Why not to drink wine at Christmas

Too many parties. Too much unspecified wine served at parties. Essentially.

So wine-wise, my festive season was pretty uneventful. Kind friends and relations invited us to a lot of parties, and I prefer beer at parties – you know where you are with a bottle of Corona, in a way you definitely don’t with a sweating glass of unidentified white. Admittedly the place-of-the-Corona isn’t the most thrilling, but it’s more socially acceptable than the place-of-the-white-wine-you-had-four-or-was-it-five-glasses-of-before-falling-over-and-realising-it-was-a-14.5-per-cent-South-African-chenin-blanc.

I did break into several bottles of the modest 2005 Hermitage though. As expected, not a moment too soon. So much not a moment too soon in fact that it might not be prudent to leave the remaining bottles under the stairs until February lest they spoil. And bang goes another New Year’s resolution . . .

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The right time to drink

When is the right time to drink wine? Whenever possible, obviously (oh my aching sides), but I mean more in terms of how long it should hang about in Crinklydell Cellars before it gets drunk.

When I started getting interested in wine I thought, as I imagine many do, that all wine improved with age. Not so. Definitely not. Not even slightly. The days when you had to keep Bordeaux for 20 years before it was drinkable have passed – most wine now is built to be drunk young and even quite posh stuff probably won’t improve much past five years. Clearly there are exceptions, but most of them – Barolo, some spiffy Burgundies, etc – I can’t afford and don’t need to worry about. I can afford the odd bottle of Hunter Valley semillon and Mosel riesling and they’ll happily stick around for a decade plus. That said, they’re also delicious to drink young and keeping my mitts off them for long enough to let them develop those elusive secondary characteristics can be a struggle.

Bottle age is on my mind at the moment. A couple of years ago I bought a case of J L Chave Mon Coeur Cotes du Rhone 2011. It’s a good but not terribly glossy wine from one of my favourite regions and it tasted just great from about 2013 on. Then I didn’t open a bottle for while, say six months, until a couple of nights ago I did and the wine had evolved noticeably. Less sweet fruit, a much more savoury, meaty character, tannins much more in the background. More poise but less energy would be one way to describe it. It was still very good but to my mind the remaining few bottles needed drunk up because they weren’t going to get any better. Tastes, however, differ. When I looked the same wine up on CellarTracker there were several recent tasting notes suggesting it would improve over the next couple of years. What can I say? My palate runs to the vulgarly young and fruity?

It did make me check the contents of the cupboard under the stairs though, and there are, right enough, several semi-forgotten bottles that should be broached. Next up is my modest 2005 Hermitage. I’ll be upset if I’ve left that one too long.

Good things from the Wine Society

My most recent box from the Wine Society arrived a few weeks back.  The parcel it’s always fun to unpack.  I am a major fan of the Wine Society, which not only carries a huge variety of wine at all prices and has great customer service, but lists prices generally so competitive it must enrage other wine merchants with more conventional commercial drivers.  (The Wine Soc is a cooperative, owned by its members, and can therefore invest profit in keeping prices down and improving facilities rather than in paying fat dividends to shareholders.  Crazy idea.  How wise of successive governments to suck the life out the cooperative movement in the interests of a hegemonic capitalist elite.)

In the spirit of mutuality therefore, can I mention a few of the many wines from the Wine Soc I’ve enjoyed in the past year or two? 

The ones we’re drinking at the moment are, red-wise, Quinta das Bageiras Bairrada 2010 (£7.50, 13 per cent abv), The Society’s Corbieres 2013 (£7.50, 14 per cent abv), and Vina Zorzal Graciano Navarra 2012 (£6.95, 13.5 per cent abv).

The Bairrada isn’t what I was expecting. I’m modestly interested in Portuguese wine and like to try new ones and I suppose – for the reds – I tend to expect lots of sweet, ripe fruit, very delicious and warming. This red – though delicious – has a much more noticeable belt of acidity. In a good way. I could imagine chilling this one slightly and drinking it with a plate of air-dried ham and olives. It reminded me of some of the lighter, juicier Italian reds I like – barbera and so on. In fact, I have a bottle of the Wine Soc’s Dogliani Allagiornata, Clavesana 2013 (£7.50, 13.5 per cent abv) in the cupboard (a favourite) and I might try that side-by-side with the Bairrada, just to see if I’m talking rubbish again.

