The 12 wines of Christmas
Don't leave anything to chance! The key to a successful festive season is military planning, says our wine expert.
Let us imagine the scene: the table is resplendent with candles, the best cutlery, the crispest linen. Cooking smells waft from the kitchen. You have all enjoyed nibbling canapés and sipping one of the less ostentatious, but more sophisticated, champagnes you prided yourself on sourcing. And now, as the organic goose is carved, you select the moderately expensive, elegant claret airing on the sideboard. A sparkling crystal glass in your hand, you take a casual sniff before pouring. Instantly, your benevolent smile freezes. The musty smell and a discreet sip confirm your fears: it's corked, undrinkable. But you don't panic – another bottle is ready. Phew. Until it's knocked over by your daughter as she reaches for red cabbage.
Never mind the mess; your mind is spinning, making frantic, ruthless calculations – you have approximately three-quarters of a bottle for six people. Not enough. Maybe someone will continue with the champagne? No – all gone. What about that leftover half-bottle of supermarket plonk? Nope, most went into the jus. It wasn't that good anyway.
In desperation, your food congealing, you head for your dusty garage-cum-wine-cellar, cursing for thinking two would suffice. Argh. Just one bottle of the decent stuff left; the consequence of a particularly enjoyable eve-of-Christmas Eve. This bottle is also very cold and by the time it has warmed up, you will all be on to the port and Stilton...
Aghast, you remember again: the 20-year-old vintage port was polished off during your most recent dinner party. You forgot to buy any more. Slinking back into your seat – a cobwebby wreck – you witness the last claret being poured into someone else's glass and your father-in-law seeking a refill. Shuddering, you grasp your garage-chilled claret and head for the microwave...
All of this shows that the secret of successful Christmas drinking is military-style planning, because this is no time to leave anything to chance. Ensure, as you hunker down for the season, that you have enough supplies in-house to cater for all eventualities over several days and for meals involving several different types of alcohol – from a half-decent bottle on Christmas Eve, some mid-priced but respectable gluggers for unexpected guests and lunchtime leftovers, to something for suddenly thirsty relatives and all the ingredients for a restorative Bloody Mary – what, no celery salt? And that extra special bottle for a special meal.
Consult a good wine dealer, avoid last-minute, tears-before-bedtime trips to off-licences. Uncork, decant and taste reds and ports well in advance so they are warm, aired and to ascertain that they are precisely what you have paid for. Do not assume that all cheeses need red wines – smelly Vacherin demands a brisk, minerally white to cut through farmyard flavours, while roast beef will overwhelm a light red. Do not over-chill fine whites. Rosé is never a winter drink – unless it sparkles. Use cheap brandy to flame Christmas pudding, not your aged Armagnac.
Shrink from experimentation – do not risk opening that juicy red brought from Croatia in the summer – and shun the Hungarian sparkler on supermarket special offer or the half-drunk bottle of port sitting in the cupboard since last year. The former will rarely deserve its billing – that discount will have a reason – and the latter will have gone off.
So much for the secret of seasonal drinking. What about the secret pleasures? Enough for several pages, undeniably, but here are some: drinking champagne on Christmas morning, surrounded by happy children and wrapping paper mountains; and the many perfect marriages of food and drink – that tingling, briny, mouthful of oyster and Chablis, the sensually satisfying, once-a-year combinations of robust red wines and rich meats, warm mince pies and chilled sherry, Christmas pudding and port...
