Friday, 21 December 2007

Christmas wines - part 2

In my last article I gave suggestions for wines for festive season parties and entertaining. This week I’m turning my attention to the big day itself and focusing on special occasion wines for Christmas Day and beyond.

Start with sparkling

First things first, many of us like to start off with something fizzy, in the form of buck’s fizz. Can I make a plea to give ANY pre-made bottle of the stuff a wide berth and make up your own? Choose a cheap but dry sparkling wine (Cava is a good bet) and the best orange juice you can find and mix them 50:50. Waitrose’s own label Cava Brut Non Vintage at £5.49 makes a good, fairly neutral base.

Later in the day you might want to splash out on some of the real stuff – Champagne. Here are some of my favourites, in roughly ascending order of price:

Veuve Duval-Leroy NV is nominally £24.99 from Majestic, but goes down to £12.49 when you buy two (and why would you buy a single bottle when two bottles cost a penny less?). It’s well-made in a light style. Waitrose make a range of own label Champagnes which are good quality and offer terrific value for money. I particularly like the Waitrose Blanc de Blancs NV at £18.99 and the Waitrose Brut Special Reserve 1996 Vintage at £23.99 (if you’re a fan of vintage Champagne, you’ll know it’s all but impossible to find 1996 vintages any more). However, there are times when you may not want to have a supermarket’s name splashed over the front of your bottles: if this is you then try Bredon Brut NV, £14.79 from Waitrose. In effect it is an own-label Waitrose Champagne, but there is no mention on the bottle and it offers plenty of depth and flavour for the money. The best value vintage Champagne I’ve found is Heidsieck Gold Top 2002 from Majestic at £31.99 or £15.99 if you buy 2 bottles. However, my favourite Champagne under £30 is Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve. It’s a sort of half-way house between Non Vintage and Vintage Champagne and tells you when it was “mis en cave” (i.e. put into the cellar to age). Tesco have the mis en cave 2001 and Waitrose the 2003 both at £26.99. For my money the Waitrose version is the better one with lovely weight and depth of flavour and a hint of richness.

If Champagne is your passion and you want to splash out on something special, then have a look at these: 2003 by Bollinger is a one-off special edition Champagne from an exceptionally hot vintage, available from Majestic at £75 a pop, or £44.99 if you buy two. Threshers/Wine Rack have the same bottling at £59.99 each or £39.99 at the 3 for 2 price (or even less with their 40% off any 6 bottles current offer). The more classic Bollinger Grande Année 1999 is available at the same £75/£44.99 price from Majestic or £74.99/£49.99 from Threshers/Wine Rack.

The main event

Most of us still sit down to turkey and all the trimmings on Christmas Day. Many pre-selected gift boxes consist of the classic pairing of a white Burgundy and a red Bordeaux. I don’t happen to think either of those wines is a great match for Christmas dinner – but I have included some recommendations for them, as I know many of you will want to buy them.

White wines
What will I choose for my own Christmas Day bottles? I prefer red wine with my turkey, but, whatever your own tastes, you need to offer a white wine as well. However, in contrast to tradition I’d plump for a white Bordeaux and a Pinot Noir (the grape that makes red Burgundy). White Bordeaux is relatively unfashionable here, but deserves to be better known. They are usually made from a combination of ultra-fashionable Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes, with some oak-ageing to give a rounded, slightly spicy flavour. Here are my picks:

Waitrose’s Château Saint Jean-des-Graves 2006 at £6.49 offers layers of crunchy, peachy fruit with spicy length. G de Guiraud 2006, £7.99 from Majestic is a revelation: beautifully ripe, complex and rounded yet fresh.

If you want to stick with tradition and go for a white Burgundy (or Chardonnay), here’s my list of suitable candidates:

Pouilly Fuissé L Chavy 2006, £12.99/£8.66 or Jadot Les Climats Chardonnay 2004 £18.99/12.66 both from Threshers/Wine Rack. Tesco has Les Quatre Clochers Chardonnay Reserve 2005 at £6.99 or their own-label Tesco Finest Chablis 2006 at £7.99 – or you could strike out a little and try Evans & Tate Chardonnay 2006 from Western Australia’s Margaret River, £10.99 at Tesco.

