Winter Wine Choice 2015

Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso, Torre del Falasco 2012 – DOC

Grapes-growing-in-Valpolicella-regionFollowing an unforgettable period of work experience on the shores of Lake Garda, Italy I became naturally familiar with the local customs, cuisine and wine. Of the latter, I guess the customary choice would be a Bardolino house wine, while a Valpolicella seemed to be a stage higher! The recommended wine belongs to a viticultural zone in the provence of Verona, east of Lake Garda. The hilly agricultural terrain is also home to a famous marble-quarrying industry but is most famous for wine growing. Valpolicella ranks just behind Chianti in total DOC (Demominazione di Origine Controllata) wine production. If I remember correctly, a Ripasso wine was chosen to accompany a rich Pasta dish or sometimes a sweet course and as I taste this wine whilst writing I can see why this choice was made. Quite splendid accompanying my wife Alison’s Genoa Cake!

In the late 20th Century a new style of wine known as Ripasso emerged in this region. It was created by taking the left-over grape skins and seeds from fermented Amarone for the second fermentation. In short, 90% Corvina and 10% Rondinella grapes are harvested from the steeply terraced hillsides and brought to the winery. They are de-stemmed, crushed and fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks where maceration will last for 10 days. A second fermentation takes place on the skins (or “pomace”) of Amarone and the wine will remain in large oak barrels until bottling. What is all this about? The Ripasso process of second fermentation creates a richness that is lifted beyond a traditional Valpolicella Superiore relising a taste of dried cherry and rich plums followed by hints of mocha and dark chocolate. This is a no-nonsense 14% with a full-bodied palate. There is no doubt that the Ripasso method creates an extra raisin and candied peel long finish.

My recommended wine received a Gold Medal from the International Wine Challenge of 2014 (UK)

Classical Music Choice, Spring

Bach Keyboard Concertos Nos 1, 2 and 4, with Murray Perahia and Academy of St. Martin in the Field

Johann Sebastian BachI am certain that few amongst the throng of classical music lovers would shy away from the musical achievements of Johann Sebastian Bach. He can be justifiably proud of moving the Keyboard to centre stage. Amongst the most popular of all his compositions for keyboard, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, composed in first part during 1721 were the fore-runners of the keyboard concerto. It was during his tenure as Director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum in the 1730s, Bach arranged a series of at least eight solo keyboard concertos. I well remember listening to the lovely Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 composed by Bach and was further delighted to be introduced to Parahia’s soloist-conducted keyboard concertos. This Sony performance is typically stylish as well as discreet.

The Keyboard Concerto No 1 is thought to be based on a lost violin concerto in D minor. This concerto has remained the most popular of the collection from the 19th Century up to today. Interestingly Mendelsshohn played it and Brahms wrote a cadenza for it. I personally really enjoy the character of second keyboard concerto in E major. It is thought that that this one was based on a concerto for a wind instrument, perhaps for the oboe. Bach initially seems to have used this work for church music. In 1938 he restored the music as a keyboard concerto. The Concerto No 4 in A major has very likely stemmed from an earlier concerto, perhaps again one for the oboe. Bach performed this concerto at least twice, himself once in 1739 and then in 1742. We are often left wondering- did the great composer write these pieces for the harpsichord or the fortepiano? In 1733 a local newspaper from Leipzig reported that “Bach’s group would now feature a “Clavicymbel”, the likes of which has not been heard before”. This suggests that Bach’s keyboard concertos were indeed designed to highlight the fortepiano, still relatively unknown to Saxon listeners.

I am often reminded that as I listen and enjoy this music, these are really the forerunners to the later piano concertos of Mozart and Beethoven. What an important development, that would evolve into some of the best-loved music in the classical repertoire. There are a number of recordings of these three keyboard concertos available and Adras Schiff, like Perahia commands a wide range of colours, but I must say I cannot fault the Sony recording.

This CD is available from and will certainly inspire the first-time listener to explore more of Bach’s works and perhaps tempt them to try Perahia’s great performances of Mozart.

