Celebrate in style

  • Thursday 5 January 2006

Christmas Day is almost upon us and the food’s all planned, but what
about the wines? Decanter’s wine experts plan a perfect day’s drinking
– whites, reds, sparklers and, of course, the essential party wines

NORM ROBY – WHITES

Over recent years, the availability (and attention span) of the grandchildren largely determine our Christmas Day activities. We do reserve the two days before Christmas for getting together and sharing fine wines in the Napa Valley with our two closest friends. Then it is off to do the family rounds, literally spreading cheer as I make sure everyone, especially every new parent, is well supplied with good wine to get them happily through the holiday festivities.

Even at Christmas, Californians still prefer a glass of chilled, non-edgy white wine as an apéritif. Typically the apéritifs carry over into the first course. For these reasons, Pinot Gris, Viognier and lightly oaked Chardonnay will be well represented this year. The 2004 Viognier from Clay Station, Lodi, (£7.95; WSo) easily meets all requirements, and its ripe peach fruit and creamy, round texture make this ideal for a large group. The same applies to the 2003 Pinot Gris, Paul Blanck, Patergarten, Alsace (£13.04; Arm), a lovely wine, with excellent spice and a silky texture. The lighter but crisper 2003 Columbia Winery’s Pinot Gris (N/A UK; +1 425 488 2776) from Washington is another favourite.

Traditionally both turkey and baked ham, a daunting wine-challenging combination, are presented as the main course, so we will be looking to highly versatile Chardonnays, flavour-enhancing Sauvignon Blancs and full-bodied Alsatian Rieslings. Acacia’s 2003 Carneros Chardonnay (N/A UK; +1 707 226 9991) with plenty of crisp apple fruit and creamy texture, and Hartford’s 2004 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (N/A UK; +1 707 887 1756) with apple fruit and mineral notes are Chardonnays that work well with either dish. Craggy Range’s 2003 beautifully crafted Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay (£15.67; F&R) offers rich, racy flavours and subtle oak that will bring out the best in the food. Among Sauvignons that will rise to the challenge are the juicy melon- and citrus-laden 2004 Sterling Vineyards (£3.25; LSm) and the fascinating 2004 Chimney Rock Napa Valley Fume Blanc (£12.55 (2003); McK), which combines fragrances of a New Zealand wine with California’s ripe flavours.

However, if only one white is to be served this year, fine Alsatian Riesling may be the most versatile of all. With its perfumed and exotic flavours, the 1999 Riesling from Domaines Schlumberger, Grand Cru Kitterle (£18.99; MMD) has now rounded into perfect shape. For a smaller, more intimate Christmas lunch, there is nothing finer than the 2002 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling, Clos St-Urban, Rangen de Thann (£43.25; Gau) which is so compact and complex that

it changes and delights with each sip.

STEVEN SPURRIER – GOOD VALUE REDS

Christmas is a time for celebration and for giving, and generosity should extend to the wines you celebrate with, so more quality than everyday is in order. Generosity should also extend to the wine’s flavour: warm, rounded and supple enough to continue with once the meal is over. Christmas is above all traditional, so the following wines are modern versions of Old World classics, not cheap but great value.

A cru Beaujolais livens up any meal, particularly if it is served refreshingly cool, and Jean-Marc Burgaud’s brilliant Morgon Côte de Py 2004 (£10.45; Jer) is the best there is. Travelling south, the Rhône Valley provides perfect winter wines: from the north, Gilles Robin’s 100%-Syrah 2003 vintage Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Albéric Bouvet (£13.50; L&S) – the 2001 was a Spurrier’s Choice last year and one of my own Christmas wines – shows pure, brambly, silky fruit over finely concentrated tannins; Rasteau l’Andéol 2003, from Perrin Frères of Châteauneuf’s Beaucastel (£9.40; Tan) has the essence of robust, velvet-textured southern Rhône flavours, while the Vacqueyras 2001 Clos du Caveau (£10.99; Adn), a biodynamic estate in the foothills of Les Dentelles de Montmirail, displays spicy, unfined and unfiltered fruit and pure vineyard expression.

For classicists, claret is the answer, and Château Perron 2002 Lalande de Pomerol (£12.95; L&S) is a top-flight Pomerol lookalike, whose opulent nose is lifted by new oak, rounded and nicely mature. From the middle of southwest France comes Cahors, once more prized than Bordeaux – the ripe earthiness of 100%-Malbec 2001 Solis from vigneron Matthieu Cosse (£7.99; Adn) shows why. By contrast, Languedoc star Château de Cazeneuve, Les Calcaires 2003 from Pic St-Loup (£11.45; Jer), gains elegance and spice from its chalky soils to impress even the most demanding palate.

