Most visitors go clockwise round the circuit, while we opted to go round anti-clockwise so didn’t have to follow too many camper vans. Examples include a very fresh fish fried while we waited in a friendly chippy in Thurso and very good haddock at the Seaview Hotel at John O’Groats.

Most of our 2017 stay was at in one of the well-equipped cabins at Natural Retreats at John O’Groats. Our friend and frequent commentator, Luc Charlier, will be interested to know that there is good cycling to be had up here on mainly very quiet roads. On Sunday, however, we moved on westwards to Gairloch going along the stunning north and then down the north west coast.

Easan Beag

Here we stayed at Easan Beag, an excellent bed and breakfast run by Louise and George Mackenzie. They were very welcoming, the accommodation very comfortable and reasonably priced. Easan Beag is very certainly recommended if staying at this attractive bay resort.

That night we ate well at the Badachro Inn, just across the bay from our accommodation but a nine-mile drive around the bay to get to the inn. However, It was worth the journey – yet another example of the plenitude of good places to eat now in Scotland.  

Starter: Loch Fyne smoked mussels 

Starter: duo of salmon – hot smoked and smoked

 Fillets of sea bass

Roasted cod

List of special dishes

Wine list with a selection from around the world 

It is interesting to see that this renaissance of Scottish food not only celebrates the wonderful seafood from around the Scottish coast as well as the fine beef and lamb but traditional dishes such as haggis and black pudding are treated with respect and often given a new treatment. Deep fried Mars Bars, however, remains out in the cold.

As well as its interesting wine list Badachro distills its own artisan gin, which is sold in the inn. This is another facet of the revival of interest food and drink in Scotland with gin and beer leading the charge.  Distilling gin and brewing beer is increasingly common Scotland as it is the rest of the UK. At the Seaview Hotel in John O’Groats CRM took the Rock Rose, which is distilled at Dunnet Bay Distillery  a little further west down the coast. This distillery was commissioned on 21st August 2014. It also distils vodka and for both uses locally sourced botanticals.

Staying at John O’Groats the old fire station has been turned into a brewery – John O’Groats Brewery. I enjoyed a couple of pints of their Duncansby, an attractively hoppy amber beer named after nearby Duncansby Head, the most north-eastern point of mainland Scotland.   

It is no wonder Scotland is attracting many visitors this year – those from mainland Europe benefitting from a very favourable exchange rate due to the idiocies of Brexit.







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Fonab Castle, Pitlochry – a pampered Highland stay

View-TayThe stunning view from the brasserie at Fonab

Entrance + Castle
Entrance to Fonab Castle


The glass fronted bar and brasserie with the castle behind

A glass of Don Fino Sherry from Sandeman in
the Fonab Bar to start the evening

We spent a great weekend at Fonab Castle on the outskirts of Pitlochry as my pre-birthday treat. Saturday night we were in Sandeman Room where we were expertly looked at after by James Payne, the maître d’hôtel at Fonab and responsible for the wine. I first met James back in the 1990s when he was at Pont de la Tour. From time to time sommeliers get a bad press for being arrogant. This certainly does not apply to James: he is a very good one  – very relaxed, very professional and knowledgeable and not at all intimidating. 

James Payne with the Sandeman 1982 Vintage Port 

Dinner in the Sandeman Room is a set menu – we also decided to go for the flight of recommended wines. We learned during dinner that we had the same table as the Scottish legend Tom Cannavan (Wine Pages).  

