Monday, 8 December 2008

Siege supplies for Christmas

With all the wagon-circling that’s going on these days, and so many redskins pouring off the ridge to get our scalps (or at least make us redundant), better not lose sight of the need for proper provisioning in times of siege. The troops must be fit and cheerful, think positively, and keep their muskets oiled. I need hardly say that wine supplies are cardinal. And of course at Christmas time pretty nearly routine; original comes second to convivial under the mistletoe. Have you opted for a Thai Christmas? Then you probably know just what to drink with it – and I don’t envy you.

Routine in recent years has meant spending more money every time: notching up the claret to a cru classé, the champagne to a luxury cuvée, the Chablis to a Premier Cru and the port to vintage. I’ve loved every minute.

Must plan B, Siege Christmas, be a miserable hairshirt exercise, I ask myself. Far from it, I’ve concluded. Follow intelligent value instead of splurging, revert to a few old customs we all thought we’d grown out of. It’s a plan.

Mulled wine is one of the best economies, I find, because no one else realizes that’s what you’re doing. A couple of steaming glasses is enough for most people; you know they loved it because they ask for the recipe – and the cost is minimal. The secret? Not second-rate wine, but lots of sugar and spice and quite a lot of water. It should be heady rather than strong. My recipe uses almost a teacup of caster sugar dissolved in two or even three of boiling water to every bottle of red wine. I am lavish with orange juice and orange peel, cloves and cinnamon. I add a coffee cup of brandy per bottle to the first batch and water down successive batches progressively. Piping hot is the secret – and my wrinkle: to keep a bottle of Grand Marnier handy. The best gin and tonic has a fine layer of gin on top: the best mulled wine the slightest slick of Grand Marnier.

That was cheaper than a champagne party. My other wholly authentic Christmas champagne saver is sherry. Forgetting for the moment what is the cheapest and most versatile fine wine in the world these days, consider what warms the cockles, tastes like Dickens, sips impeccably with smoked salmon and nuts and cheery bites, not to mention oysters and shrimps. Yes, dry sherry. Either the pale/fragile fino/manzanilla version or the more manly, deep winter amontillado/dry oloroso model. My choice this Christmas, in fact, is a wine with the virtues of both, a Manzanilla Olorosa from the Lustau Almacenista Collection at £11.49 – a conversation-piece in itself. Spring the bottle fresh from the fridge, use small glasses, repeatedly, and Christmas is well away.

There are people who will simply ask for white wine and expect one of the usual suspects; either a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that tastes, frankly, a bit too garden-fresh for a winter’s day, or a Chardonnay with more weight but probably less cheeky life. Originality is a virtue here: an unexpected aromatic glass, fresh but quite punchy, is not a bad formula. Two suggestions: we have a new creation, a 2008 Riesling-Viognier blend from Clare in South Australia at £8.99, or my own candidate in the Christmas list, Royal Tokaji Dry Furmint 2006. Dry Furmint is something new. People who taste it often think Viognier, but its crisp sprightly aromas (they go bang on the mid-palate and last and last) are unique to the amazing Furmint grape. We have a few bottles left at £10.29.

People who ask for red at Christmas expect a robust round mouthful with a bit of grip. Where to start? My investigation of what I call the New Old World (ie well-learnt modern wine-making on classic European soils) keeps finding plums in the Languedoc. Some of the best comes from the unique limestone massif right on the Languedoc coast, La Clape. It seduced Eric Fabre, who was leaving Château Lafite after his years as technical director and looking for a new challenge. Chateau d’Anglès ‘Terroir’ 2005 takes the big three grapes of the south, Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, and reveals flavours that add up to something more: the modern ideal of richness in balance, polished and layered for £12.99. Call if you’re interested.

And you’ll need port. Everyone loves our ancient Andresen Colheitas. Even more Christmassy to my mind, though, is the silky softness of a 20 year tawny, a confection of raisins and old oak like nothing else you can buy. The Andresen version is £25.

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