Finally, three marvellous wines from outside my beloved France: Rosso di Montalcino Ginestreto 2003 Fuligni (£13.75; L&S), as good as many Brunellos, with toasted oak, black cherry aromas, explosively young but with smooth tannins; Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2002, Douro (£12.50; Adn), in the vanguard of the now-fashionable Douro reds, whose top wine won the Decanter Awards Portuguese Red Over £10 Trophy in 2004, a gem of a wine from 70-year-old vines; finally, Rioja Reserva Viña Real 1999 from CVNE (£10.39; Maj), one of the oldest, grandest Rioja bodegas, a splendid wine that has perfect vibrancy and maturity.

ANDREW JEFFORD – TOP-CLASS REDS

I don't really mind where I am for Christmas. The slow night train from Cairo to Luxor, with the palms and lush Nile fields silhouettted as the sun rose, was hard to beat; but time and rest in the darkest days of winter are always a treat. There wasn’t much great red wine available during that Pharaonic Christmas in 2000, so I’ve been making up ever since. Here are a few suggestions.

I enjoy New Zealand Pinot Noir for its purity and charm. The 2001 La Strada Clayvin Vineyard from Fromm in Marlborough (£21.75; L&W) is light, elegant, curranty and glycerous. ‘Charming’ is the word I’d use about many 2000 red Burgundies, too: the sweet-fleshed, shapely 2000 Morey-St Denis Premier Cru Aux Cheseaux, Domaine Arlaud (£22.75; SVS) has a broad fireside smile, yet enough complexity and precision to satisfy the picky, too. If you feel, as my brother Mick does, that red wine has to be Italian for the big occasion, try the plungingly intense 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva, Vigna del Sorbo from Fontodi (£28.95; Lib) or the craggy, authoritative 1999 Barolo San Rocco, Azelia (£37.10; J&B).

Are you organised? Decant the 2002 Cahors, Château du Cèdre, Le Prestige (£10.15; CdP) at least 24 hours before serving in order to prise open its black depths and peel back the tannin, allowing the pippy fruit and Malbec meatiness full rein. Another beefy French country classic is the 2001 Gigondas Le Font de Tonin from Domaine La Bouïssière (£18.25; Mnt). The fiery, rugged ferocity of this wine is part of its pleasure: perfect after the coldest winter walk, as is the sweeter fruited, more exotic 2001 St-Chinian, Maghani, Canet Valette (£15.50; SVS). Two more years have given the 1999 Bandol les Lauves, Domaine La Suffrène (£13.35; CdP) softer textures, though the seductively herby flavours remain much in evidence.

Finally, two classics. The 2001 Côte-Rôtie les Essartilles, Vins de Vienne (£32.95; BBR) is perfumed, swish and vivid, with plenty of granitic glitter, while the 1999 Château Latour à Pomerol (£41.48; C&B) is the opposite: soft, creamy and comely, a kind of koala bear among clarets.

JOHN STIMPFIG – PARTY WINES

My personal criteria for picking a Christmas party wine are fairly simple. It’s got to be drinkable, affordable and have a bit of character too. And while you want a wine that will have broad appeal, I think it’s nice to surprise people. Far too often, people just pick up a glass of wine and drink it. Hopefully, some of these may just prompt your guests to say, ‘Wow, this is good. What am I drinking?’

Obviously, my list has to include a bottle of fizz. And in my book, the best New World sparkler is the Roederer Quartet NV from California (£17.49/£13.99 for 2; Maj). Moving on to an apéritif-style white, a more controversial choice would be the Serriger Wurzberg Riesling Kabinett 1992 from Bert Simon (£4.99; Maj) for its elderflower fruit, pinpoint balance and classic acidity. Just don’t tell your guests in advance that it’s a German Riesling – or how little it costs.

A safer bet would be Chile’s Casa Leona Chardonnay (£4.99; M&S) with its crowd-pleasing peach and pear fruit. So too would another Chilean white in the form of Viña Carmen 2005 Classic Sauvignon Blanc (£5.99; Jer, StG). Its grassy aromas and nettley gooseberry fruit should be an ideal ‘standing-up wine’.

Taking a walk on the slightly wilder side, why not go for a couple of more challenging whites. The first is Sainsbury’s Classic Selection Albariño 2004 (£5.99; Sai), which is brimfull of citrus fruit and breezy acidity. The second is Alois Lageder’s Riff Pinot Grigio 2004 (£6.99; Maj, Tes), which is nothing like most insipid Pinot Grigios.

For the reds, I would recommend the brilliantly fresh, authentic and great value La Chasse du Pape Syrah 2004 (£4.99; Asd, Sai, Wai). Next up, I would plump for Concha y Toro’s consistent and awesomely good Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (£5.99; Sai, Thr, Wai).

