Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 review: my best bits

If you're feverishly searching for last minute Christmas wine recommendations – and you really are cutting it fine – then please have a look at my previous two posts on this blog.

In the caring sharing spirit of Christmas, I offer here just one nugget that could save your bacon. If you seek the perfect wine match for Christmas pudding, then look no further than Moscatel de Valencia, a ridiculously under-priced dessert wine from Spain. Its luscious sweetness with an orange marmelade edge makes the pudding sing. Sainsburys' version is just £3.98 a bottle. If you're quick you might just make it...

This column is devoted to a review of the best bits of 2011. Here, in no particular order, are my personal highlights of the year:

  • Tasting top class Aussie Rieslings courtesy of Jacob's Creek at “wine workshop and kitchen” 28-50 in London. The 2005 Steingarten Riesling was the highlight, but Jacob's Creek Riesling Reserve 2010 was pretty delicious too: fresh and lively (and limey), floral but dry – a great palate cleanser.

  • A Bollinger Grande Année masterclass, with chef de cave Mathieu Kaufmann, where I learned that I have expensive tastes when it comes to Champagne. Bollinger Grande Année Rose 1996 was my favourite, if you're reading this, Santa. Completely beguiling, luxurious stuff which, sadly, I can't afford.

  • Marcelo Retamel, Chilean winemaker (at the family-owned De Martino winery) and Iron Maiden fan, describing his return from the Dark Side of wine-making. Tasting the first vintage (another 1996) of his single vineyard Carmenère was a delicious reminder of how good wine can be when allowed to mature without the added glitz of selected yeasts, new oak and other winemaking frippery. Look out for the 2010 vintage of the Alto de Piedras Carmenère when it arrives at the Wine Society, which marks his return to the more natural style of winemaking that characterised that first vintage back in 1996. 
  • I can't honestly remember what the exact bottle was, but drinking fizz in spring sunshine at our Royal Wedding street party felt both modern and traditional at the same time.

  • Meeting Chester Osborn, legendary Australian winemaker at d'Arenberg and infamous wearer of loud shirts, and his collection of wine-themed fluffy toys at a wine “speed tasting”. His Money Spider Roussanne 2009 was one of my favourites at the whistle-stop tasting.

  • Tasting Tio Pepe “en rama” at Bar Pepito in King's Cross (a must for sherry lovers) and then seeing how well it stood up to their excellent range of tapas. The summer weather may have been a let-down, but that day was a true taste of the Mediterranean. “En rama” is a special, full-flavoured, unfiltered bottling of Tio Pepe that sells out (mostly to those in the know in the wine trade) almost as soon as it hits these shores. The classic Tio Pepe, however, is widely available for around a tenner.

  • Getting to grips with the new face of Portugal's Vinho Verde at a fascinating tasting this summer. I learned that Vinho Verde is not green and doesn't have to be redolent of soluble aspirin – and it can also be red! 
  • Buying an exotic-looking liqueur in France over the summer, only to find it was none other than that British Christmas stalwart, sloe gin. Equally nice served cold in the summer, I can helpfully tell you.

  • Spending three footsore days working at the London wine trade's annual fair in May – but my reward was to be responsible for encouraging visitors to taste a great selection of interesting, individual and delicious wines from Southwest France.

  • The taste of Graham's Malvedos 1958 single quinta port – still looking and tasting good at 50!

  • Tasting Zind-Humbrecht's Rangen de Thann Clos-Saint-Urbain Gewurztraminer 2009 at the first dedicated biodynamic wine tasting in London in November. Olivier Humbrecht (Master of Wine and PhD) has managed to create a perfect marriage of grape variety to terroir making for an unforgettable wine experience.

  • Seeing how Hunter Valley Semillon ages (well, it turns out) courtesy of a vertical tasting of Neil McGuigan's Bin 9000 Semillons back to 1997.

  • Drinking nothing but Champagne for 3 days (OK and some water) during my first study tour of the region.

Life could be worse! Wishing you a suitably merry time over the next couple of weeks. See you all in 2012.

Friday, 9 December 2011

God rest you merry, Gentlemen...and ladies - it's Christmas Part 2

Last time I gave some recommended wines for all those occasions that involve wine over the festive period – and if you missed it, you can catch up here: Now, however, the focus is on the big day itself.

I wouldn't normally recommend wines to go with your cornflakes, but at Christmas the normal order is turned on its head. And I'm assuming that breakfast is more of a brunch; later, more leisurely and certainly more luxurious than normal. Straight fizz might seem too much of a shock to the system for most, but brave souls could ease themselves into the day with a glass of Prosecco – its clean, fresh fruit and touch of sweetness is ideal.

