Saturday, 26 November 2011

Christmas 2011, Part 1, in which our heroine imparts pearls of wisdom

The word Christmas can start to provoke a twitchy, sweaty palm reaction at this time of year.

If you are feeling slightly anxious about anything, the correct response is to make a list. There's nothing like ticking things off to make you feel like progress is being made, even if it contains items that you would normally do anyway. Get up – tick. Brush teeth – tick. That's two things done before you've got downstairs.

Herewith is a wine-themed list of my Top Tips to ensure a glittering Christmas:

1. Get organised. Having some wine ordered and delivered early is a huge weight off the mind. And if you're going away for Christmas or New Year, you could even have the wine delivered to your destination, to avoid having to schlepp it there yourself. Don't forget to equip yourself with a glass of something delicious to have by your side as you browse online.

2. Make a list of the different occasions that need wine (don't they all?) and think about which wines to have on hand. Consider parties, big set piece meals, casual lunches, breakfast Buck's Fizz...

3. Always have a few bottles spare for guests who drop round. At that time of year you might want to offer a glass of wine, fizz or sherry to visitors at any time of day from elevenses onwards.

4. Think fizz – nothing says celebration like the pop of a cork, so you should never be without a chilled bottle in the fridge. Have a range of different sparklers to choose from – vintage Champagne is great to serve before (or with) a really special meal. But unless you're a Premiership footballer, you can't go buying it willy-nilly.

5. Remember to have fun - and don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are enjoying yourself, then your guests will too. But if they see you fretting over every tiny detail to ensure it's all just right, it won't help them to relax and get into the swing of things. Christmas is not about turning your house into a restaurant with immaculate dishes emerging from the kitchen while your guests soak up the vintage claret. Who amongst us doesn't enjoy joining in in the kitchen, chopping some veg or mixing stuffing, especially if we're offered a lovely glass of something to sip while we're at it?

My next column will focus on drinks for the big day itself, but here I'm looking at wines for all those other occasions.

Don't overlook Prosecco, Crémant, Cava and other budget options which are great for parties or more casual and relaxed affairs. And don't even consider putting Champagne in your Buck's Fizz – no-one will know! The half price Champagnes that sprout like mushrooms in the nation's supermarkets are generally not much to write home about – a lot has been squeezed out of those grapes (literally) to produce a fizzy wine with Champagne on the label at that price. Try a bottle to see if you're happy with it before you go buying more. More often than not supermarket own label Champagnes give better value. Or if your budget is tight, it will always be better to buy a better class of Crémant or Cava, than the cheapest Champers.

Mont Marcal Cava Brut Reserva - £9.99 at The Wine Reserve, Cobham
This looks and tastes the part – light, fresh and elegant.

Les Hauts de Bergelle Blanc 2009, Saint Mont, France - £7.99, or £5.99 when you buy two at Majestic
Southwest France makes some fantastically characterful wines from its unique selection of grape varieties, here the memorable trio of Gros Manseng (yes, there is a Petit Manseng), Arrufiac and Petit Courbu (though no Grand Courbu that I know of exists). It has piercingly crisp acidity, allied to pear and honey-tinged fruit and a hearty twist of white pepper. Not an identikit wine which has plenty of interest for the money.

Bourgogne Chardonnay Vieilles Vignes 2010, Nicolas Potel, Burgundy, France - £11.99, down to £7.99 when you buy two at Majestic
It's a truism that producer is more important than appellation in Burgundy – and here is proof. It's at the bottom of the quality pyramid as a humble Bourgogne, but it has lovely fruit with hints of peach; the texture has a slight mealiness and great freshness. Burgundy lovers will lap it up.

Gone are the days when rosé went out with the first bonfire of Autumn. Now it's an all-year-round drink and at Christmas, go for something classic.

Rimauresq Cru Classé 2010, Côtes de Provence, France - £11.99 from Taurus Wines, near Bramley
No rosé is more elegant, refined and food-friendly than a classic Provençal one – this has weight and presence despite its palest salmon colour. The fruit is subtle, but there is a pronounced herbal and pepper character that makes it a surprisingly good match for a wide range of foods.

You need wines that make good “house” wines – fun, easy-going with food, but also happy to be sipped on their own.

Lascar Carmenère 2010, Central Valley, Chile - £4.95 from The Wine Society
This ticks all the boxes. A huge juicy mouthful of vibrant black fruit with a strong whiff of smoke, redolent of bonfires. Great value for money.

Majestic Peaks Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand - £10.99, down to £8.79 when you buy two bottles at Majestic
Regular readers will know of my passion for Pinot. This may not be top of the quality tree, but it has plenty of perfumed, more-ish red fruit with a lick of spice that will happily go with cold meats and pickles and a classic episode of Only Fools and Horses.

Domaine Crêt des Garanches 2010, AC Brouilly, Beaujolais - £11.70 from Les Caves de Pyrène, Guildford
Juicy, raspberry and cranberry fruit, soft tannins – Beaujolais fits the bill for Christmas perfectly. No weird bubblegum flavours here – it's smooth, bright fruit all the way. A classy option for ham, cold meats or a sociable glass with neighbours.

Manzanilla La Gitana, Spain – around £8 from Waitrose and Majestic
There's nothing like a crisp, bone dry sherry for perking one up and sharpening the appetite for yet another feast. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, said that while “penicillin can cure the sick..sherry can bring the dead back to life.” For more on the charms of sherry and matching it with food, can I respectfully direct you to my recentish blog post, “If it swims, serve a fino”, here:

You'll also find more festive wine recommendations on the Heather Dougherty blog, which I haven't been able to fit in here.

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