Plant of the Season, Winter

Helleborus niger

Helleborus-niger-2For many years I made a poor showing of my cultivation skills with the “Christmas Rose”, Helleborus niger. This was always a disappointment as my parents seemed to succeed by growing their plants hard up against the south-facing brick wall of their house, extra warmth generated from the wall I felt. Many years later I was to botanise with friends in the Austrian foothills near to Kufstein in the first week of April. The goal was to photograph this hellebore in full flower in its native habitat (see photos). The species is widely distributed across Eastern Europe and in Slovenia one can find some unusual colour variants. My friends took the precaution (prior to my making a special journey from Scotland) to check out the location to make sure that the plants were worthy of inspection. The expedition involved driving up to a restaurant car park where there was still a light covering of snow. We then fitted our snow shoes and made a gentle climb in deep snow through mixed woodland of beech and spruce. After some 30 minutes ascent we came on some steep clearings (where the snow had thawed) that provided a carpet of Helleborus niger growing in modest clumps having just opened their blossoms to present a stunning display of near perfect snow-white coloured flowers. I was simply thrilled at the quality of plants and flower having never experienced such a sighting. Amongst the Hellebores were emerging Hepaticas in blue and white-flowered forms. On closer inspection I noted that the previous year’s foliage was still present, but on the point of decay, lying flat from the winter snow canopy. In a few locations, most notably beside a track-way I was able to carefully study the structure of the plant and its root-system. Looking at a cross-section of the soil profile to a depth of some 60cm, I noticed that the top 15cm was made up of semi-rotted leaf-mould or humus. Heading down, the soil predominated and consisted of gritty to stony loam made up of a deeply calcareous substrate ending up with pure gravels and stones at a depth of 60cm.


Helleborus-nigerHere lay the answer to my years of disappointment! First and foremost my soil pH was too acid and possibly ill-drained. Dappled shade would work and perhaps some supplementary protection of the developing buds, however these factors may not be essential. The alkalinity had an important bearing, but depth of free-drained soil with extra humus is a vital ingredient. My parents choice of situation by a wall had less to do with the protection and more to do with the lime filtering out of the mortar, I feel. Some liquid feeding (with tomato feed) of clumps during the growing season will certainly fortify mature plants to encourage flowering and I choose to de-leaf in the late autumn and then top-dress with finely chopped pine bark. The discipline of de-leafing all evergreen hellebores will help to prevent black spot and deter the attention of voles which love to devour the developing flowers amidst the protective canopy of foliage! My Granny who gardened in Eastbourne on chalky soil grew excellent hellebores, including the Christmas Rose and created a little tent to protect its flowers and ensure a fine harvest for Christmas Day! So there we have it.

Helleborus-niger-,-habitatOver the years I have encountered many fine cultivars of Helleborus niger, which would almost inevitably be further propagated from freshly harvested seed. The seed strains (as we used to call them) would produce similar offspring to the parent plant, but not identical. It would therefore be more accurate to give these strains the current name of Group, so we can offer a fine range of H. niger Potter’s Wheel Group. Some of the superior clones display a showy more rounded flower with a green eye. When it comes to propagation I would not recommend lifting established clumps and dividing them as they generally resent root disturbance. This species can be raised from freshly sown seed which van be saved and removed from the seed capsules and sown on a John Innes seed compost and given a generous covering of grit. Protect seed trays from mice and birds and I prick out seedlings once they have produced the second leaves and as with other members of the buttercup family, they prefer a deep clematis pot at potting up stage.

Helleborus-'Winter-Moonbeam'A number of variants can be found from specialist nurseries and botanical sources including Helleborus niger subsp. macranthus which is distributed in Eastern Europe and Italy. I am very familiar with this variant as it abounds in the cooler aspects of the marvellous rock garden in the Munich Botanic Garden. The foliage of this species is fairly distinct with its bluish-green to grey-green hue. There are now a whole range of modern hybrids, many of which are proving quite hardy and clearly possess the benefits of “hybrid-vigour”. These include: H. x ericsmithii ‘Winter Moonbeam’ with attractive foliage and white flowers that gradually fade to pink and the much sought-after H. x belcheri ’Pink Ice’.


