Friday, 7 December 2012

Dew drops on roses and whiskers on kittens? These are a few of my favourite (sweet) things

As well as drinking more and, generally, better wines than we do for the rest of the year, Christmas is also traditionally a time when, for reasons best known to ourselves, we decide that a bottle of some luridly-coloured liqueur will be just the thing to make the festive season go with a swing.

Oh the bottles of fluorescent green Midori or sickly Chartreuse that must be languishing at the back of cupboards since someone last touched them, sometime in the 1980s. Only undiscriminating underage drinkers or last gasp partygoers searching for the final drop of alcohol in the house at 5am would surely submit to them now.  Or am I tarring you all with the brush of my own experiences?

While the word liqueur can be used to cover a multitude of sickly sweet sins, there are drinks that can be sugary without being saccharine.

Vedrenne’s Supercassis Crème de Cassis (£8.50 from Waitrose for a 50cl bottle)
This is what Ribena really ought to taste like.  Bursting with true blackcurrant aromas and with a lusciously sweet palate of lingering fruit flavours, it’s the liqueur drinker’s liqueur.  Crème de cassis is traditionally used to perk up a very ordinary dry white wine, to make Kir – or Kir Royale if you are using sparkling wine.  A little cassis goes a long way and just a dribble should give you enough blackcurrant flavour to balance out the dryness and acidity of the wine.  Too much and you will end up with wine-flavoured squash.

If you ever come across a bottle of Crème de Cassis’ sister liqueur, Crème de Mûre, made from blackberries, then snap it up.  The more musky aromas make for an intriguing twist on Kir.  And incidentally both these liqueurs make great flavourings for anyone trying their hand at homemade chocolate truffles this Christmas – but make sure the kids keep their mits off them!

Port and Sherry
There are some things that I will never be old enough for:  shopping in Country Casuals or seriously considering a cruise holiday spring to mind.  Drinking these styles of fortified wines seems to be something we only adopt in our later years.  The average age of the UK Sherry or Port drinker remains stubbornly high, but I’ve been an out and proud fan of them for many years.

Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso Dulce – around £18 for a half bottle from Waitrose, Majestic, selected Tesco’s and various independents
Dry sherries are having a bit of a moment, to use frightful mediaspeak.  The sweet ones, though, are unfairly viewed as practically toxic and fit only for the cooking, or unfavoured relatives. 

I urge you to surrender to the unctuous charms of this fine example of lusciously sweet Oloroso.  This spicy, treacly, umami-rich mouthful is the essence of Christmas, in a glass.

For eleven and a half months of the year, nary a drop of Port passes our lips.  But, come the latter half of December, we go mad for the stuff.  Christmas isn’t Christmas without a bottle of Port in the house.

The biggest selling style in the UK is the most basic, ruby Port – though the Port producers tend to dress them up with names like Special Reserve.  This is fine for a quick snifter, or wicked (in more ways than one) in mulled wine, but for something to linger over I’d recommend searching out a Tawny Port.

Tawnies spend more of their life in barrel than other kinds of Port and, as a result, lose that dense purple colour and take on shades of mahogany and chestnut brown.  The flavours change too:  nuts, spices and preserved fruit come to the fore.  The most readily available style is 10 year old, which is an average age of the wines in the blend.

Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny – widely available from £22 a bottle
Taylor’s could be regarded as the most conservative Port house, as they alone among the Port shippers have held out against the trend of making still table wines from the famous Port-producing vineyards in Portugal’s Douro Valley.  They prefer to stick to what they know and do best and this 10 year old is a great advertisement for the style. 

Aromas of spice, glacé and morello cherry greet you, with nuts joining the party on the palate.  The preserved fruit flavours last in the mouth, with the alcohol (it is fortified, so 20%) providing mellow warmth.

Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny – widely available, but currently £10 for a 50cl bottle in Waitrose
This is a complete contrast in packaging and approach: a tall, clear glass bottle and an encouragement to serve it chilled – even over ice.
Serving it cool lessens the sense of sweetness and makes it a refreshing after dinner choice.

Wine-based drinks
I am, I admit, generally rather sniffy about ready mixed drinks involving wine.  Whoever thought up the idea of selling ready mixed Buck’s Fizz had clearly decided this was more profitable than their previous business peddling snake oil.  Come on people!  It’s cheap fizzy wine and orange juice, mixed – how hard can it be, even sleep deprived and hungover on Christmas morning?  A bottle of cheap Cava and really good orange juice are easy to find and infinitely more delicious than the sickly sweet ready mixed supermarket stuff that I’ve tried.  And don’t go kidding yourself that pre-mixed versions constitute one of your five a day either.

Sainsbury’s Williams Pear Fizz - £3.99
Like all zealots, there had to come a moment when my belief that pre-mixed drinks are evil stuff would be challenged.  Despite myself, I was won over by this spooky-sounding “aromatised wine cocktail”.  This mixture of Chenin Blanc wine and Williams pear juice is fun, sweet, fizzy, bursting with really pear-y pear fruit and is just 4% alcohol.  How can you resist?

Next time – normal service will be resumed and I’ll get back to recommending wines for the festive period.

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