Wine: Brian Elliot ‘Something about the festive season brings out the mixologist in us all’

Mixing it up: Cocktails are a great accompaniment to any festive gathering
Mixing it up: Cocktails are a great accompaniment to any festive gathering
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SOMETHING about the festive season brings out the mixologist in us all – not just in the young cocktail warriors who have given the genre momentum this millennium. Here, then, are a few traditional cocktail ideas that should serve as Christmas crowd-pleasers.

As the classic Amaretto Sour illustrates, cocktails certainly do not need to be complex. This one simply involves shaking together ice, a shot of Amaretto and four shots of lemon juice, then straining into a tall glass and topping it up with soda water.

Often, however, at this time of year, drinks need to offer a little central heating. On those days, how about a Ginger Smash, as recommended by Wayne Collins from BBC TV’s Something for the Weekend? This is centred around 35ml of cognac and 15ml of crème de pêche, topped up with a spicy ginger beer (Crabbies Fiery works well). Since it also includes two wedges of fresh, ripe peach, two wedges of a fresh orange and half a dozen leaves of mint, muddle-shaking and then straining is needed; take care though to remove any pips and only bruise – not grind – the mint.

In case any traditionalists are bristling at the idea of adding anything at all to cognac, I was reassured to hear how relaxed one of Hennessy’s senior managers is about the idea. “I don’t mind folk adding cola to our cognac – it makes their coke taste so much better.”

Seasonal heat takes a slightly different form with December Tea Punch, which, as its name implies, is based on two pints of hot black tea with 200ml of honey dissolved in it. Then 250ml of orange liqueur is added, along with the juice of two lemons and two oranges and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. Heat and stir the resulting punch – but avoid letting it boil – then pour into heatproof glasses and crown with whipped cream.

Finally, the BBC Good Food website brings some sparkle to the sweater season with the Ginger Champagne Cocktail. Here, 250g of caster sugar and 250ml of water are heated gently with grated ginger and lemon zest. The result is cooled and strained before being poured into a jug with angostura bitters and a bottle of chilled champagne – other sparkling wine can be used, but remember to change the name to, say, Sparking Ginger Cocktail.

For other suggestions, try the Cocktail Flow app, which has the very sensible start point of what you already have in the cupboard. If, however, you feel that the only thing to add to sparkling wine is more sparkling wine, the next few paragraphs are for you.

Recent years have seen a significant change among recommended alternatives to champagne, with the popularity – and quality – of Italy’s prosecco rocketing. As drinkers turned away from old-style (sweetish) Asti so the benefit of the way sparkling wine is usually made in Italy came sharply into focus. By inducing the wine’s secondary fermentation in a sealed tank rather than in the bottle (as champagne and cava producers do), prosecco makers have tended to capture more freshness and reduce any yeasty influences. For a good example of the point, try the floral and crisp, pear-centred flavours of Finest Bisol Prosecco (£8.49, down from £9.99 until 1 January, Tesco). Touches of pear also surface in a slightly more expensive version, the 2010 Follador Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry (£15, Oddbins). Here red apple flavours join the pear and together lead into a soft and clean, dry finish.

This does not mean that sound cava has disappeared, as you will discover with the soft and restrained effervescence of Gran Tradicion Cava Brut (£5.99, Co-op). It has floral lime finish and flavours reminiscent of lemon cookies.

Lovers of champagne itself, however, are in for a treat this Christmas with some well-made but keenly priced examples available on the High Street. Both main discounters have decent versions that also represent great value. Do not be put off by the slightly oversized bubbles in Champagne Monsigny Brut No3, by Philizot & Fils Brut (£12.99, Aldi). Its combination of red apple and zesty Granny Smith mingles nicely with vague touches of vanilla to create an attractive apple crumble sensation that also contains elements of minty acidity. Scotland’s biggest discount supermarket, Lidl, also has a good-value champagne at £12.99. Their ever-popular Champagne Comte de Brismand Brut Reserve is a little more rounded than the Aldi version and consequently adds a mellow toastiness without diminishing the lively, zippy mouthfeel and balanced acidity.

Other retailers also have good-value champagne available this Christmas, such as Canard-Duchêne Authentic Brut, which Majestic is selling for a terrific £15 – instead of £25 – until 4 February. I have particularly enjoyed the understated but sophisticated flavours of this version, along with the extra sharpness that emerges from its grapefruit – rather than lemon – epicentre. As its name indicates, there is a tasty 100 per cent chardonnay version available in Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs Champagne (£14.98, down from £22.49 from 12 December). Here the lively acidity is rather more citrus-based but this is neatly counterbalanced by attractive hints of custard cream biscuits. Three fivers will also secure the well-integrated Finest Premier Cru NV Champagne (£14.99, down from £19.99, Tesco), which combines lemon flavours with the floral spicy touches so typical of the pinot noir that forms a third of its blend.

Finally, anyone wanting to push the boat a bit further out should consider the flowery melon and luxury peach flavours of Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve (£40, WoodWinters). For pink fizz, surf the net for Taittinger Prestige Rosé Champagne (from £35). It brings together soft red apple and lively redcurrant in an almost soufflé-like opening that changes to a firm citrus finish two-thirds of the way through. n