Ashwood Nurseries,

The Beth Chatto Garden,

Ranunculus calandrinioides ‘Dwarf Form’

In my earliest days of growing alpine plants I can recall fine plants of this North African Buttercup flowering in the early part of the year, from January onwards. This is such an early-flowering plant that some form of winter protection is essential to protect the beautifully shaped flowers from weather damage. Whilst running Edrom Nurseries I used to grow a marvellous dwarf-flowering selection of this species, given to me by the late Mrs. Sheila Maule, a great grower of choice alpine plants, who gardened in Balerno, Midlothian. She was an authority on the flora of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and often travelled there with her husband. The selected plant thrived in a large trough and it was planted in a freely-drained material in a sunny position. In the days of proper winters I would afford this early-flowering species a cloche cover.

The habitat in which this lovely buttercup grows is not dissimilar to the recently described Helleborus niger. Ranunculus calandrinioides grows in Cedar forest clearings or woodland fringes and on open hillsides. The species seems to have a fairly wide distribution in Morocco from the Rif Mountains in the N.E. and in a more south-westerly outpost. It is a dwarf perennial with typical fleshy roots and glaucous broad foliage often displaying a wavy edge. The flower stems may carry up to 3 flowers, white or flushed-pink in its finest forms. The stems vary in length from 6 to 20 cm and it is in the dwarf end of the spectrum where I am basing my recommendation. Plants may be grown in a deep pot and located in the alpine house or a more natural position in a deep trough allowing the deep root system to travel far in a well-drained substrate. The foliage will die down in the summer and re-appear in December.

Propagation can be carried out annually by saving seed which should be sown as soon as it can be rubbed free of its “mooring”. It may well germinate the following spring after a natural chilling. Established clumps can also be lifted (when moist and never when under stress) during the growing season and gently teased apart. Pot up the divisions in deep pots with a gritty mixture and do not allow them to become too damp. To maintain stocks of the lovely dwarf form, division will need to be employed as seedlings will vary in stature.

The species was first introduced into British gardens in 1929 and it received an AM in 1939.

Plant of the Season, Summer

Rhodohypoxis baurii cultivars, ‘Pictus’, ‘Albrighton’ and ‘Fred Broome’

As the current summer continues to impress both north and south of the border, I am taking careful note of certain trends in the garden. One such trend is the way that Rhodohypoxis species and cultivars have prevailed due to a series of mild winters and favourable summers, allowing ripening of the bulbs/corms. I well recall during my formative years as a gardener and later nurseryman, that a stern winter with modest snow cover would decimate bulbous species, both in containers and in the ground. I lost my entire commercial stock of Rhodohypoxis in 1982/3 and was very fortunate to know the late Valerie Finnis and obtained stocks of all the recognised cultivars raised by Mrs Ruth McConnel. No such fears of devastating frosts in recent years.

As is so well documented by Richard Wilford in his excellent volume “Alpines, from Mountain to Garden”, 2010, Rhodohypoxis are among the most popular cultivated geophytes (bulbous plants) from South Africa. He continues, “This is a genus of low-growing, starry-flowered perennials in the family Hypoxidaceae, which is centred on the Drakensberg Mountains. They can bloom for several months in the summer and die down completely for the winter”. Six species have been recognised, along with a whole host of cultivars, many of which have appeared on the scene in recent years and still await a home in my garden. It is important to observe something about their habitat and the prevailing weather conditions. In nature they grow in damp grassland and rocky places at altitudes of between 1,100 – 2,900m and receive a protective covering of snow in the winter (meaning a relatively dry dormancy. Let’s translate that into our lowland gardens. They should be grown in a well-drained, humus–rich mixture, either in the open ground (with the provision of winter protection) or in troughs and similar containers which can be transferred into a shed/glasshouse during the winter months. As soon as the over-wintering corms break into growth, they should be given a regular watering and as the season progresses, both during and after the first flush of flowers I will apply a well-diluted tomato feed which will strengthen the corms and encourage a further blast of colour.

