Friday, 12 December 2008

One day like this a year...

Everyone can dream. While my children concoct their ideal lists of toys for Father Christmas to bring, I pore over wine merchants’ lists, choosing my ideal wines that I will organize myself, rather than leaving Father Christmas in charge. So here’s my self-indulgent fantasy Christmas Day…

I’ll start with something fizzy of course – Buck’s Fizz with breakfast maybe. Any old Cava will do, but good quality orange juice really makes it.

We like to have our Christmas dinner in the evening, so lunch is usually something simple and quick – a light and refreshing wine will do the trick here, but it is Christmas so Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé would make an indulgent choice: Masson Blondelet Pouilly Fumé 2006, £11.49 at Waitrose, is very proper with fine acidity and minerality; Château de Sancerre, Sancerre 2007 is more floral and youthful and £13.99 at Majestic, or £12.99 if you buy two.

After lunch a quick dose of fresh air and a walk with the children, then back indoors to the business of getting the main event ready. Cooks always need something delicious to sip to keep morale up, and I fancy a dry amontillado sherry, sherry as it should be: dry, nutty and the ultimate winter pick me up. Sherry is not in the least fashionable, which means that fans can pick up fantastic value for money sherries for a relative song: Tesco Finest 12 year old Amontillado is just £6.99.

As the light fades we get ready to sit down to the feast. I tend to avoid starters, or the appetite is gone before the first sprout’s been eaten. The pop of a Champagne cork is redolent with the spirit of celebration and I’d love to crack open something special to kick off Christmas dinner in style.

I’m lucky enough to have a couple of bottles of Taittinger vintage Champagne squirreled away and now could be the time to pop the cork. Big name vintage Champagnes are going to set you back £30 and up, but supermarkets do a good job of sourcing Champagnes which they release under their own label – a great way to get better Champagne for less money, as long as you are not squeamish about a supermarket name on the label. The stylish Waitrose Brut Special Reserve Vintage 2002 will set you back £24.99; Tesco Finest Vintage Champagne 2002, a sophisticated, dry but fruity mouthful is £19.96.

For some people, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a fine claret, but I’m pleasing myself here, so I’ll go for a New Zealand pinot noir, specifically from Central Otago. These don’t come cheap but, for my money, you’d have to spend about twice as much to get the same excitement from Burgundy, home of the world’s greatest pinot noirs. Mount Difficulty’s Roaring Meg Pinot Noir (£17.49, down to £13.99 if you buy two, at Majestic) is a fantastic illustration of the style: lush, velvety fruit but in no way a blockbuster. For those who prefer something white I’ll splash out on a decent bottle of white Burgundy for a classic taste of luscious, juicy chardonnay fruit given a healthy dose of oak. Domaine Juillot Mercurey Premier Cru “Clos des Barraults” 2005 (£16.99 at Majestic) perhaps, or Philippe le Hardi Mercurey 2006, £14.99 at Waitrose.

Christmas pud is a hard thing to match with classic dessert wines – to keep pace with the intense flavours and dense sweetness you need a wine with guts. Step forward Stanton and Killeen Rutherglen Muscat, £8.43 for a half bottle from Les Caves de Pyrène, based in Artington outside Guildford. Made from late harvested Muscat grapes, matured for years in oak barrels in the hot Australian sun to achieve a burnished amber colour and figgy, candied-peel flavours this is a liquid version of Christmas pudding or mince pies.

The children take themselves off to bed while the grown-ups settle down in front of a film, or maybe a sociable board game. There’ll be an aged tawny port to sip and a few salted almonds and fancy chocolates to nibble on. Warre’s Otima 10 year old tawny port positively heaves with nutty, spicy aromas and flavours and is widely available from around £10.50 for a 50cl bottle.

The reality…the children will no doubt wake the whole house at some entirely unreasonable hour: the buck’s fizz will be cast aside as unsuitable for breakfast at 7am; the same children will of course flat out refuse to go for “A walk???” or to take themselves off to bed when we think they ought to, so our late evening film might end up being a children’s DVD. My fantasy Christmas Day will probably never materialise, but we can all dream…

Note: it seems churlish to question the benefit of a VAT reduction, but here goes. While VAT was lowered in the Chancellor’s pre-budget, duty was increased. For most wines the drop in VAT is roughly equal to the increase in duty, so many retailers have chosen to hold wine prices at their previous levels. However, retailers do have slightly differing pricing policies and, while I’ve made every effort to verify that the prices I have quoted are correct, please do not hold it against any retailer if you find a slightly different price in their shops.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Pick of the (fizzy) pops

Champagne may be the wine of kings and the king of wines, but there are times when you want to create a celebratory mood with the evocative pop of a cork, without breaking the bank. So what are the options?

