The ability to turn water into wine is surely overrated when you have THE RAKE’s guide to the best festive tipples at your fingertips...
I think people either love Christmas or feel something close to indifference about it. For those in the ‘love’ camp, it is the most wonderful time of the year. For the rest, it’s great to get the extra days off work. The festive season brings good tidings of joy, but what I really love is the great tidal wave of wine. Jesus did, after all, turn water into wine, and a lot of it. The story of John 2:1-11 suggests that Jesus turned approximately 120 gallons of water into wine for a wedding ceremony, just to impress the guests. That is approximately 600 bottles — no wonder he went viral. It would appear that wine is quite significant when it comes to religion, at both ends of the spectrum. I was raised a Catholic, and every Sunday, while my grandma was still with us, I was encouraged to sip from the ‘blood of Christ’. Interestingly, my mother still raises her eyebrows on hearing that I share a hip flask in a similar fashion. We also have the Cistercian monks to thank for planting the first vines in Europe and having a huge influence on wine production, most of which is the same today. In fact, we ought to be more grateful to monks.
From the most surprising stocking fillers to what to have on the table, here is your wine map for the festive season.
Champagne and more champagne
For getting things going and picking things back up, champagne is your friend. For breakfast in bed and opening stockings, it lends itself well to fun, particularly in Buck’s Fizz form (half champagne, half orange juice). I would be careful about taking a good bottle of sparkling to a party unless you are happy not drinking it yourself. Maybe that reveals a lot about me, as even the perfectly chilled bottles get squirrelled away, but then again, Christmas is about being charitable.
Pol Roger Brut Réserve NV
I will not stop championing this wine. I think of non- vintages like this: every year a winemaker is faced with a host of different challenges, from the weather to disease to pest control. Every year a winemaker has to make a non-vintage that tastes exactly the same as the last non- vintage using a base wine and every other wine they have to hand. It is pure wizardry. Pol Roger NV are just moving on to the base wine from 2019. I love it. Warm pastry and spiced apple pie swirl out of the glass, inviting you to take a sip. It is reassuring, and the palate is reminiscent of those first notes — no tricks, no surprise acidity, well balanced, rich but certainly not jaunty. The perfect companion. You’d be right in thinking I would judge you for adding orange juice to this. No sloe gin either, you minx.
Perrier-Jouët Blanc de Blancs NV
One of my favourite Blanc de Blancs this year, this Perrier-Jouët champagne is a very appealing wine. (By way of a re-cap: Blanc de Blancs are made entirely of chardonnay, whereas usually champagne is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier.) Sometimes with Blanc de Blancs they can be too savoury. This is somewhere in between, so you get that wonderful saline savoury characteristic that makes it pair so well with tasty Gruyère cheese straws. But there is also that stunning signature Perrier-Jouët floral note that reins in the austerity. Also not one for orange juice but perfect for entrées, pick-me-ups and gifting.
Gosset Petite Douceur Rosé
We’ve mentioned pick-me-ups, and this is just the ticket. Champagne Gosset is the oldest house in Champagne, having been founded in 1584. The style of champagne has changed immensely since then, however. This is an ‘extra-dry’ style, so it is closer to the original style in that it is sweet or ‘extra dry.’ In your non-vintage champagnes, the final ‘dosage’ (added sugar) is normally around 7-8g/litre, and in this it is 17g/litre. For balance, there is 28g of sugar in your average mince pie, so wine is the least of your worries at Christmas. That said, this would pair really well with a mince pie. It has this very charming note of quince and blood-orange that complements all things festive. Go ahead, add more orange, and it is extra special with sloe gin — I just don’t recommend that for breakfast.
Nebula by Upperton Vineyard
This is an English sparkling that deserves inclusion here, though I must sadly warn you that it is not readily available. The Upperton vineyard in Tillington, overlooking the South Downs, does have an online shop, so I will keep my fingers crossed for you, because Nebula is extraordinarily special. Upperton are a small producer in a very special spot in West Sussex. I don’t like their branding but I adore their wines. Nebula is also priced at only £29.50 on their website, which is astonishing.
You are never too old for a stocking. If you agree but don’t have someone in your life to prepare a stocking for, consider making one for yourself and, I don’t know, practising some ‘self-love’ on Christmas morning. Which you were probably going to do anyway. The good news is that with stretch stockings these days, you can easily fit in a few bottles, so here are some suggestions:
• A half-bottle of Bollinger NV, available from thehalfbottlecompany. com. It sets the day up well.
