Although we tend to associate sauvignon blanc with summer, it also has a place on the Christmas table – especially now the 2012 vintage from New Zealand is becoming established in the shops.
As that harvest was down around 20 per cent on 2011, wine from some smaller growers is less easy to locate. But lower yields often mean higher quality.
Certainly, there is no lapse in the consistently high standard of Kevin Judd’s results, as is seen from his 2012 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc (£16.99, Lockett Bros, North Berwick). Its gooseberry, peach and basil flavours make it the ideal companion for any shellfish-centred Christmas first course.
Alternatively, seek out another Kiwi star in the form of the rounded but intense 2012 Rod Easthope Sauvignon Blanc (£11.99, Naked Wines) with its vibrant tangerine and grapefruit flavours made more complex by attractive hints of apple.
Easthope is one of the smaller growers helped significantly by Naked Wines’ Angel drinker/investors who – as their dividend – only have to pay £8.49 for this particular bottle.
Christmas starters can, of course, also be rich enough to demand a more substantial white and, thus, make the case for a traditional and good-quality white burgundy. Step forward, then, 2010 Pernand Vergelesses Les Combottes Blanc (£26, M&S) with its delightful, perfumed smooth orange and lemon-based flavours that fully justify the necessary step up the price levels.
The beauty of quality chardonnay like that is its versatility since it can also fit well with turkey and with the cheese. Traditionalists have been amazed by the terrific partnership the variety strikes up with cheddar as well as softer cheeses like brie. In fact, chardonnay provided three of the top five ‘Best Match with Mature Cheddar’ results in the What Food What Wine competition. Bold experimentation like that often pays off with cheese; how else would the world know that double Gloucester and Australia’s port-inspired Grant Burge 10 Year Old Tawny (£19.75, www.slurp.co.uk) marry brilliantly with one another?
Equally, however, some long-standing partnerships still prove themselves time after time, such as stilton and port – even though that Grant Burge Tawny also does a fair job. Anyone seeking good-value port, however, should go straight to Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port (£10, down from £14 until 1 January, Tesco). This, to me, is the pick of the LBV ranges. Remember, there is a bigger gap on the quality ladder between late-bottled vintage and entry-point ruby than the price difference suggests. LBV, of course, starts off in the same way as traditional vintage port but the latter only stays in cask for two years before beginning its bottle maturation for, typically, 15 years. Late bottling means pretty much what it says on the label. After four to six years the port is finally filtered and bottled but the extra time means it is ready to drink straight away. This Taylor’s example shows some of the classic rich and smooth characteristics of vintage port nicely wrapped around with attractive spicy plum flavours.
Tawny port spends much longer in cask (almost all its maturation in fact) which adds those appealing nutty favours but extracts much of its colour, hence its name. If there is any left on the shelves, an excellent example is Offley 30 Year Old Tawny Port (£37.99, Aldi) with all the classic figgy, caramel and slightly honeyed flavours but with a light, citrus finish to keep it fresh. Other good port options can be found among the single quinta versions (a quinta is a farm, estate or vineyard). These are often made when the overall harvest does not quite merit the inter-vineyard blending needed to ‘declare a vintage’ but individual quintas still have a supply of top-quality grapes. The result is simpler, less expensive port that is ready sooner but can still delight – such as the slightly minty, cherry- centred 1996 Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha (£26.49, Morrisons).
Many consider tawny to be the crossroads between port and sherry and the recent revival of sherry has highlighted exactly what superstars lie down that road. I was hugely impressed by the award-winning Fernando de Castilla Antique Pedro Ximenez (£25.20, Great Grog) with its intensely rich and concentrated figgy and coffee touches that nevertheless preserve an underlying lightness. Along similar (less intense) lines, is Madeira which is also coming nicely back into fashion. Try, for instance, the full, dried fruit, chocolate and vanilla flavours of 2004 Blandy’s Harvest Malmsey Madeira (£20.99, Adnams, 01502 727222).
Naturally, when talk turns to fortified wines one thinks of aperitifs and here are a couple of suggestions for that important prelude to Christmas lunch. The Hidalgo Manzanilla La Gitana (£7.99, Majestic) won a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge with its delightful crisp, nutty flavours that sit beneath the classic salty and tangy manzanilla style. For something a little less orthodox, seek out Warre’s Otima 10 (£13.50, Tesco), a ten-year-old tawny specially developed to be served chilled. It delivers an appealing light, fresh, fruity but nutty appetite sharpener that has become very chic.
Of equal value as an aperitif – or in the fridge for one of the unexpected visitors that make Christmas so special – could be Fentimans & Bloom Gin and Tonic (£3.99 for 275ml, Sainsbury’s). I was a bit sceptical about pre-mixed G&T but, compared to what I mix at home, mine came out distinctly second best. Because of its top-quality ingredients, this was lighter, smoother and more delicate. It starts with some nice lemongrass touches from the tonic but the whole thing has a pleasing roundedness that balances perfectly with the complex botanicals of Bloom gin.
Finally, an unusual beer. St Stefanus Blonde Beer is a terrific 7 per cent alcohol Belgian beer that comes in 330ml (£2.95) or 750ml bottles (£8.95, both from www.st-stefanus-shop.co.uk). Enjoy its measured effervescence and flavour range that includes a cereal and lemon undercurrent, textured fruitiness and a slightly bitter finish.
It could provide the ideal antidote to the richness of traditional Christmas fare.