ONCE the main course has been cleared and the dessert arrives everyone (especially the chief cook) can relax a bit.
Here are a few suggestions to help you slip gently into postprandial bliss.
It is a great pity dessert wine has gone seriously out of fashion because there are few better companions for a traditional Christmas pudding. Possibly to precipitate a mini revival, several very keenly priced versions have been introduced this year.
Two of them are beerenauslese wines – where grapes are chosen individually because they have been benignly dehydrated by the botrytis fungus to leave grape juice with super concentrated sweetness.
One, simply called Beerenauslese (£4.99 for a half bottle, Aldi), is from Austria and delivers richness and the inevitable smooth honey flavours but neatly tempers them with shrewdly judged lemon-based acidity. Sainsbury’s even more modestly named House Dessert Wine (£3.99 for a half bottle) is German, but this time the honey flavours are underpinned with peach influences that mellow the wine yet ensure it never cloys. Do not be misled by the price of either – both are really well-made versions and terrific value.
Value is also strongly in evidence with 2009 Haut Charmes Sauternes (£15.50 for a half bottle, From Vineyards Direct). David Campbell, who founded FVD, says this is a declassified Bordeaux sweetie (because output exceeded officialdom’s limit) that represents “a tiny parcel of the surplus production from the most famous of all Sauternes vineyards”. By all means try to decode what he says but, whatever you do, do not miss out on the rich, apricot-centred opulence and velvety complexity of this wine.
Once the figgy pudding is demolished, thoughts turn to a digestif and, naturally, to Scotland’s national drink.
Despite the massive worldwide demand for whisky, it is good to see several distilleries putting the focus on quality and tradition rather than volume. Consider, for example, the affable Billy Walker who oversaw the resurrection of the old maltings at BenRiach only last month. Similarly, he has revived the experimentation with wood finishing at its sister distillery, Glendronach.
Pour yourself a dram of The Glendronach Virgin Oak Finish 14 Year Old (£42, AD Rattray) and note the extra sweetness and the more forceful banana, vanilla and spice flavours the new American oak bestows upon it.
While Glendronach is always associated with sherry, it was another fortified wine that also hit the spot for me – Balvenie 21 Year Old Portwood – although it does cost almost double that Virgin Oak Glendronach. The Portwood’s pronounced fruit (cherry and something quite a bit darker) comes in part from its spell in old port pipes but one can also discern honey and a real freshness that adds an additional vibrancy. It is good to see that, contrary to the traditional advice, grape and grain can work well together at times.
If, however, Santa judges that you have been a paragon of virtue, he may stump up the necessary £100-plus to put Johnnie Walker Blue Label in your stocking. If you are that lucky, then sit back and quietly appreciate its long, toasty, honey and spice flavours and luxuriate in what many consider to be the ultimate in balance and smoothness. At a more modest price, I have also enjoyed the Glenrothes Select Reserve (around £30) with its plum fruit that acquires hints of orange and lemon before dropping into a nutty, vanilla finish. Perhaps it was just me but that wide flavour range and those citrus influences worked well as an aperitif. Obviously, to avoid anaesthetising your tastebuds, you do need to add at least the suggested ‘half as much again’ of water to bring the alcohol percentage down into the twenties.
Before we leave whisky, and given the Scottish influences that many detect in Kentucky, you might also like to try Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (£25 to £30). This is corn/rye bourbon with an impressive smoothness and harmony and a clove-centred opening that acquires some attractive elements of vanilla and mintiness as you work your way through it.
Although these days more whisky than Cognac is drunk in France, the increasing demand for Cognac elsewhere in the world creates many a smile for the big four corporations responsible for around 90 per cent of the region’s output. However, there are still niche distilleries that produce traditional versions.
Take the engaging Alexandre Gabriel, president of Cognac Ferrand, which operates in the so-called Golden Triangle – a predominately limestone area often associated with top-level Cognac. Although Cognac production differs from that of whisky, Gabriel produces results that also scale the heights. Test his prowess by sampling Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac (£35-£40) with its delightful floral opening and fruit flavours that combine apples and prunes.
Cognac also forms a significant part of the familiar Cordon Rouge Grand Marnier with its lovely base of bitter orange but, this Christmas, the company has launched a very chic Paris Limited Edition Grand Marnier. Prices start around £26 for a 70cl bottle – as against the customary 50cl one.
Although I am great fan of the marmalade sharpness behind original Grand Marnier, I have been impressed by this latest version. The limited edition still carefully avoids excess sweetness but seems to offer a more refined smoothness and a greater depth. In addition to the conventional orange and ginger, it also delivers touches of honey, caramel and toffee apple.