Tom Cannavan on a barrel throne in Chile 

The amuse bouche which included
some foie gras and roasted apricot


2016 Bone Dry, Van Buhl, Trocken, Pfalz (above and below)
Some grassy Sauvignon Blanc like – notes crisp acidity


Consommé – chicken, truffle and tarragon – being poured over the raivoli

Character Amontillado Sherry, Sandeman
James’ choice with the consommé

Scottish Salmon –
Confit of pink citrus – fennel – cucumber
There is almost always a dish that we forget to
photograph before we are halfway through the dish 

The 2014 Astolabe Chenin Blanc, Wrekin Vineyard, Marlborough (NZ)
was matched with the salmon. When t
asted on its own the Chenin has a delicately
attractive character with interesting floral notes.
Unfortunately the sweetness in the salmon as well as the cucumber overpowered
this Chenin – hiding the fruit while accentuating the acidity

Perthshire Lamb – Provençal vegetables – basil – artichokes  

2009 Ampodium, Côte Rotie, Domaine Rostaing. James kindly added this into our flight
Lovely, sensuous and complex Côte Rotie. Kept under Coravin and first broached
some five weeks ago and still very good. Was a great match with the rare filet of lamb

2014 Vinha Grande, Douro. Still youthful and quite tannic but came into
its own with the slow cooked lamb 

Pre-dessert – this fruit based  pre-dessert was a fine foil for the
2015 Vouvray Moelleux 
from Vigneau Chevreau (below)

Panna Cotta – lavender – textures of strawberry

The Panna Cotta needed something richer and
more powerful than the Vouvray, which the
2015 Kika Noble late harvest Chenin Blanc
from Miles Mossop Wines in Stellenbosch

Birthday chocs

All in all this was an excellent and very enjoyable meal – the high point of a great weekend stay at Fonab Castle, a wonderful place for a pampered few days away.


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2016 Vignes, Vins Randos + 53 YO Viña Sol

It is that time of year again – Vignes, Vins, Randos 2016 is on this coming weekend Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th September. Full details here

Unfortunately I have never been in the Loire recently in time for Vignes, Vins, Randos, which is a pity as I have friends who speak highly of these events. Instead I tend to come to the Loire a week or so later for the harvest.  


This year’s Randos from West to East:
Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine La Haye-Fouassière
Coteaux d’Ancenis
Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru/Coteaux du Layon 1er Cru Chaume
Anjou Villages Brissac
Coteaux de l’Aubance
Saumur Brut Fines Bulles
Saumur Champigny
Touraine Azay-le-Rideaux
Jasnières/Coteaux du Loir 


53 Year Old – Viña Sol

IMG_2105Loch Garry, Scotland

When it is not raining the Scottish Highlands are magnificent. We have spent all of August in Newtonmore, apart from a Noah’s ark expedition to saturated Islay. There is, however, one drawback here – a limited selection of wine available in the local villages with the Co-op supermarket being the nearest source.


This isn’t entirely a drawback as it is an opportunity to try wines that we don’t often drink. The 2015 Viña Sol from Torres is a prime example. We have enjoyed several bottles of this Torres classic that was launched in 1962, so the 2015 is the 53rd vintage. Made from a blend of Parallada and Granacha Blanca, the 15 is an attractive combination of ripe fruit with clean fresh finish at 11.5% Very well made the Viña Sol is particularly good value at its current co-op price of £4.99 – £2 off the listed price.


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Eating well in Scotland: Islay & Highlands

 The Harbour Inn, Bowmore

I have posted in previous summers on how eating out in Scotland has improved enormously over the past 20 years or so. The quality of Scottish ingredients is now celebrated whether is fish and shellfish, meat or game. Little wonder that the Highlands of Scotland are now attracting discerning visitors from many European countries.

Here are reports of four meals we have enjoyed while in Scotland over the past few weeks: two on Islay – The Harbour Inn and The Bridgend Hotel – and two in Newtonmore – The Letterbox and The Evening Flower.

The Harbour Inn, Bowmore, Islay 

One of the views from the restaurant 

On a Sunday evening we had a very enjoyable meal in The Harbour Inn, Bowmore. We ate in the section that looks out over the harbour and the bay. CRM and I shared a tasty slate of antipasto and there was plenty there for two as a starter. CRM and her mum then chose the pan fried hake – a generous filet that was perfectly cooked. You could tell without tasting that the fish was just right as the milky flakes glistened.

I went for the chargrilled squid and rabbit confit paella, which was a flavoursome and interesting variation on a traditional paella.

