IT IS surely no accident that our nation celebrates three major festivals at the end of each of its darkest months.
Compared to St Andrew’s Night and Hogmanay, Burns Night puts our traditional food and drink centre stage – although matching one to the other can be tricky.
Proposing whisky for the Address to the Haggis is the easy part – but which one? I would counsel steering clear of excess peat, power and smoke. That said, Highland Park 12 Year Old (£30.99, Sainsbury’s) works satisfactorily but then it has touches of heather and honey sweetness to tone down any peat-based smokiness.
Other successful options emerged when I paired haggis with the fruitier, sherried malts, and the ginger aspects of the oloroso-influenced Glendronach 12 Year Old (£34.99, The Whisky Shop) struck up a cosy alliance with the spicier elements of haggis.
Power is important, as even very pleasing whisky such as Aberlour 12 Year Old Double Cask Matured (£36.99, The Whisky Shop) proves a shade too rich and robust. The highest marks, though, go to The Macallan Gold (£34.97, Asda), with its gentle mélange of sherry, chocolate and vanilla accentuated by opening hints of citrus and clove.
Whisky’s alcoholic strength makes it unsuitable for right through the meal so wine has a part to play, although reds can be a problem. I have found good matches between haggis and garnacha, pinot noir and the recommended red for curries – carmenere – but no variety has been consistently effective. As a general rule, try to use a young, fruity red and avoid anything with too much oak or tannin.
Better, however, to select white wine and the real star with haggis is gewürztraminer. In the variety’s spiritual home, Alsace, the Cave de Turckheim is synonymous with good value and, true to form, this year’s top haggis match is the 2011 Finest Alsace Gewürztraminer (£7.99) it produces for Tesco. It delivers all the classic honey, lychee and floral peach flavours yet underpins them with fresh, citrus-based acidity.
If you prefer a little less perfume but greater depth and a more defined lime-centred finish, go instead for the 2011 Alsace Gewurztraminer (£9.99, M&S).
For a sound but inexpensive example from outside Turckheim, seek out 2011 Gewurztraminer Cellier du Pape St Leon (£8.79, Co-op). It embellishes the usual exotic fruit with a gentle prickle but also includes hints of tangerine and sherbet. An alternative take on the variety can be found in New Zealand with 2011 Villa Maria Private Bin Gewurztraminer (£7.99 until 4 February, Majestic). Here the lychee flavours are supplemented by parsley, mint and other herbs to provide a simpler, drier but nicely balanced version.
Beer also provides a credible option but avoid anything overly assertive. A good match can be found in Williams Bros Fraoch Heather Ale (£1.50, down from £1.89 until 10 February, Morrisons). It has spicy touches while its maltiness is restrained and the heather components provide echoes of the whisky used elsewhere in the meal.
Non-drinkers need not miss out, thanks to the affinity between haggis and Gran Stead’s Light & Fiery Ginger Wine (£4.25, www.gransteadsginger.co.uk). The meat moderates the wine’s fiery edge whereas alcohol can increase the effect of spice in food.
It is pretty radical to bring together beer, wine and whisky over a meal, but I am keeping my support low key, so this week’s birthday boy cannot accuse me of raising “a fracas... ’Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus”.
2011 Chateau de Cléray Muscadet de Sevre et Maine Sur Lie Loire, France, 12 per cent
Give the current muscadet revival more legs by sampling the clean and fresh grapefruit flavours on display here. Note the way they are intensified by some nutty, mineral touches and enriched by the extra time the wine has spent on its lees.
£7.99, Majestic (as part of a mixed case) but going up by a pound next month
2010 Pecchenino San Luigi Dolcetto di Dogliani Piedmont, Italy, 13 per cent
A really tasty red from a seriously under-rated grape; the dolcetto. It delivers vibrant spice and nutty undertones that add complexity to its fresh, very pronounced plum and cherry fruit.