For many of us, though, Buck's Fizz has become a tradition. Please, DO NOT buy the pre-mixed bottles. Buy the best orange juice you can (or even squeeze your own) and combine (in whatever proportions you enjoy) with either Prosecco or Cava. The predominant taste will be the orange juice, so go for budget bubbles.

We all love Christmas dinner, but we wouldn't want to eat it every day. Let's face it, it's a bit of an endurance test for the body, so pre-lunch you need a wine to get the juices and the appetite going in order to fortify for the feast ahead.

Champagne is the pre-prandial aperitif par excellence and now is a good time to produce a really fancy bottle if you have one. Blanc de blancs (ie made from 100% Chardonnay) are a good choice, as they have plenty of crisp fruit and nervy, mouthwatering acidity.

Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2005 - Special introductory offer £26.99 at Sainsbury's, £38 from Great Western Wines
Lovely light style, with fine acidity and long-lasting flavours of apple, flowers and white pepper.

If you serve smoked salmon at some point, then Champagne is of course a perfect companion. You could go for something with a bit more body here.

Berry Brothers Own Label Champagne - £25.95 per bottle, down to £23.35 a bottle if you buy 6, from
Christmas might not be the day to plonk a bottle emblazoned Tesco or Waitrose on the table (though personally I wouldn't mind). Berry Brothers' own label, though, is far more the thing. Produced entirely from top Grand Cru vineyards in the village of Mailly, this is a blend of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, giving it more power and structure than a Blanc de Blancs. Aromas of pear give way to a palate of spice and crisp apple, with the length and structure to stand up to food. A great match for smoked salmon too.

Alternatives to fizz as aperitifs would be really top class Sauvignon Blanc, from its heartland in the Loire Valley.

Château de Tracy Pouilly Fumé 2006 - £17.50 from The Wine Society
No oak, just the unadorned grapes treated gently to give delicately perfumed fruit with persistent flavour.

Sancerre Le MD de Bourgeois 2010 - £22.49 from Les Caves de Pyrène
Much more full-on and assertively fruity, but with great mineral intensity, this will certainly give the tastebuds a good wash and brush up.

Turkey, or whatever your chosen bird, is really not in the equation when it comes to choosing a wine. Think of all the different flavours that we pile onto a single plate – stuffing, gravy, sprouts, roast potatoes, sausage and bacon...I could go on. It really isn't possible to match them all, so you need to choose a wine that will not be overwhelmed, but will not try to fight with all those flavours either.

Think, also, about who is round the table. If you have a group of fine wine lovers, then by all means dig out your treasured bottles of fine, aged claret or white Burgundy. But for most of us, we are in multi-generational groups, some of whom might not touch wine for most of the year. So choose something that will please a crowd and won't frighten the horses.

Le Faîte 2007 - £14.99 from Adnams Cellar and Kitchen (branch in Richmond)
Arrufiac, Petit Courbu, Petit and Gros Manseng – you don't need to have heard of the grape varieties to enjoy this unique white wine: big bold fruit, big-boned but with refreshing acidity.

Domaine Roche Audran Cuvée César 2009 - £12.58 from
The southern Rhône is a great source of wines that are generous of fruit and body, with a food friendly whiff of herbs. This 100% Grenache wowed a group at a recent wine dinner and is certified (in a good way) biodynamic.

Brouilly Domaine Durand “Pisse Vieille” 2010 - £8.95 from The Wine Society
It may be shy about trumpeting it on the label, but this is a Beaujolais. Deliciously, juicily, red fruited stuff that will suit a multitude of food and palates. By the way, “vieille” means old and “pisse” means...well, what it sounds like. Don't let this put you off.

Rioja Reserva – such as Cune Reserva 2006/7 - £11.95 from Waitrose
The barrel and bottle ageing that Rioja Reservas undergo lead to mellow wines which are versatile with food, so they are always good to have to hand for Christmas.

Yes, the marathon is not finished yet. If you opt for pudding, then you need something to go with – or indeed instead of.

Stanton & Killeen Rutherglen Muscat - £12.40 for a half bottle from
Australian liqueur muscat is just about the closest you can get to Christmas pudding in liquid form. Lusciously viscous with flavours of dates, raisins, caramel and spice, it can stand up to the richest, sweetest pudding.

Tawny ports also rub along nicely with the sweet spice of Christmas pudding, mince pies and the like. These are widely available, but try and get hold of a 10 year old (or even better, 20 year old), as these will have more mellow nuttiness. And you can keep going with it if anyone is still up for some stilton.

Good luck! See you on the other side.