Without studying the wine list in detail we went for a 2015 Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, Vieilles Vignes sur lie from Château du Poyet in La Chapelle Heulin and which belongs to the Bonneau family. It had some attractive weight from the 2015 vintage but good refreshing acidity without being sharp. Drinking well now it would be no problem keeping this for another five years or more.

Happy to recommend The Harbour Inn – we would certainly go back.        

Antipasto – cooked and cru ham, salami, chicken, Kalamata olives and celeriac  

2015 Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine,
Vieilles Vignes, Château du Poyet 

Pan fried hake with mash potato, wilted spinach etc.

Paella of chargrilled squid and rabbit confit 


The Bridgend Hotel, Bridgend, Islay

The Bridgend Hotel, Bridgend, Islay

The weather on Islay is truly execrable. Fortunately, there are some good places to eat. On a Wednesday evening we tried the Bridgend Hotel and were very favourably impressed starting with the warm welcome. We were settled in Strath Lounge for pre-dinner drinks and a look at the menu featuring locally sourced ingredients 

The dining room is attractively airy and the public areas of the hotel are well appointed as are doubtless the bedrooms. 

We were very happy with our menu choices. Only the wine list could do with improvement – no vintages, a rather limited choice and it would be good to see some more interesting wines included. The list plays safe. It would be nice to see more ambition to match the quality of the food. In contrast they have a comprehensive list of local whiskies.


 Langoustine salad with garlic mayonnaise 

Warm langoustine tails with herb butter

2014 38 Parcelles, Ventoux, Famile Quiot
Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Syrah
– attractive soft, spicy fruit, quite light colour

Grilled lemon sole with asparagus and fennel

Lamb cutlet and loin with pea mash, new potatoes 

Medallions of venison with beetroot,
parsnip crisps, potato croquettes
– the venison was nicely pink just as I had ordered 

Sliced pear, almond tart with honey ice cream 

Chocolate crème brulée with roasted marshmallows

The Letterbox, Newtonmore

The Letterbox, Main Street, Newtonmore 

Last week we had a very good return visit to The Letterbox Restaurant in Newtonmore. The restaurant opened in 2010.  

It was encouraging to see that it was busy. We started with a glass of South African Chenin Blanc while we considered our choices. Three of us opted for the two course evening menu – starter and main course – for £16.95.  

First courses: 

I chose the tasty mackerel paté, while the others went for the chicken mousse – also tasty, well made and generous portions.       

Mackerel paté with a salad and oak cakes 

Apricot, asparagus and chicken mousse 

Main courses: 

Our three choices of main courses 



 Plaice fillets in a cream sauce with samphire,
carrots and new potatoes
– off the a la carte specials menu

A rich and very good venison stew with haggis dumplings

Meat balls with tagliatelle: another rich and copious dish

 2014 Fleurie, Cru du Beaujolais, Patrick Chodot,
Fleurie from a good vintage
which partnered even the rich dishes well

Profiteroles with a cream filling

Créme Brulée with apricot and vanilla

We have had several meals at The Letterbox and have always been impressed, so am happy to recommend this restaurant. I do wonder, however, at the wide range of dishes offered in a restaurant that has space for a maximum of just over 30 covers. On the set dinner menu there are five choices of starter and main course. The à la carte menu has a big choice and then there is a specials board with five starters and five mains. It is difficult to see how this makes economic sense. 

The Evening Flower


On Saturday evening we celebrated the eve of my birthday at The Evening Flower – the café in Newtonmore that is The Wild Flour during the day. The Evening Flower runs on Friday and Saturday and is really excellent with the great advantage that you can bring your own wine, beer etc.

We were a party of 16 – family and friends. Our wine choices were not fancy but instead assured value. Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava as the celebratory apéro.    