Red wines
Pinot Noir grapes produce wines which are relatively low in tannin (the mouth-puckering substance which is very noticeable in red Bordeaux) and have plenty of raspberry or cherry fruit with some spice. These characters make it a good match for turkey (or goose for that matter), where other red wines would be too chewy. Pinot Noir would also be easy to drink along with ham, either hot or cold. It’s hard to make a good Pinot Noir for under £10, so there are few bargains to be had, but have a look out for these:

Majestic gets the ball rolling with New Zealander Waimea Estate Pinot Noir 2005/6 at £10.99 or £8.79 when you buy two. Villa Maria, also from New Zealand, have a reputation for well-made Sauvignon Blanc, but their Private Bin Pinot Noir 2006 (£11.99 or £7.99 3for2 at Threshers/Wine Rack) and Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2006 (£14.99 or £9.99 3for2, also Threshers/Wine Rack) show what they can do with this grape. Clean fruit flavours, with good depth.

If Pinot Noir doesn’t do it for you, you could try a Rioja from Spain. These oak-aged red wines offer ripe, sweet fruit and soft tannins thanks to their time in barrel. Majestic has Rioja Gran Reserva Torre Aldea 1998 on offer for £9.99 or £6.99 when you buy two bottles, which is a pretty unbeatable price for this level of quality. Or you could plump for the classic Marqués de Riscal Reserva 2002 (I would not be so keen on the 2003 vintage just yet) also at Majestic at £12.99 or £10.99 if you buy two. Waitrose has Marqués de Murrieta Reserva 2002 at £14.95, or you can get the same wine from Threshers/Wine Rack for £17.99, down to £11.99 at the 3for2 price.

If Christmas means claret for you, I’ve provided some recommendations below – although I’d rather serve these wines alongside some rare roast beef.

Waitrose’s superior own-label Saint Emilion 2005 is good value at £8.99. Château Martinens Margaux 2005, £15.99 from Tesco is very approachable, perfumed and good value from a highly-prized (and priced) vintage. Majestic offer La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2001 at £19.99 or £15.99 if you buy two: very “proper” and will impress even the biggest claret-loving visitor.

Bordeaux blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc hail from all over the world so for claret style with a twist you could try:

Rustenberg John X Merriman 2005 from Stellenbosch in South Africa, £9.99 at Waitrose. Or create a bit of a stir with Château Musar 2000, from the Lebanon and £13.99 at Tesco.

Whatever your festive drinking, be sure to enjoy it. Cheers!

Friday, 7 December 2007

Christmas wines - part 1

If the thought of all the things that somehow need to get done between now and Christmas is getting you in a sweat, then read on for some wine recommendations to make choosing the right wine for any occasion a breeze. This week’s column will focus on wines for entertaining and the next instalment will look at special wines to go with the delicious meals you’re planning over the festive period.

There are generally a few occasions when you want to entertain over the coming weeks, be it a drinks party for friends and neighbours to a full-blown party. Normal rules are also somehow suspended at this time of year and you may want to offer people who drop in at any time of day a glass of something, rather than the more usual cup of tea or coffee. With my shortlist of delicious wines to choose from, you should find yourself well-equipped to cope with them all.

There is nothing like a glass of something cold and fizzy to put you in a party mood. Most of us don’t normally run to the real stuff (I mean Champagne) when catering for a crowd. Fear not, there are plenty of eminently suitable alternatives, which won’t do such damage to your wallet.

Lindauer Special Select NV, £9.99 per bottle or £6.66 at the 3 for 2 bottle price at Thresher’s/Wine Rack, also £9.99 per bottle at Majestic, or £7.49 when you buy 2 or more. This is a long-standing favourite of mine from New Zealand, from mostly Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay grapes and made in the same way as Champagne (i.e. the second fermentation, the one that makes it fizzy, happens in the bottle, rather than in a tank). It has a gentle salmon pink hue, plenty of savoury-edged fruit and is a class act at a party – as well as a great match for smoked salmon.

Réserve de Château de Sours, £10.65 a bottle or £7.99 if you buy 2 or more bottles from Majestic. This Bordeaux chateau is famous for its still rosé wine – but now it’s having a go at a pink sparkler. UK wine drinkers have fallen for all things pink, leading to a rush by sparkling wine makers to make more pink fizz than ever. This one may not be up to the quality of classic rosé Champagne like Laurent-Perrier’s, but the price isn’t up in the stratosphere either. This is fun and frivolous, with plenty of raspberryish fruit.