Finally, for those with smaller parties or bigger budgets, I would recommend Ravenswood’s Vintners Blend Zinfandel 2002 (£6.99; Asd, Bud, Maj, Som, Spa, Tes, Thr, Wai) which would add a bit of warmth to any Yuletide bash. And lastly, my pick of the reds would be Louis Jadot’s 2003 Morgon Les Charmes Beaujolais (£7.99; Maj), which to be honest, I’d be happy to drink almost any time, anywhere. Happy Christmas!

HOWARD G GOLDBERG – SPARKLING, SWEET AND PORT

When New York City dresses up for the holidays, the twinkling streets and avenues give our eyes a party. In my apartment, the good cheer is heightened by fizz, fortified wines and sweetness, especially when northerly winds whoosh past the windows. At home and outside, we revisit good bottles that have given a lift to sunset-watching, meditation, professional reviewing, socialising and family dinners all year. Rarely is the second round disappointing; if anything, the pleasures ratchet up a few degrees.

The year’s Champagne high point was the austere, intricate 1998 Dom Pérignon, (from £78.99; nationwide) savoured in a private dining room at Per Se, chef Thomas Keller’s deluxe restaurant in the Time Warner Center. As for basic stuff, non-vintage Laurent-Perrier (£24.99; nationwide) was lemony and zesty.

Among the Californians, as usual non-vintage Roederer Estate (£13.57–14.17; BBR, F&R, Fou), supple and francophile, led the list. Winemaker Eileen Crane’s Taittinger-style 2001 Domaine Carneros (£15.99; DBy, Evy, Hds, Luv, Pln, Wmb, You), subtle and dancing in pinpoint bubbles, was noteworthy. Codorníu’s non-vintage Reserva Raventós, a delicate Spanish budget-oriented cava, offered Chardonnay pleasure plus the agreeable and somewhat unfamiliar flavours of Macabeo and Xarel-lo grapes (£7.99; Maj).

Ports were an easy choice. The 2003 Quinta do Noval Nacional (N/A UK; +351 223 752 020), as graceful as a ballerina, showed exceptionally deep fruit. The 2003 Fonseca (£30; BBR, N&P), with a quicksilver texture, was lusciously fruity.

Virtually anything Alois Kracher,

the dessert-wine marvel of Burgenland, Austria, makes seduces us. If you’ve had a windfall, ask Santa for the 2002 Kracher Collection box of small bottles of trockenbeerenauslese, numbered 1–12 (£395; You).

In Gunderloch’s 2002 Riesling auslese from the Nackenheim Rothenberg in Rhinehessen (£25.95; Ave), a jewelled Germany vineyard, the red slate played a teasingly supportive role to the wonderful rich fruit.

Sandeman’s Royal Ambrosante Old Solera Pedro Ximénez (£12.34 (50cl); Evy), mahogany-coloured and raisiny, came across as a kind of rarified grand cru prune juice. I’d drink it on New Year’s Day, with breakfast.

FIONA BECKETT – FOOD WINES

Christmas day is not a time for gastronomic high jinks – and that goes for the wine as much as the food. With large numbers, a raucous family atmosphere and three generations of widely differing palates to cater for, it seems senseless to wheel out the greatest treasures in one’s cellar. The backbone of the meal will be wines local to our house in the Languedoc. There are some great new whites around from the new Faugères Blanc appellation. Domaine du Météore (£6.75; SVS) is a favourite. We shall probably drink a bottle of the opulent Château des Estanilles 2002 (t16.28 (2000); 18c) which was showing fabulously well the other day and which I suspect will be an interesting choice with foie gras.

We’re spoilt for choice on reds. Usually it’s an elegant Syrah-based Côte Rousse or Cote Dorée from Domaine l’Aiguelière in Montpeyroux (£14.60 (2001); Exp) though I’m taken with the 2002 Cassecaillou from La Croix Belle (£11.99; MHl), a powerful blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre which extraordinarily has no wood on it. All good turkey wines.

We spent some time in Arles this year and got reacquainted with Baux de Provence – the splendidly plummy Domaine de la Vallelongue Rouge Tradition 2002 (£8.99 (2000); Epc) would make a great partner for a steak and kidney or game pie. It also has the virtue of being hard to place, something that’s true of two of this year’s other offbeat finds, the exuberantly fruity Domaine Laurens Marcillac (£6.50 (2001); VTr) and raspberry-scented Domaine St-Germain Irancy La Bergère 2003 (£11.95; SVS) – both should fox the more knowledgeable members of the party.

Lest anyone think I’m an unreconstructed Francophile (as if… ) there will also be a few New World bottles. I’ve been impressed by the quality of South African Sauvignon Blanc recently – I’m a big fan of the modestly priced, minerally Springfield Special Cuvée (£8.99; Maj, Sai, Wai), great with smoked salmon – and Charles Back’s wacky Goat Roti (£8.99; Maj) should give everyone a laugh. A final killer choice with the cheese: Masi’s exotic Corbec (£18.99; Odd), a blockbuster Amarone drink-alike produced in Argentina. That’ll fox ’em.

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