The first snow is falling as a write this and it is new enough to be magical and powdery conjuring up memories of parties and family gatherings and winter celebrations.
It is not surprising that more Champagne is consumed in December than in any other month of the year – even us non Champagne drinkers’ thoughts turn to bubbles at the idea of a party.
And while I am probably more democratic than most of you in my wine tastes, I have to admit to being an unabashed Champagne snob. It’s not just that I can tell the difference between Champagne and CAVA, it’s also that I can tell the difference between good and bad Champagnes. While I would love to sip Clos de Mesnil during all the holiday celebrations, too much perfection is not good for anyone so I will happily wrap myself around a glass of Bollinger – I love its richness, the biscuit crumbly taste which is SO British, SO James Bond and which lingers in the mouth; a sign of a great Champagne is that it tastes like a great wine – that it coats the palate with flavour and leaves a lingering echo.
On the other end of the taste spectrum, when I’m in the mood for elegance and lightness, a tonic, a pick-me-up, a real aperitif, the fresh intense taste of Billecart Salmon beckons. It is not a coincidence that these two Champagne houses are still family affairs and both are based in great Champagne villages: Mareuil and Ay rather than in the commercial hubs of Reims and Epernay.
In the same way as we spend a lot of time searching out good values in Bordeaux and elsewhere, it took us a long time to find a good value Champagne that we could drink. It was only when Beaumont des Crayères passed a blind tasting with me that it was added to the list. In spite of my preference for great Champagne houses, I never cease to be surprised by the quality of this small cooperative that can make a Champagne for us at such a reasonable price.
My love from holiday bubbles apart, even I find it hard to drink them throughout a holiday feast (with the exception of lobsters/caviar/smoked salmon and oysters). I find it tragic to think that Sauternes – that magic nectar born out of a noble rot – is not only difficult to make, but difficult to sell too. However, it is not difficult to drink and its golden colour alone adds a touch of glamour to a feast. For those of you who think that Sauternes is sweet and therefore not easy to drink, think again. If you pay attention, the finish from a good Sauternes is dry and smoky – rather like that of a dried apricot or a well-aged cigar – and it is this smokiness mingling with the sweetness which makes Sauternes a great match for smoked salmon, foie gras and blue cheeses. I always include Sauternes in my holiday planning (great with the typical British “plum pudding”) and so you will find two ideas – the delicious Chateau Filhot and the ridiculously priced Chateau Loubens 1990 from Sainte Croix-du-Mont (just across the river from Sauternes) to add the gilt to your celebrations.
By now we need to come down to earth a bit and think about wines for the rest of the meal. My favourite white wine for the moment – I drink it whenever fish in all its shapes and forms is on the menu – is the fabulously juicy, crisp white Pessac-Léognan, Chateau Couhins 2010: this organic wine from the national research institute is pure and enticing without being austere and just has that knack of wanting you to taste more. Its price is so reasonable when you consider other classified growths from the region.
And finally to the reds: Here the improvements in winemaking have been considerable so that today you really can find good wines at interesting prices – especially from Bordeaux. Looking over our list, I spot the Feytit Clinet 2002 – super to drink now, this up-and-coming Pomerol is made by the young Jeremy Chasseuil who managed to prise back his family estate back from the Moueix négociant firm in 2000. This is a rich, truffley Pomerol well-made and darkly tannic, perfect for venison or other game. I remain a great lover of the Médoc, my Thienpont connection notwithstanding, and probably my favourite appellation of all is St. Julien where there is not a duff chateau among the vines. The 2007 Chateau Lagrange shows good cassis fruit and cedary tones and a good fresh finish – a classic wine in a light vintage (don’t be too quick to dismiss vintages such as 2002 and 2007; there is no such thing as a bad vintage anymore in Bordeaux and lighter vintages make for excellent early drinking.) If you are looking for more youth and power, still at prices which suit today’s economic climate, two favourites are the Chateau Bernadotte – the cru bourgeois estate of Chateau Pichon Lalade made from vineyards neighbouring Pauillac and the excellent, organic, classic Tour Figeac 2008, a bit of a sleeper chateau, just across the road from Figeac and Cheval Blanc which we have been watching for several years now and are pleased with their steady upwards evolution.
I apologize to readers if this Blog seems more like a shopping list than my usual prose but during the last few weeks I am been called several times by journalists asking what I will drinking for the holidays this year which got me thinking about holiday wines.
May I also take this opportunity on behalf of all of us in our small wine team to thank you for your loyalty, for your continued support and interest and to wish you all the very best for a happy and healthy festive season and a successful 2013.