Traditional method wines are made in the same way as Champagne but, because they are made outside the specified geographical area of Champagne, cannot call themselves that. To help consumers, many will use the term traditional method, or a variant of it, on the bottle. It would be so much more helpful, nevertheless, if such wines could be labelled “méthode champenoise” or “Champagne method”, but even such admiring use of the word is outlawed by the official body charged with protecting the Champagne name worldwide.

Top of any bargain-hunting fizz shopper’s list is Cava. Yours for around a fiver, or barely more, there are plenty of bottles out there to choose from. Cava is made in the same way as Champagne, but the grapes used are different: macabeo, xarello and parellada (hardly classic or well-known), though some also add a little chardonnay (one of the Champagne trio of grapes) to their blend. In what seems to be proof that the traditional method is no guarantee of quality, Cavas just don’t resemble Champagnes in any meaningful way. The grapes used must have a large part to play and unfortunately they are either excessively neutral, or rather earthy and with a tell-tale burnt rubber character. So, despite the low price, I would rather not drink Cava – unless it’s as a base for a buck’s fizz, where its neutral character is a virtue, or any earthiness is masked by orange juice.

A step up in quality from Cava is the wide range of sparkling wines made around the world in largely the same mould as Champagne. The closest, geographically speaking, is crémant.

Crémant is the term used to describe any sparkling wine made in France and using the same production method as Champagne, but outside the Champagne region. Burgundy, home of chardonnay and pinot noir for its renowned still white and red wines, uses these same grapes to make crémants that are a fair copy of Champagne, with perhaps greater weight of fruit and a touch less elegance. Majestic list the ultra-reliable Louis Bouillot Perle de Vigne Crémant de Bourgogne NV for £11.99, or £7.99 if you buy two. For £10.99 you can try the same producer’s (they seem to have this market sewn up) 2005 Perle Rare at Waitrose. This last also lists Cave de Lugny Crémant de Bourgogne NV Blanc de Blancs (ie made from chardonnay only) for £8.99.

Other French regions make their own crémants, based on their regional speciality grapes. In the Loire, chenin blanc dominates, while Alsace crémants are usually predominantly pinot blanc – though Tesco has an interesting Finest* Alsace crémant made entirely from Riesling for £8.99.

Champagne lite
Champagne houses themselves are not slow to spot an opportunity to extend their brand and there are a number of New World outposts of names which you might recognize from closer to home. If you fancy a taste of Champagne expertise at a (slight) discount, then give one of these a go. Mumm Cuvée Napa is a reliable performer, with good fruit expression and great drinkability – Waitrose list it for £11.99, Majestic has it for the same price, but down to £8.99 if you buy two. Green Point is Moet & Chandon’s parent company’s Australian sparkler – the 2004 vintage is £19.49, or £12.99 if you buy two, at Majestic; or £13.99 for a single bottle at Waitrose. Arguably top of the quality tree is Roederer Quartet, which will set you back £18.99 at Waitrose, £19.99 for a single bottle at Majestic, down to £14.99 if you buy two.

New World sparklers
We’re in danger here of approaching Champagne prices, so bargain hunters should perhaps head for true New World expressions of the traditional method. One of the stalwarts of the style is Lindauer Special Select or Special Reserve: it’s undergoing a name change, so you may see it called either. In any case this wine is predominantly pinot noir, topped up with chardonnay and has the most delightful blush of negligée pink. The strawberries and cream nose gives way to a more seriously savoury palate, perfect with smoked salmon. You can pick this up at Wine Rack for £11.99 each or £7.99 at their 3 for 2 price; £9.99 at Waitrose, though it will be down to £7.49 from 3rd December; £9.99, or £7.49 if you buy two, at Majestic.

Home grown
An honourable mention must to our own English sparkling wines, which have been improving steadily for a number of years. Our marginal climate for grape ripening becomes a virtue when making sparkling wines, which need high levels of acidity rather than full ripeness to be successful. The wines are made in the same way as Champagne and often using the classic Champagne grape varieties of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. On the other hand, our domestic wine industry is small-scale and cannot produce wines in such quantity that the prices can compete with the New World – you just cannot make quality sparkling wine here for under ten quid. However, in an effort to boost our economy it is your duty to try at least one of these: Chapel Down Brut NV, £19.99, or £13.33 at the 3 for 2 price at Wine Rack delivers a creamy nose and a fruity palate with some spice courtesy of the distinctly un-Champagne-y Reichensteiner grape. Ridgeview, based near Burgess Hill, make a creditable range of sparklers, including the chardonnay-dominated Ridgeview Merrett Bloomsbury 2005/6, available at Waitrose for £19.99.