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.

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