Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas top wine tips and picks

If you’re still casting around for ideas to inspire your wine choices for Christmas, read on. Also read on if you’re one of those people, like me, who has already laid in the necessary, but can’t resist a quick scan of others’ recommendations, to see if they have the good sense to choose the same wines as you would. In which case, we should both probably get out more, but hey, don’t let me stop you reading.

La Noë Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu sur lie 2012 - £11.75 from Lea and Sandeman; Château du Cléray Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur lie (Sauvion) - £9.99, or £8.99 if you buy two at Majestic
If you spend a bit more than the minimum on Muscadet, you’ll be reminded why it was such a popular style in the first place. The Sauvion has more classic citrus freshness, whereas La Noë’s structure comes not from acidity but with a certain mineral weight, possibly influenced by the granitic soils of the vineyard. Either would make a classy aperitif or fine accompaniment to seafood. 

Christmas Day
Domaine Champalou, Le Portail 2010 - £22.90 from Caves de Pyrène, near Guildford
Feel free to drink white wine if that’s what you fancy with Christmas dinner – and I don’t think it matters a great deal what the meat is (if any). All the flavours we pile up onto one plate mean a couple of things: avoid anything too subtle, which will be overwhelmed (eg Chablis); or too flamboyantly flavoured, which might clash (eg Gewurztraminer). Christmas dinner is often a multi-generational affair too and you don’t want to intimidate those who maybe don’t enjoy wine that much or even drink it for most of the year.

But if you do want to splash out a bit, this is the kind of thing I’d plump for. It is a 100% Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in the Loire which has been given the white Burgundy treatment, with fermentation and ageing in oak barrel for 18 months before bottling. This is not a typical Vouvray, but the Champalou family like this style of wine, so they make it. It fulfills much the same function as would a white Burgundy, or any high quality white with barrel fermentation and ageing characters, but the Chenin grape imparts its own personality, giving hints of fresh ginger and honey in harmony with the spice of the oak.

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2011 - £22.50 down to £17.99 if you buy two at Majestic
I am a big fan of Pinot Noir for Christmas dinner: the vibrant red fruit rubs along with rather than fights with the multiple flavours on the plate and there is just a hint of tannin, but good acidity to refresh the palate and cut through the richness. 

This one is from Martinborough, New Zealand, which produces the kind of exuberant fruit we associate with the New World, but with a powerful underlying structure and food-friendly savouriness.

Château Musar 2005 - £19.99 at Majestic, (and £20 at The Wine Society, though their Christmas ordering deadline has now passed)
This is for those who like to live by the mantra: claret for Christmas – but with a twist. Young red Bordeaux is I feel too tannic and structured to meld with the wide variety of flavours (including sweet) that are involved in Christmas dinner. However, mature ones are more mellow and harmonious and this is an example of that mature style, but not from Bordeaux. A really good Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva with some maturity would also do a grand job.

The Musar is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan grown in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Unusually it is not released until a full seven years after harvest, having been fermented and matured in cement tank and then French oak barrels, before spending more time back in tank before a final rest of four years in bottle. It has a combination of high-toned pungency and mellow spiced fruit with hints of leaves and leather that will appeal to fans of mature wine.

Stanton & Killeen Classic 12 year old Muscat - £15.60 (for a half bottle) from Caves de Pyrène
What, I hear you cry, are we to drink with Christmas pudding (or Christmas cake, or mince pies)? I have tried many different accompaniments over the years and there are in fact a good many vinous matches for these dried fruit and spice-heavy concoctions. A rich, sweet, old Oloroso would be wonderful; ditto a 20-year old tawny Port, Malmsey (or Malvasia) Madeira, a solera-aged Maury or Banyuls. A less obvious, but successful, choice is Moscatel de Valencia, whose distinct orange peel flavour marries with the dried fruit and candied peel of the pudding or cake.

However, Rutherglen muscat from Australia is the closest you can get to Christmas pudding in liquid form, with its intensely sweet yet tangy flavours of dates, treacle, caramel, nuts – it’s one of those wines in which you find something new with every sip.

Boxing Day
Les Hauts de Bergelle 2011, Saint Mont - £7.99 at Majestic, down to £6.99 if you buy two
You may never have heard of the region of Saint Mont, which is an area between Bordeaux and the Pyrenees, tucked in next to Gascony. You are unlikely to have heard of the grape varieties involved here either (Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac), let alone tasted them before. These disadvantages are more than made up for by the fact that this is made by one of France’s very best co-operatives and that the grape varieties, while rare, make wonderfully characterful wines. An intense grapefruity tang, allied to hints of apple and quince and a subtle whisp of honey make for a punchy wine that would pep up Boxing Day cold meat and pickles.

Bellingham The Bernard Series Roussanne 2013 - £10.99, down to £7.99 at Sainsbury’s
Roussanne hails originally from the Rhône valley, but it has been on its travels and appears here in a South African incarnation. This is another weighty, characterful wine with a rich mixture of stone fruit, pear, citrus and herbs and a hint of damp wool. Quite a full-on style, but refreshing. 