I am a bit of a die-hard and continue to stick by the original and well-tried cultivars raised by Ruth McConnel, some of which were named after her dogs! However, I was browsing the current catalogue from Edrom Nurseries (another excellent collection of well-grown plants) and chanced on a whole host of new and unfamiliar cultivars – some will soon need to be purchased! Nowadays I grow nearly all my Rhodohypoxis in troughs and rarely collect the seed, resulting in a few un-named seedlings appearing amongst their parents. I allow this to continue since I am no longer in business. Of the tried and tested cultivars the following will be guaranteed to perform well: Red-flowered, ‘Albrighton’ and ‘Great Scot’; Pink-flowered, ‘Dawn’ and ‘Fred Broome’; Pure-white, ‘Perle’ and ‘Ruth’; White-flushed pink, ‘Helen’ and ‘Pictus’. Of the species I would recommend the stong-growing red, R. milloides and a good pink, R. baurii var. confecta. Ten of the best and then have a go with some of the newer cultivars. I’m afraid I am not keen on the double-flowered cultivars but I am sure I am the exception!

Finally I find the process of propagation very rewarding and carry this out whilst the plants are in growth, carefully teasing the corms apart into generous clumps of several cormlets and potting them up or planting out to allow time for establishment before the onset of winter. Seed can be saved and sown at the usual time for those of you who wish to continue the search for a “winner”!

Recommended Suppliers:

Edrom Nurseries:

Harperley Hall Farm Nurseries:

Wine Choice Summer 2014

Pecorino – Terre di Chieti


For my wife, Alison and me, a real treat is to go out for a meal to our local Italian restaurant, the award-winning Osteria in North Berwick. To accompany our recent meal we chose a Pecorino wine, a grape we were hitherto unfamiliar with. I was accused of getting confused with the well-known Italian, sheep’s milk cheese! The owner soundly recommended the wine and, following the meal, we both decided that it would remain a firm favourite amongst our many preferred Italian white wines.

Having carried out some research into this grape variety, I was interested to note that it produces rather low yields in the region where it prevails (by comparison with the Trebbiano grape), which rather unsurprisingly makes it less popular among winegrowers. However, because of its ability to ripen early and its complex aromatic “nose”, it has earned a continued presence in the vineyards of the Abbruzzo and Marche regions. My recommendation is chosen with availability in mind and may be purchased from Tesco. There are a number of fine Pecorino wines available from alternative supermarkets and also from the splendid emporium for Italian food and wine,,  but I have not yet tasted them.

When tasting a wine I am often surprised or captivated by its colour and this was very much the case with my first experience with the Pecorino grape. Its straw-yellow colour suggested some aging but this was not the case as it was a relatively young wine. The floral bouquet suggests acacia and jasmine while the first taste hints of pear, and citrus flavours. I picked out something less easy to determine with my first tasteing and that may have been a suggestion of licorice. Although I have not yet accompanied this wine with the Pecorino cheese, I am led to believe that this works really well as an accompaniment. I have to say that a match with local seafood was quite special and I would whole-heartedly recommend this combination.

Classical Music for the Summer

Johann Baptist Georg Neruda Trumpet Concerto in E flat

It is disappointing that relatively little is known about the classical Czech composer Neruda. It is recognised (Wikipedia) that he lived from c. 1708 to 1780. He was born in Bohemia to a well-respected music family. Following his early years as a violinist and conductor in Prague, he became Konzertmeister in the Dresden Court Orchestra.

His composition output includes 18 symphonies, 14 instrumental concertos, sonatas, sacred works and an opera “Les Troqueurs”.

One of my absolute favourite pieces of trumpet music is Neruda’s Concerto in E flat for Trumpet and Strings. It was originally written for a natural horn but is now performed almost exclusively on an E or B flat trumpet. I had the privilege of hearing this work performed in the breathtakingly beautiful Baroque, Steinhausen Church of Pilgrimage in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. Such was the perfection of natural acoustics, I could feel every tone of the trumpet and had to muse over a conflict between the beauty of the composition and the artistry of the performer! This is a marvellous piece of music.