First courses: 

Excellent seared Orkney king scallops,
asparagus, garlic butter & capers 

Seared wood pigeon breast, Stornaway black pudding,
raspberry & balsamic dressing, pine nuts

Goats’ cheese, toasted walnuts, red onion marmalade

   2014 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie,
Domaine de la Tourmaline, Gadais Père et fils


Lamb cutlets, creamy rosemary mash, mint & balsamic sauce

Sage, apricot & garlic pork chop,
apple & fennel seed sauce, new potatoes

Ribeye steak, roast tomato, flat mushroom, new potaoes

pea shoots, red wine & caramelised onion gravy

2015 Combe aux Jacques, Beaujolais Villages

Louis Jadot – delicious and enough concentration
and structure for the beef



Chocolate and walnut torte

Vanilla crème brulée with strawberries 

Celebratory chocolate brownie with candles
and a scoop of chocolate ice cream 

Not sure that he asked permission but was happy to share my birthday with Usain Bolt…..



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Scotland’s revolting food!!


View across from Applecross to Skye and the Cuillins

Before I get run through by a dirk by an irate Highlander, I’m talking about Scotland’s food revolution that has transformed eating out here. It is, of course, still possible to find disgusting food but then so it is in all countries. Now, for instance, you can eat as well on the West Coast as you can in London.

 Although there have long been a few scattered pockets of excellence like the long running Peat Inn thirty years ago the general offer was pretty dire despite Scotland having some marvellous raw ingredients. There’s Scottish beef and venison and wonderful fish and shellfish on the West Coast. This is a marine treasure trove for scallops (Coquilles Saint- Jacques), langoutine, crab and other shellfish also plenty of fish. In the past much of this was exported to the Continent as there was little local demand. Now that has changed and many small restaurants on the West Coast offer wonderfully fresh hand-dived scallops

 I remember being on the Isle of Skye over 30 years ago and being astonished that it was impossible to find a place to eat in the early evening because everywhere was closed by 5.30pm.

Over the last three years we have gone on a week’s tour in picturesque parts of Scotland with Carole’s mum. In 2011 we explored the Outer Hebrides – eating well as we made our way north through the islands. Last year we went to Orkney where the food overall was competent rather than exciting as it had been in the Hebrides. This year we are exploring the west coast as well as spending four nights at John O’Groats. We set off on Saturday and have had some great food.


Applecross Inn

Saturday lunchtime we had a great lunch at the Applecross Inn after an amazing drive over the hills up a tiny narrow road. From Applecross there is a stunning view across to the island of Skye and the Cuillin mountain range. We had some excellent and wonderfully fresh scallops and local crab.

After Applecross we headed up along the coast – again with stunning views – to Gairloch. On Sunday we discovered the surprising and funky Melvaig Inn, which has many associations with the music of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Featuring various album covers plus an Elvis Presley clock along with many hundreds of LPs all carefully filed. I’m sure the Melvaig Café is a place that the majority of Les 5 would love. My only doubt is whether it would have enough resonance for young Lalau.


Elvis: Separate Ways


The exhausted pianist attempting to read the music!!


The Stones first album and Ricky Nelson

On Sunday night we were surprised and delighted by a brilliant meal at Na Mara in Gairloch. This restaurant has been open for four years. The cooking is wonderful assured and precise. I started with a very generous portion of Skye mussels perfectly cooked in a very flavoursome tomato and chilli flavoured broth. My main course was venison cooked decidedly pink accompanied by a lovely slice of black pudding. Scottish black pudding is can be excellent but quite different from the French as it includes oatmeal.  I bowed out here but Carole and her mum then shared a perfect stickly toffee pudding. With it we drank a bottle of Nico, a simple but good value Portuguese red from Setúbal.

Notbeen eatenFirst

Practical warning in the WC@Melvaig


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Some Highland Loires


Glen Tromie and Gaick – deep in the remote Highlands of Scotland

Although we are spending the summer in the Highlands of Scotland, we are still enjoying some good Loire bottles that we brought up from London with us. We are getting in plenty of cycling, which naturally is provoking a considerable thirst!