White wines
You do have to be a little careful when buying white wines at the bargain basement end of the market. Cheap whites seem to show their cheapness in a way that reds don’t, so do make sure you’ve tried a wine for under £4 that you intend to serve to guests. You’re not necessarily looking to wow them with Premier Cru Chablis, but don’t give them anything you wouldn’t be happy to drink yourself!

St Hallett Poachers White 2006, £7.99, or £5.33 3 for 2 price at Thresher’s/Wine Rack. The Barossa Valley is warm, even by Australian standards, and is best known for big, beefy Shirazes. This white wine is an interesting and lively blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling – fun, crisp, fruity and definitely not cheap-tasting.

Domaine de l’Olivette Blanc 2006, £4.99 from Waitrose. This wine gives quite remarkable quality and enjoyment for under £5, especially when you know it’s made from organically grown grapes – one to impress your right-on eco friends with perhaps. This is in no way a worthy wine though: made from a blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Bourboulenc, it’s flavoursome and quite weighty with green apple, yellow plum and blossom aromas with some spice thrown in for good measure.

Red wines
With red wines you have to consider tannins: all red wines have them, to some degree and they are what gives red wine its mouth-coating quality. High levels of tannin will remind you of stewed tea, sticking your gums together. If you’re having a red wine with a meaty main meal, those tannins combine with the meat proteins and become relatively more smooth and less noticeable. However, at a party where food is not the main event, those high tannins will be exposed and the wine will be less enjoyable. The best plan, therefore, is to avoid wine styles with prominent tannins, such as red Bordeaux or Chianti, indeed anything red from Northern Italy, generally speaking.

Señorio de Lampedusa Oak Aged 2004 is £5.99 or £3.99 at the 3 for 2 price at Thresher’s/Wine Rack. This wine hails from Navarra, the region next door to Rioja – the wines tend to be similar in style, but you generally get more for your money in Navarra, although perhaps in a more rustic style. For parties, though, this offers a mouthful of dense, brambly fruit, soft tannins and spice thanks to a little oak ageing, as well as a couple of years or so in bottle. By the way, there is a more expensive Crianza version of this same wine (priced at £8.99 or £5.99 3 for 2) but I think the cheaper one is more fun and a better buy.

Douglas Green Shiraz Mourvèdre 2005, £3.99 from Tesco. There is lots of interest for the price here. Shiraz and Mourvèdre grapes originate in the warm south of the Rhône Valley in France, but are obviously doing well in the equally warm Western Cape of South Africa, delivering plenty of dark, spicy fruit.

Just dropping in
At this time of year, it pays to have a couple of bottles of something ready for guests at any time. Here’s the kind of thing I would like to have on standby.

Tesco Finest Pinot Gris 2005, £5.99. This is the same grape variety as Pinot Grigio of Italy – but made in a very different style. Alsace, in the far East of France, straddles the vinous and geographical divide between France and Germany. Equally good with or without food, this wine is quite weighty, with floral aromas and a spicy finish. It is off dry – but in fact most of us like a little sweetness, if we’re honest.

Château de Chénas Moulin à Vent 2006, £9.99 from Waitrose. Beaujolais is deeply unfashionable with British wine drinkers – the result of too much bubblegummy Beaujolais Nouveau perhaps. This, though, is the real thing, from one of the best areas and is soft, fruity and aromatic. Beaujolais is the ultimate Parisian wine bar wine, a sign that it can be drunk on its own, or with something snacky.

If you’re offering mince pies, Christmas cake or anything equally sweet, you need an even sweeter wine to go with them – anything less sweet will end up tasting horribly sharp and dry. My favourite is De Bortoli Liqueur Muscat, £8.49 from Majestic. Liqueur Muscat is a unique wine style made only in the hottest wine producing regions of Australia. The wine is aged in barrels in what are essentially tin-roofed shacks, producing complex, intensely sweet wines after a number of years. This one is a heady mixture of fig, prune, clove, cinnamon and nuts –Christmas spice in a bottle.

Next time: special wines for Christmas dinner and beyond.