It’s exactly a month to the big day as I write this. By now, the adverts have started to appear on TV, and grouchy middle-aged men like myself are already growing sick of them, raging against the commercialisation of Christmas, and claiming how it was better back in our day when all we got was a tangerine and a lump of coal.
Which of course never happened – I’m fairly sure I received as much useless tat in my stocking as my kids are likely to get from us and, of course, loved it. And whilst Christmas is quite rightly all about family, for me, it’s also hugely about the booze.
Back in my days as a wine-trade buyer, Christmas was already planned and ordered by July and shipped by October. A huge percentage of turnover and profit is delivered in the final two months of the year – if Christmas didn’t exist, you can bet Diageo would have invented it. This is the time of the year when we Brits really go for it, both in terms of quality and quantity.
So welcome to my little guide to some of the best things that you can drink when you allow yourself to (or are allowed to) let the handbrake off a notch or two. They’re not ‘four-figure’ stupidly expensive, but they’re not cheap either. And nor should they be. These are high-quality products that take care, love, time and investment to produce, and are fairly priced by their producers.
When compiling this, I’ve tried to take into account that everyone ‘does’ Christmas differently. We all have our own little traditions and rituals, as much a part of the big day to one as the Queen’s Speech may be to another. But whatever you do, or however you do it, it’s likely to be better if you have a glass or two of some of these drinks to accompany you along the way. They will certainly help your Christmas be a merry one.
Champagne for Drinks Parties: Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve