Friday, 30 December 2016

Best Champagnes for New Year's Eve

If you want to toast the arrival of 2017 in style, but haven’t yet chosen what to drink, then Champagne should be top of the list as the instant shortcut to celebration and luxury. Here’s a selection of my all-time favourites and new discoveries from this year which you should be able to pick up between now and tomorrow evening. These tend towards the luxury end of the scale, so for more affordable bottles see my festive party fizz recommendations here:

Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV - £31 Cellar Wines Ripley (who also list magnums for £69), £31.99 The Wine Reserve Cobham, on offer until 3 Jan at £29.99 from Waitrose, £29.99 mix six price at Majestic, £34.99 Taurus Wines Bramley
Roederer’s style is all about finesse and elegance, but with a hint of underlying richness. Perfect as an aperitif, or with the bongs of Big Ben.

Mailly Grand Cru Brut NV - £29.99 (as part of a case of 6) The Wine Reserve Cobham
This Pinot Noir based Cuvée is more seriously structured and would be wonderful with food, even relatively hearty chicken or other fowl.

Pol Roger Brut Réserve NV - £31.99 (as part of a case of 6) The Wine Reserve Cobham, on offer until 3 Jan at £31.99 at Waitrose, £34.99 mix six price at Majestic. M&S have magnums for £79.99
Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favourite Champagne, and I have always found it a beguiling mix of elegance and freshness, but with perfectly judged depth. Any time is a good time for a glass of Pol, and I love to savour it on its own. Or you could trade up to Pol Roger Vintage 2006 - £56.99 Waitrose, £54.99 (as part of a case of 6) The Wine Reserve Cobham. There are many layers of flavour with hints of maturity but still so lively.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV - £39.99 (as part of a case of 6) The Wine Reserve Cobham, £39.99 Taurus Wines Bramley
Charles Heidsieck may not be as well-known as the more celebrated grande marque houses, but it makes Champagnes of such quality and deliciousness that no Champagne fan should ignore them. The high proportion of reserve wines (from previous vintages, used to add depth and character) make this a sophisticated Champagne that is also incredibly food friendly and so much more than just bubbles. For a real treat I would heartily recommend Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995 - £139.99 (as part of a case of 6) The Wine Reserve Cobham. This mature vintage, 100% Chardonnay wine is a hedonist’s dream. Pure heaven.

Lanson Extra Age NV - £45 from M&S
I find the regular Lanson Black Label rather hard work, but this longer aged prestige cuvée, based on wines from the 2002, 2004 and 2005 vintages, is a treat. There are hints of almond and marzipan on the nose and it is rich, yet with no heaviness, thanks to Lanson’s hallmark high acidity. This would wow with seafood.

Bollinger Grande Année 2005 - £68 at Cellar Wines Ripley, £69.99 mix six price at Majestic, £64.99 (as part of a case of 6) The Wine Reserve Cobham
If you’re a fan of Bollinger’s non vintage Special Cuvée, then treat yourself to their vintage to find all the verve and intensity that you love, with added refinement.

Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 - £120 from M&S, £99.95 from Finest Bubble (next day delivery available). Taurus Wines have the 2005 for £139.99
This prestige cuvée from the famous house of Taittinger is a pinnacle of the Blanc de Blancs style of Champagne. 100% Chardonnay and 100% class - lovely, fine, refined and full of flavour.

Krug Grande Cuvée Brut - £126 Majestic, £129 Taurus Wines Bramley, £114.95 from Finest Bubble (who offer next day delivery outside London)
I have never not completely enjoyed a glass of Krug. If you are willing to give it your full attention it rewards you with a stimulating and beguiling feast for the senses. If, however, you just want to enjoy it, it is simply incredibly delicious.

Do magnums matter?
A magnum is exactly double the size of a regular bottle – 1.5l compared with 750ml. As you can see from the list above, there is usually a price premium for the magnum, which costs more than simply buying two bottles. Why should that be? And should you pay the premium?
Partly it is a matter of scarcity and prestige – magnums say celebration, with knobs on - but there are also genuine reasons why you might prefer a Champagne from magnum to a bottle.
Champagnes in magnum age more slowly and gracefully than those in bottle, partly because there is a greater volume of wine in magnum, yet the same amount of oxygen between the surface of the wine and the bottom of the cork as in a bottle. I can tell you from experience, that exactly the same Champagne aged in bottle and in magnum can and do taste different.

The champagne in the magnum combines the liveliness and freshness of youth, but with the depth and complexity that come with maturity. This effect becomes more pronounced over time, so it is especially important with longer aged vintage and prestige cuvées. 

Monday, 19 December 2016

Wines for the Christmas table

Here’s a handy guide to wines to make your Christmas Day go with a swing.

Smoked salmon
When you have your smoked salmon might determine your choice of drinking accompaniment.

Pouilly Fumé 2015, Masson Blondelet - £15.99, Ocado
If it’s as a starter to the Christmas Day feast, then a smart bottle like this could be the way to go. Sauvignon Blanc finds its most mineral, sometimes smoky, expression in the Loire vineyards of Pouilly Fumé. The fresh, tangy, slightly marine aromas give way to a textured, fragrant wine with zesty acidity, delicate structure and persistent flavour.

If, however, your smoked salmon crops up in a more brunchy setting – don’t look at the clock, it’s Christmas - a bottle of something sparkling might be more fun. There are plenty of fizz recommendations in my previous column (online version here: If I were to choose one perfect match from that list, it would have to be Champagne Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 2007 Grand Cru - £33.99, Waitrose.  

The main event – Christmas dinner
Roast turkey (or goose), roast potatoes, sprouts, cranberry sauce, gravy, pigs in blankets – is it really possible for a wine to match all the foods that we merrily pile onto our festive plates on Christmas Day? In truth no, so we can be liberated from embarking on that impossible task. The prime consideration is to choose something you know you’ll enjoy.

But there are wines that will cope with the kind of rich cornucopia of flavours better than others.

Pinot Noir is usually my choice of red for the occasion. It makes wines that are fragrant and full of red fruit with only a whisper of tannin, but with crisp acidity: a profile that makes for wines which can rub along happily with a wide range of flavours, rather than clashing with them.

Try one of these:

Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2015 - £8.50, Morrison’s, £9, Asda
At its full recommended retail price of £13.35 this is no bargain, but at these special offer prices there’s plenty to recommend this New Zealand Pinot: aromas of raspberry and clove carry through to the palate, with barely there tannins. This is fruity and easy-drinking enough to take with you after the meal to the sitting room for slurping with a box set. In the same sort of vein is Ara Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 - £11.99, Waitrose.

Sancerre Rouge au Bois de l’Epine 2015 - £15, M&S
Red Sancerre, always made from Pinot Noir, has improved greatly in quality in recent years. This has lovely ripeness of fruit, body and texture.

Domaine Lucien Muzard Santenay Premier Cru Maladière 2014 - £21.49, Waitrose
Ultimately, no-one does Pinot Noir better than in Burgundy. This example, from the Côte de Beaune, the southern half of the Côte d’Or, has spent a year in oak and combines depth and intensity with a smooth richness.

Contino Rioja Reserva 2005 - £25, The Wine Society (Marks & Spencer have the 2010 at the same price, as do Waitrose)
You can’t go wrong with Rioja. The mellow nature of the wine, thanks to oak ageing, makes it slip in just fine with all manner of dishes. It’s renowned for matching with lamb, but, I would argue, is one of the most versatile of red wine styles. And who isn’t pleased to see a bottle of Rioja on the table?

Contino is a byword for quality in Rioja. Their wine is made from all their own estate-grown fruit (not the norm in Rioja) and the balance of flavour, ripeness and freshness is usually spot on.

Christmas pudding
Sometimes it’s hard to do justice to the Christmas pudding after all the conspicuous consumption that precedes it.

Royal Palace Colheita Port 2002 - £26, M&S
A Tawny Port, aged for a few years in oak, would make a good match for the dried fruits, nuts and spice of your Chritmas pud, and could happily continue on to the cheese course. Warre’s Otima (widely available at around £12 for a 50cl bottle) is a reliable introduction to the style, with some mellowing nuttiness alongside the sweet, spicy fruit. Single vintage, or Colheita, Ports are often a step up in quality and complexity. This one, from the 2002 vintage has a stimulating mix of berries and herbs with a medicinal hint.