• A lovely, easy-to-wrap giftbox bottle of Melifera gin, which I came across recently and got quite excited about. It’s carried in Annabel’s, so you know it’s good. For buying purposes it is also available from The Whisky Exchange and Hedonism Wines.
• A Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
• A Melton Mowbray pork pie.
• A half-bottle of 2019 Vérité La Muse. This is what people describe as a ‘unicorn wine’. It is from Sonoma County in California, and while we talk of this region as ‘New World’, this wine — as in, this style, ‘La Muse’ — has been produced since 1998. The goal? To produce wines to compete with the finest wines of Pomerol. It is a merlot-dominant blend with a sprinkling of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It’s the sort of wine you regret opening because you want to re-experience the sensation of smelling it for the first time. So perfumed, so intoxicating, a half-bottle is not enough, though in this time of over-indulgence it’s nice to be left wanting more.
• A vodka for fun? I came across Blacklion, which I believe is the first vodka in Europe to be made from sheep’s milk. Niche. If the name confuses you, as it did me, rest assured the milk comes from special designer Black Lion sheep. It is fermented using the sugars-rich whey that is leftover after they have made cheese, so it is also very sustainable. The stocking filler is the perfect 20cl bottle, which costs £26 and makes a nice story and a nice martini.
• A membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. It’s the gateway to an array of life-changing whiskies without the responsibility of buying your loved one a whisky they don’t like. It’s also one of the most fantastic societies, which can be explored in more depth in the new year.
For the main event
We’ve already ticked off champagne, so we need claret, a white burgundy, and some port for our table. Or do we?
A traditional choice: 2018 Mondot de Troplong Mondot, Saint-Émilion. Available from Majestic Wines, £49.99
Château Troplong-Mondot is one of 14 Premier Grand Cru Classé in the latest classification of Saint-Émilion. It is a stunning location, and this wine, Mondot, is made entirely of merlot from the vines at the top of the famous Saint-Émilion plateau. It’s a bit of a well-kept secret. Sold as an introductory wine, really it’s just a great wine without having to watch the clock. With juicy black fruits and very friendly tannins, it might not be the best pairing for turkey, but so many people have a roast these days instead.
An unconventional choice: 2019 MOSI, Harry Hartman, Western Cape, South Africa. Available from Wine Republic, £35
I love Harry Hartman wines. I wish they were more readily available, and in time I’m sure they will be. This is about as good as it gets from a South African take on the bordeaux blend. It is stunning, and for a change part of me doesn’t want to tell you too much about it, so you can be enveloped in joy when you try it. Decant before drinking, up to an hour, for maximum aromas.
A traditional choice: 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté, Camille Giroud. Available from Berry Bros & Rudd, £24.50
Because what’s better than white burgundy? This is actually a biodynamic wine in terms of the grapes, which I appreciate comes with some risk. I’ve checked to see when the next full moon is, and it is December 27 — the ‘Cold Moon’ — and while I don’t wholly understand the biodynamic calendar, I think you should be O.K. Open it in good time and you will be able to enjoy the depth these happy little grapes bring to such a traditional style of wine.
An unconventional choice: Hey French You Could Have Made This But You Didn’t IGT, third edition, multi-vintage, Pasqua. Available from Harrods, £32
I posed the question, What’s better than white burgundy? Well, this kind of is. Pasqua are a favourite producer of mine. They love experimenting, and I respect the results of their bravery. This is a blend of one of my favourite grapes of all time, garganega, with some pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc from 2015, ’16, ’17 and ’18. It’s heavenly — so much structure, and a constant play between floral and tang, which I could live with forever. If you don’t try it for Christmas, at least stock up to get you through January.
Pass the port
Remember to pass from right to left, and keep the port moving in a clockwise direction, as tradition dictates. I don’t think you can go too wrong with port. Tawny takes an acquired taste, with those nutty notes, but to some it is preferred to ruby and vintage, so get all three. I am a big fan of Taylor’s, but if you see something unusual and new, go for it! Support them! We must get port back in fashion... And on that note, have a wonderful Christmas, one and all.
Read the full story in Issue 91, available now.