For me, these are a given. It is the accidental, incidental treats that offer most satisfaction – the guilty pleasure of Buck's Fizz and scrambled eggs in bed, the unexpected mulled wine after a Boxing Day walk, the last glass – always the best – of a really fine red with random lunchtime assemblies of cold meats and pickles. And the joy of sitting, at least once, in front of a late-night fire, in good company, with a bowl of walnuts and a bottle of aged tawny. Assuming you remembered to buy some, of course.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Yellow Label NV
One of the great names of champagne, Madame Clicquot's Yellow Label is a sophisticated aperitif for any festive celebration. A very fine mousse, delicately brioche-like on the palate, and a nice lingering finish. Ideal for canapés and crostini, but maybe also best supped, pyjama-clad, opening presents on Christmas morning. £29 (as part of a minimum purchase of six mixed bottles; normally £39), majestic.co.uk; £34.99, most major supermarkets
Jean-Paul Morel Reserve
Authentic, individual, artisanal champagne from Jean-Paul Morel, head of the co-operative in the Grand Cru village of Verzenay, most of whose grapes go to the big names. This is what he does with the remainder: aged for four years to allow the mellow, yeasty flavours to develop, this has real depth and the body to stand up to strong-flavoured nibbles or first courses. £23.99, champagnewarehouse.com
Philippe Michel, Cremant Du Jura
Stunningly good-value, award-winning wine, made in the Jura from 100 per cent Chardonnay grapes using the méthode champenoise. Bubbles that explode in the mouth, fresh tastes of apples and pears and a zingy touch of citrus make this an ideal sparkler for parties, as a base for Bellinis or Buck's Fizz or as an excellent aperitif. Then make your guests guess the price. £6.99, Aldi
A fabulously full-bodied blend from Eben Sadie, one of South Africa's most interesting producers. A mix of mainly Chenin Blanc with white Grenache, Viognier and Rousanne delivers an intense mouthful that develops on the palate with masses of tropical citrus fruits and notes of straw, nuts and honey, but finishes dry and fresh. Drink with richer foods, prime fish or pungent, soft cheeses. £14.95, thewinesociety.com; £16.65, slurp.co.uk
Les Domaines Brocard Chablis 2007
A classic steely, mineral Chablis from one of Burgundy's top wine-makers makes a refined partner for smoked salmon, tuna carpaccio, oysters or similar starters. Clean, white-fruit flavours are balanced by some light, earthy touches – deriving from the organic production methods – which together produce a long, satisfying finish. £14.99, Marks & Spencer
Rioja Muga Blanca 2010
A very modern wine from one of Rioja's oldest houses, based in Haro, where there is a bodega on almost every corner. Barrel fermentation in new oak gives a spicy, vanilla edge to very fresh and appealing flavours of lemons and limes, which together make this a good accompaniment for, say, a Christmas Eve carp, vegetable dishes or a tapas selection. £8.99 (each, when two are purchased as part of a minimum of six mixed bottles; normally £10.99), majestic.co.uk
Lirac Clos de Sixte 2006
Almost wild; massive flavours of spices, dark chocolate and black fruits characterise this rustic, brooding beast of a wine from the southern Rhône, created by the highly rated producer Alain Jaume from a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grown close to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Perfect for a Christmas Day goose or blue cheeses. Decant, but beware the 15 per cent alcohol content! £15.99, ewwines.co.uk; £16.99, lastdropwines.com
La Croix des Rameaux Brouilly 2009
It may hail from one of the Beaujolais villages but this is more like a Burgundy or Rhône bottle, the normally lightweight gamey grape deriving real finesse and understated power from 80-year-old vines. With succulent black- and blueberry flavours, a fresh texture and a fantastic earthy, mineral finish, it is an excellent match for roast turkey or chicken. £20.70, exelwines.co.uk; £21.79, agwines.com (minimum purchase six bottles); £21.99, lescaves.co.uk (2010 vintage)
Los Molles Carménère 2009
A lip-smackingly smooth and succulent Carménère from Chile, where the grape is performing some wondrous feats. It is well-balanced, with oaky, smoky, base notes countering the upfront juicy fruit flavours. A terrific all-purpose, very approachable wine that is good with Mediterranean-style dishes, great with cold meats or simply ideal as a party wine. £9.49, Marks & Spencer
Taylor's 10-Year-Old Tawny
Different to vintage port, tawnys come from careful blending of different wines kept in cask for an average of 10 years (or up to 40, depending on the size of your wallet) and the result is layers of satisfyingly mellow nutty and figgy flavours, becoming more acutely sherry- or even brandy- like with age. The port to drink fireside, with a plate of strong cheeses, fruit and a bowl of walnuts. £19.99, Waitrose; £20.29, Sainsburys; £17.99 (as part of a minimum purchase of six mixed bottles; normally £21), majestic.co.uk
Graham's Late Bottled Vintage 2006
Rich, concentrated liquorice and ripe jammy, red-fruit flavours abound in this accessible port, matured in oak for five years to give it a vintage style, yet still relatively youthful and drinkable. Give it plenty of time to breathe, but once opened port must be drunk within a week or so. For the richest and sweetest desserts as well as the Cropwell Bishop Stilton. £12.99, most major supermarkets
Campbell's Rutherglen Muscat
An Aussie "sticky" that sums up the season in a glass – fabulous floral aromas giving way to luscious and honeyed flavours, full of sweet dried fruits such as raisins, dates and apricots, but with a surprisingly clean edge that prevents it from being too cloying, and a taste that lingers forever. Drink lightly chilled with Christmas pudding or cake, mincemeat tart and blue cheeses. £10.99, Waitrose, Ocado, adnams.co.uk
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