For soemething completely different try the Society’s Corbieres. This is lethally drinkable. Pour a glass and the bottle will be gone before you know it. It’s round and juicy with a sweet lick of alcohol and a little dry herbiness to keep it balanced.

The one I keep reordering though is the Zorzal Graciano. This is Spanish and very good value. It has a little oak and tannin – just enough to give it bones – and good dark fruitiness. Undemanding but not boring. I don’t have a sort of house wine that I order by the case but if I did it would be this or something like it.

Obligatory fruit-based comparison: Bairrada – red cherry; the Corbieres – baked plum; the Graciano – damson with a touch of bay leaf.

A word too for the Jaspi Blanc Terra Alta 2013 from northern Spain (£7.95, 13.5 per cent abv). I paid £8.95 for this and three minutes later the Wine Society reduced the price by a quid. Grrrrr. But let me not be begrudging – it’s really good stuff at either price. Unoaked, a little roundness, dry, and long. Fruit-wise, it’s apparently quince. I’m not familiar with quince so we’ll go with peach fading to lemon.

 

Is it bad how much I love a bargain?

I went to Tesco at lunch time today for your average mid-week fodder – shampoo, tinned tomatoes, and chocolate biscuits for the code puppies. And I spent over fifty quid. Que? you say, does she shampoo her hair with extra-virgin truffle oil and buy her tomatoes in golden tins? Not so much, but they were having one of those buy-six-bottles-and-get-25-per-cent-off wine promotions that I find so hard to resist. So I didn’t. Resist.

Contrary to any impressions you may have formed reading this blog, I don’t buy a lot of wine in Tesco (or any of the big supermarkets bar M&S) – I’m suspicious of the tendency to bottle everything under an own-label (makes it hard to work out who made the wine and thus how much you might pay for something very similar elsewhere), and I can’t be bothered weeding through the innumerable special offers to work out which are genuince and which just serve the dark purposes of the marketing department – but they stock a few things I like and I always like a genuine discount.

Today I bought two bottles of Villa Maria Private Bin Chardonnay, two bottles of Tesco Finest Picpoul de Pinet, and two bottles of Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Hunter Valley Semillon. The best bit was that the Villa Maria and the Picpoul were both already on sale, so I got a double discount. At full price those six bottles would have cost £54.94; I paid £35.20.

I’d say each of those three wines is worth its full price in Tesco. The Villa Maria Chardonnay (£10.49 full price) is a classy, peachy job with just a touch of oak. Not over-cooked. If that’s your thing it’s always worth keeping an eye out for it in the bigger Tescos becuase it’s regularly on offer for around £8.50, at which point it stops being ok value and becomes good value. Otherwise buy it in good independents, e.g. Donard Wines in Newcastle, for around a tenner.

The Finest Picpoul (£7.99 full price) is good for when you want something crisp (that word again) and refreshing but Sauv Blanc is way up in your business, Muscadet’s too acidic, and Pinot Grigio’s kind of past it. One for the back garden with Test Match Special on, and a bargain at the sale price of £5.99 (which, again, it fairly regularly pops up at).

The Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Hunter Valley Semillon 2005 (£8.99) is a stone cold bargain. Ten years’ bottle age, delicious, dry, complex. Don’t try it, you’ll hate it. Suffice to say that today I added another couple of bottles to the half dozen already stashed under the stairs in Crinklydell Cellars and I’m already kind of sorry I didn’t get more.

Obregado Portugal

I recently visited Portugal for the first time. Cool, or rather warm. The weather in Lisbon was gorgeous, apparently unseasonably so. (For myself, I’ve been enjoying delightful weather for the past ten days; Lisbon was lovely, Liverpool was clear and sunny, and now Belfast is actually Spring-like. There must be an anti-cyclone following me around. Long may that last.)

Anyway, the weather was good, the sight-seeing was varied, the food was fine, and the wine was great. We were only in Lisbon for three days but by insisting on a nightly aperitif and fitting in the odd glass at lunch time – the hardship – we were able to try quite a few wines. I was particularly taken by some of the vinho verdes – there’s a big spread in style, from light, sharp, spritzy wines that work really well with a bit of salad on a sunny day, to much richer, more complex wines that need more substantial food. We only tried a couple of reds – Niepoort’s Dialogo (actually by mistake; it’s sold as Drink Me Douro in the UK and I’d had it before. I liked it fine but I meant to choose something I hadn’t tried), and a chunky, juicy wine from Alentejo called Rapariga da Quinta that went nicely with some rabbit and doesn’t look to be available in the UK or Ireland. You’ll just have to go to Portugal and see if you like it.