First up: 2007 Excelsior Domaine Pierre Luneau Papin Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine
This long aged Muscadet – 30 months on its lees – is brilliantly clean, fresh with lovely length of flavor but good weight, too, which comes from its long aging. Works well as an aperitif but was even better with some simply fried and very fresh filets of sea bass. Although not yet officially one of the new Muscadet Crus Communaux this is very much in that style with the finesse and additional complexity that is a hallmark of these wines.

Crémant de Loire Terra Laura
2009 Cuvée Claude de France, Cour-Cheverny, Domaine de Montcy
Businesswoman Laura Semeria took over the 20 hectare now organic Domaine de Montcy in 2007. In the appellations of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny it lies to the south-west of the Château and town of Cheverny. Unfortunately Laura has been hit by Spring frosts in both 2012 and 2013.

Two wines here from Laura. The Crémant is 100% Chardonnay in a very clean, vibrant, lemony style making a good wake up aperitif.  The 2009 Cuvée Claude de France is naturally 100% Romorantin in a delicate moelleux style. Lightly sweet it is best paired with blue cheese or creamy dishes. Laura recommends it with a rhubarb or cherry tart – anything sweeter would overpower it. Ideally I would have cellared the Claude de France for at least another couple of years to gain additional complexity.

2010 Les Blancs Manteaux, Chinon, Domaine de la Noblaie
Jérôme Billard is one of the most promising of the younger generation of Chinon producers. After working at Pétrus and then Dominus in Napa as well as a spell in New Zealand, he returned to the family estate in 2003. Noblaie now has 24 hectares of vines and last year Jérôme invested in a new winery – previously they worked in very cramped conditions.

Les Blancs Manteaux comes from 60 year-old vines planted on a limestone slope. Ideally the 2010 should be squirreled away for at least another two years to fulfil its potential. However, this dark wine currently has deliciously soft black fruit, supple tannins.


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I want to go to Scotland

A bon entendeur, salut! Il y a belle lurette que je souhaite visiter l’Ecosse, la Speyside, Islay, Jura, les Highlands, en particulier, pour comprendre ce qui se cache derrière les grands whiskys de malt. De cet univers sensoriel assez mystérieux, j’ai eu naguère un tout petit aperçu, comme depuis ma caverne, lors d’une dégustation de quelques single malts utilisés en assemblage pour le Glenlivet et pour la Chivas Regal Centenary Edition. C’était il y a dix ans, au moins, mais j’en ai toujours un souvenir ému.

Ma conclusion provisoire étant: « ouahou, comment peut-il avoir autant de diversité dans ce genre de produits? Comment si peu d’un Jura, par exemple, peut-il marquer tant un assemblage? A quoi sont dues toutes ces notes fumées, ou ce miel, ou ces épices quasi-orientales, etc, etc. Quelle analogie peut-on trouver avec le vin, ou l’Armagnac, ou le Cognac? Il y a-t-il encore des artisans du whisky ou bien faut-il parler uniquement d’industrie?’


Sur la route du Ben Nevis (Photo Blisco)

Si je vous en parle aujourd’hui, c’est parce que je viens de tomber sur un petit communiqué émanant de la Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), qui proclame haut et fort que l’industrie du Scotch rapporte plus à la Grande-Bretagne que toute la finance de la City…

Je ne sais pas trop comment on calcule de genre de choses – d’ailleurs, il ne me viendrait pas à l’idée de comparer mon banquier et mon assureur à une bouteille de Bowmore, de Macallan ou de Glenmorangie… Leur compagnie ne m’offre pas le même agrément.

Mais ce n’est pas la première comparaison du genre: ainsi; il y a quelques années, notre excellente Association de la Presse du Vin (APV) avait établi que le vin rapportait plus qu’une vingtaine d’Airbus, ou quelque chose du genre.

Mais je disgresse: amis Ecossais, en 2013, j’espère bien réaliser ce vieux rêve, et votre jour sera le mien… Je sais par ailleurs que certains membres des 5 du Vin ne seraient pas contre l’idée de se joindre à moi; alors,  si vous souhaitez bénéficier d’un prix de groupe…

Si le voyage se fait, vous en profiterez, soyez-en sûrs…