Fontanafredda Moscato d’Asti Moncucco 2015 - £9.95 (50cl), Great Western Wine
Or you could go more leftfield and try a Moscato d’Asti. Rather than matching flavours, this is about providing a contrast. The fresh, lightly sparkling pear flavours of this delightful Italian charmer provide a foil to the richness of the pudding.  And if you can’t face the pudding at all, a glass of this (at only 5.5% alcohol) is a great post-prandial pick me up.

Harveys VORS Palo Cortado - £22.59 (50cl), Waitrose
VORS stands for Very Old Rare Sherry and this Palo Cortado, aged for a minimum of 30 years, certainly fits the bill. The label indicates medium sweetness, but I would say it is just off-dry and the long ageing brings wonderful complexity, with tangy nuttiness, caramel, dried fruits and more to savour. Sherry is perhaps not a classic cheese match, but try this and you might be converted. If I were Len, I’d give it 10.

Cook’s treat
Finally, and most importantly, the success of any Christmas Day should include something delicious for the cook(s) to sip at as they chop, stuff, steam and baste in the kitchen.

Dr Loosen Slate Hill Riesling 2015 – £8.99 on offer at Majestic (mix six price)

This zingy, fresh Riesling has a little lemon and peach fruity sweetness, but finishes dry. The perfect thing to have by your side as you cook and, at only 8.5% alcohol, you can have a glass of this without feeling sozzled before the turkey’s on the table.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Fizz for sparkling Christmas parties

Your guide to the best wines for the festive season begins here.

If you’re planning on a Christmas drinks party, then bubbles have to be part of the picture. Here are some of my sure fire hits that won’t have your guests looking for the nearest pot plant to empty their drinks into – but which won’t be overly demanding on the pocket either.

I’ve also included some more expensive recommendations that might be a stretch for a party budget, but that I would certainly be happy to sip or to serve on any occasion over Christmas.

Sparkling Chardonnay Crémant du Jura - £7.49, Aldi
This has to be one of the best sparkling wine bargains around – and the fact that is has been included by the Association of Wine Educators as one of their 100 AWEsome Wines 2016 (see for the full downloadable list) tells you that it punches well above its weight. Light, fresh, fine sparkling wine made in the same way as Champagne from the little-known Jura region in eastern France.

Franciacorta Brut - £8.99, Lidl
This is part of Lidl’s Christmas collection, one of their “when it’s gone it’s gone” selections. It has lovely creamy mousse and appley fruit, a touch riper than Champagne, coming as it does from northern Italy.

Calvet Crémant de Bordeaux Brut Rosé - £11.99, Ocado

Pink bubbles certainly help to make everything more festive and this bottle, made from Cabernet Franc, has a lovely creamy mousse and a refreshing leafy edge to the fruit.

Montes Sparking Angel Brut NV - £15.50, Oddbins
This is a blend of two of the traditional Chamapagne varieties, Pinor Noir and Chardonnay, and is made in the same way as Champagne. But the warmer Chilean climate makes for riper fruit flavours, along with toasty, nutty almond and even a hint of marmalade.

Definition Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV - £19.99 (mix six price), Majestic
I love the pure Chardonnay fruit, mineral finish, and the classic Blanc de Blancs profile of this Majestic own label Champagne. But I really don’t care for the actual label, so this is perhaps best kept in the ice bucket when not being poured.

Greyfriars Rosé Reserve 2013 - £21 from
Keep it local with this award winning traditional method English fizz, made from vines grown on the Hog’s Back south of Guildford. Finely structured with poise and precision.

Furleigh Estate Dorset Coast Special Reserve NV - £22.50, Waitrose
Another English sparkler, this time from Dorset. Aromas of shortbread, peaches and cream lead onto a lively, fruity palate.

Waitrose Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut NV - £22.99, Waitrose
Good depth of flavour, nice linearity and an underlying minerality mean that this Champagne tastes much more expensive than it is.

Champagne Oudinot Brut 2008 - £30, M&S
Like all its wines, this Champagne is exclusive to M&S and delivers rich, savoury, egg-custard and baked apple fruit. The full flavours make this one for the table rather than an aperitif.

Champagne Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 2007 Grand Cru - £33.99, Waitrose
Really lovely stuff, with pretty fruit, length and elegance, along with those bready, yeasty flavours that denote lengthy ageing on the lees.