The best whites we tried were Quinta do Ameal Vinho Verde and Soalheiro Alvarhinho. I hadn’t tried the Ameal before – lovely bright pithy wine that you could drink far too much of on a warm evening with a few olives and a big bag of posh crisps (stick to plain maybe; cheese and onion wouldn’t do it many favours). I had tried the Soalheiro Alvarinho before and it’s a wine I love. I felt a bit unenterprising ordering it with dinner on our first night in Lisbon – surely better to spread yourself a bit with something unknown? – but it’s truly delicious stuff and, obviously, refreshingly cheap in the land of its manufacture. (Is it rude to talk about wine and manufacturing in the same sentence? Probably. How about “land of its vinification”? Well maybe). You can get it from James Nicholson over here. It won’t be the same drunk indoors with the heat still on in June, but it’ll still be delicious.

Merry 2015

Finally staggered down the post-Christmas straight and made it to the new year. Best to all. I hope everyone had a festive season. I did, and it was great.

I love Christmas – not the ill-thought-through presents so much, but the sparkly lights and the silly seasonal drinks hit the spot. I also enjoy turkey, Brussels sprouts, and Christmas pudding. It must be an Armagh thing.

Drinks-wise, there’s always plenty / far too much over Christmas and New Year, but not necessarily chosen by me. I think my only contribution to the Christmas Day wine this year was a bottle of 2007 Les Forges Quarts des Charmes to go with pudding. Delicious sweet chenin blanc which apparently keeps forever. Or for 30 years or so. I’ve one more bottle under the stairs but I can’t see it lasting until 2037. I got it from James Nicholson in the sale a couple of years back – it probably cost less than it should have, so a sincere shout-out to their upcoming (fingers crossed) January sale.

Other silly seasonal drinks included some sherry, some port, some sloe gin, and a bottle of Baileys. The Baileys, as always, vanished over a couple of evenings. Not cool, but definitely delicious. I commend myself on my sloe gin – I’ll share the recipe if you get in touch – but this year’s sherry was a bit of a revelation. I normally drink fino or manzanilla but this year I bought a bottle of medium-dry oloroso from the Wine Society (£11.50, abv largely irrelevant) and it was terrific. Rich, nutty, great with rich, fruity food. Beyond recommended.

Oh, and just to get back to normal drops – neither silly nor seasonal – we’re having a bottle of 2010 Katnook Shiraz (13.5 abv, just over a tenner from Emersons wine store in Armagh) tonight. Oaky, but well-integrated. Not jammy. Good and characteristic. Obligatory fruit-based comparison: damson.

Mistletoe and beer

Beer is great. Really though, isn’t it? So versatile, so varied, so – comparatively – low in alcohol, and – at £6 for four bottles of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord ale in Tesco – such excellent value for money.

That said, I prefer wine with food. It’s not that I don’t see why beer works as well as, and in some cases better than, wine with my tea, but good food makes good wine sing. I think wine is at its best with food whereas beer I’m happy to let speak for itself.

So I’ve been in Glasgow and Liverpool quite a bit recently and drinking some great beer, specifically several cask ales. Special mention to Fyne’s Jarl, Taylor’s Landlord, and a bloody lovely pint of Oakham Citra at the State Bar just off Sauchiehall Street. I’ve also worked my way through several crafty keg beers including Thornbridge Jaipur and the increasingly ubiquitous and none the worse for it Punk IPA. Lovely beers, all of them.

Given this tidal wave of ale, the wine under the stairs at Crinklydell Cellars has been largely untouched this past month or so. Apart from a bottle of 2009 Little Yering pinot noir (12.5 per cent abv, £9.50-ish from Winemark) with the turkey at my friend Peaches’s pre-Christmas dinner. It went well with the full Christmas dinner schtick – fruity, pretty wine that managed the sprouty flavours just fine and didn’t overpower the turkey. Winemark also stock the next level up of Yering Station’s pinot noir. It’s bigger and more butch but I’m not sure it’s quite such good value.