Next time – the party’s over: hangover advice for the compulsively convivial.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Things that go pop in the night

Even those of us who eschew sparkling wines at any other time of year suddenly feel the need to pop the cork on a bottle of fizz come Christmas time. The sound is emblematic of celebration and instantly puts people in a party mood.

As well as marking Christmas and New Year celebrations, fizz comes in handy for lightening the mood in many ways. Don’t grimace when yet another Christmas card from a distant acquaintance containing a nauseating and boastful round robin update on their triumphant achievements in 2013 drops onto the hall carpet – crack open a bottle of fizz and settle down to read it with a smile on your face.

This year a group of some of my oldest friends has agreed that we will write our own round robins – but they must contain no achievements and focus instead on minor disappointments (goodness knows plenty of those stack up by the end of the year). So no mentions of Lulu’s Grade 5 flute success or once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable holidays in far flung places. Instead it will feature things like broadband speeds remaining stubbornly sluggish, failed vegetable growing attempts and the new stair carpet still giving off a huge amount of fluff despite being down for months now. I can see I’m going to take to this round robin of misery like a duck to water. And I’m going to enjoy composing mine all the more with a glass of something sparkling by my side.

Here are some sparkling wines on which I would be happy to pop the cork this festive season:


 From almost complete obscurity in this country 20 years ago, Prosecco has now almost become the default sparkling wine for any occasion.  The Prosecco grape’s naturally high acidity is traditionally mitigated with some sweetness in the wine, so the most common style we see here is labelled “Extra Dry” which, counter-intuitively, actually means off-dry.  Properly dry versions will have “Brut” on the label.  Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Prosecco Conegliano Brut is usually £9.99, but has been reduced to £7.49, and if you act quickly to take advantage of their 25% off 6 bottles promotion running until 10 December, you can snap it up for just £5.62. Or you can give it large with a magnum for just £10.49. It has plenty of fresh, ripe pear aromas and fine bubbles and is perfectly nice for a pre-lunch glass or evening aperitif, if not particularly refined.  Caves de Pyrène’s Prosecco Bellenda Brut 2012 has more elegance, but then it will set you back £14.76.

Pink fizz
Rosé wines have been the only growth category in UK wine consumption in recent years. This, along with our unquenchable thirst for fizz, has made the pink sparkling wine category a success story. The upside is that there is more choice than ever before – the predictable downside, that quality is not always what it should be.

I’ve yet to find a rosé Cava that I could recommend and pink Prosecco seems disappointing - more material for my round robin there. For a good value party pink fizz I’d plump for The Society’s Saumur Rosé Brut NV (£9.95 from The Wine Society). Made by the venerable house of Gratien & Meyer from Cabernet Franc with a little of the un-prepossessingly named Grolleau, it has a delightful fruity freshness. Light enough to drink on its own, it would also be happy to keep company with that Christmas staple, smoked salmon.

Other sparkling wines
As you are no doubt heartily fed up of hearing, any sparkling wine made anywhere than the designated Champagne region in northern France cannot legally use that name. However, France is awash with other sparkling wines, many made in the same way, though perhaps not with the special magic of Champagne itself.

I have particularly enjoyed Champalou Vouvray Brut NV (£15.97 from Caves de Pyrène or £14.50 from Great Western Wine) recently. The Champalous make their sparkling wine from Vouvray’s Chenin Blanc grape and, unusually, let the second fermentation in bottle use nothing but the residual sugar in the base wine to create the fizz – usually sugar is added along with the yeast.  The result is a wine that has a delicious light, floral character as well as Chenin’s appley fruit, and a gentler mousse. It is refined yet quaffable – which can be a dangerous combination.


There are so many Champagnes out there and many of you will have houses that you favour. If you are open to some suggestions, though, I can heartily recommend Sainsbury’s own label Blanc de Noirs Brut NV. I snapped up a few bottles of this food-friendly, savoury Champers made from the black-skinned varieties Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, earlier this year when it was on offer. In the meantime, it has managed to bag itself a Gold medal at this year’s International Wine Challenge. There’s nothing like having your own good opinion of something confirmed by others for making you feel even more well-disposed towards it. Even better, this bottle is currently available at Sainsbury’s for a frankly ridiculous £12.75 a bottle, as part of their buy 6 bottles and save 25% promotion until 10 December. If you’re not squeamish about putting a supermarket label fizz on the table (and I’m not) then get thyselves to Sainsbury’s pronto.

Waitrose’s Champagne Brut Special Reserve Vintage 2004 (reduced to £25.99 from £30.99 from now until January) is a Pinot Noir dominated blend (60%), with the rest Chardonnay. It has lovely maturing flavours of bread, toast and spice along with baked apple.  The long ageing (3 years on the lees, then further in bottle before release) has given it a fine mousse that makes it particularly suitable for food.

These supermarket labels are far better value than the “never heard of them before” Champagnes that supermarkets offer at “half price” at this time of year. I’d always rather see a tried and trusted supermarket name on the label. Here endeth the lesson.