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.

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