As to my favoured recordings on CD, I have two CDs that I can happily recommend:

Six Trumpet Concertos with Crispian Steele-Perkins playing Trumpet and the English Chamber Orchestra directed by Anthony Halstead. Innovation Music Productions Ltd

Haydn and Hummel Trumpet Concertos (including Neruda Trumpet Concerto in E flat), with Alison Balsom playing Trumpet and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. EMI: 2162130

Both CDs are available from






Campanula ‘Joe Elliott’

From time to time in the history of modern alpine gardening, an artificial hybrid of outstanding beauty is created either by chance or by careful hand-pollination. Many of the finest plants are created by chance and it was by this method that one of the finest of all hybrid campanulas was raised. Of greatest concern are the number of wonderful hybrid plants that have fallen by the wayside, however the plant under the spotlight was raised in the 1970s at the famous Broadwell Nursery in the Cotswolds, England and still thrives in alpine plant collections today. The hybrid arose when a passing bee transferred a dollop of pollen from Campanula raineri and deposited on the ripe stigma of C. morettiana, a distinct seedling was spotted, with its shallower flowers and typical C. raineri leaves. Once isolated it grew vigorously (a sure sign of hybrid vigour) and in its second year flowered continuously from June until September. What a discovery and what sharp eyes were the possession of the late Joe Elliott and his nursery manager Ralph Haywood. So Campanula ‘Joe Elliott’ was created, commemorating its raiser. The hybrid has the same running habit as C. raineri and can therefore be propagated, both by division and cuttings of non-flowering stems.

Plants can be grown in a trough or raised bed and are best given cloche cover during the winter wet. Both parents enjoy an alkaline substrate in nature and the hybrid will respond to a material with added tufa or dolomite granules. I must emphasise the need to be vigilant against the visit of slugs at all times, they love expensive campanulas!

This outstanding cultivar has been awarded as a plant for exhibit, an A.M. in 1978 followed by the coveted F.C.C in 1981; a real accolade.

Availability: Aberconwy Nursery: Tel, 01492 580875

Classical Music Choice – Spring

Rossini – The Six String Sonatas

The Italian composer Gioachino Rossini lived from 1792 to 1868, born in Pesaro and is of course best known for his operas, including The Barber of Seville. In 1806, at the age of fourteen, Rossini was given the opportunity to study Counterpoint (the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies to make music) in Bologna. During the next four years he composed various instrumental works, mainly overtures and variations. While I have always loved listening to his overtures, I really enjoy these Six String Sonatas for two violins, cello and double bass.

I find these pieces quite charming, fun and so easy to listen to when the mood for a heavy Symphony or thrilling Concerto is unwelcome. The composition for four instruments displays real assurance and the wit and melodic fluency is clearly evident. All six Sonatas are in three movements. The first movements are in a simplified version of sonata form, with secondary themes that extend the first subject. The slow movements are mostly operatic arias in instrumental guise with the first violin being the soprano soloist. Four of the finales are in rondo form and certainly full of Rossinian wit and sparkle, where as that of No 6 a Tempesta – a storm scene, which was to become a familiar ingredient in Rossini’s operas.

Nowadays, when these Sonatas are performed, they are usually played by a string orchestra and a recording by single strings (as per my recommendation) is a rarity to be cherished. As readers listen to these sonatas I am sure you will appreciate that Rossini was an accomplished singer, they a delight to be enjoyed.

My recommendation is:

Rossini  The Six String Sonatas in Original Quartet Version with the Serenata of London, ASV Digital – this choice may now prove a challenge to locate

My second recommendation is:

Rossini  The String Sonatas on the Hyperion Label, available from

Spring Wine Choice 2014

Soave Classico 2012 Inama DOC

I have to say that this Soave has always been one of my firm favourites, a truly fine wine from this celebrated region of Veneto. This is an area steeped in history, with the Garganega grape, from which this famous wine is made, being first planted here by the Romans. The Inama estate, which I am highlighting was founded in 1960 and is owned by Stefano Inama today. Their Classico wine is grown on some 25 hectares of basaltic lava substrate and the grapes are hand-harvested then fermented in stainless-steel vats with 8 months maturation prior to bottling.

For me, this wine delivers an elegant nose reminiscent of meadow flowers with an exquisite taste of apricots, honey and almonds. It is light-yellow in colour and has a rich texture with an elegant finish – quite superb. I can happily enjoy this wine as an aperitif but would choose to enjoy it with some fine, locally caught and prepared Sea Bass or a flat fish. This is certainly a wine to savour, however it may require some diligent search from a local wine merchant.