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.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Will you be an eagle - or Eddie the Eagle?

The whiff of Catherine wheels, rockets and bonfires in the night air has faded. Children have long since consumed their body weight in Hallowe'en (trick or) treats. The last hurrahs of Autumn have passed and now we stand at the top of a precipitous slope, like an alpine ski jumper, nervously adjusting our goggles as we contemplate that impossibly steep and slippery descent which leads inexorably to...Christmas.

We all hope for a steady run as we hop on to the festive ski jump: crowded, stuffy shops successfully negotiated, presents bought, no-one forgotten, meals planned, wrapping paper remembered. If we get it all right it will culminate in a graceful landing on the big day itself, having overcome the seemingly impossible.

That's the dream. The nightmare is a wobbly start to our descent: online ordering deadlines missed, the things you wanted sold out, or maybe you haven't got any good ideas to start with; somehow, ordering the turkey slipped your mind.....

The nightmare result is less like an eagle soaring effortlessly through the sky, and more like Eddie the Eagle.

Eddie, lest you have forgotten, was a British downhill skier who had failed to qualify for the British Olympic ski-ing team. He alighted on the clever tactic of switching to ski jumping, where he was assured of qualification, as there were no other British competitors.

Eddie thereby found himself representing his country at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, but was woefully under-financed and under-prepared - at one point financing himself as a part-time plasterer while training in Finland. Matters were not helped by the fact that he suffered from such poor sight that he needed to wear glasses to jump – which fogged up in the cold conditions. Dubbed “Mr Magoo”, he resembled, not an eagle, but something more akin to a penguin which had been launched unexpectedly into the air, and then crash-landed and scrambled onto the ice. Eddie denied that he was scared of heights – but he did admit to being scared of jumping.

Despite this unpromising start, Eddie, undaunted, won international acclaim for his pluck and determination to compete. Unfortunately that was all he won, as he came last in both of the ski jump events – and thus the legend of Eddie the Eagle was born.

I may not have much to offer to help you with the myriad of organisational tasks that need to be accomplished between now and the end of December – but in matters vinous I can be of assistance. Over the next couple of columns I'll be making specific recommendations on which wines to have on hand for the variety of social occasions that the festive season brings, along with my top tips for a glittering Christmas.

So as far as what on earth to buy for the spouse who has everything, or that sourpuss in-law who never seems happy, no matter how much money and effort you expend – I'll have to leave you to your own devices. However, if you can start by welcoming all your guests with a glass of something cold and sparkling and flashing a winning smile, then any other imperfections will surely be forgiven. Just don't forget to order the turkey.

In the meantime, here are some wines deserving of your attention. This week's wine recommendations are not specifically Christmassy, but are designed to soothe and delight over the colder, longer evenings between now and December.

Bordière Nord Marsanne Viognier 2010 - £6.99 (or buy 2 for £5.99 each) at Majestic
Marsanne and Viognier are traditional grapes of the Rhône Valley, but have been transplanted here to the warmer Languedoc by the mercurial Alain Grignon. This is a great value winter weight white with bags of unoaked tropical-tinged peachy fruit, combined with a herbal twist courtesy of the Marsanne. Full-tasting and warming – great as a party wine, but the trace of herbal bitterness makes it food-friendly too.

Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru Saering 2007 - £18.95 from
I'm not going to beat around the bush. It's time wine drinkers got over their unfounded fears of Riesling, and especially of Riesling in these tall “flute” shape bottles. This is a fantastic wine from Alsace, in northeastern France, and it's DRY. Winemakers who can grow it love Riesling, the wine trade loves Riesling, I love Riesling – please put a stop to all my banging on and try some!

This sprightly wine has lots of lime with a hint of peach and even a little orange rind on the nose. The palate is dry, with a lip-smacking mineral tang and the limey flavours really linger. It's quite weighty and with a citrus pith bitterness too – really should be had with food and it was great with a chicken risotto. Very good and totally, deliciously moreish.

M&S Crozes-Hermitage 2008 - £10.99 from M&S
This 100% Syrah from the northern Rhône valley is made for M&S by the quality-minded Cave de Tain Co-operative and is exactly the kind of red wine you want to relax with at this time of year. The nose has loads of black fruit, along with some herbs and spices. The palate has more of that lovely brambly fruit with a real black pepper kick. Have it with a winter casserole – or just by the fire, with slippers.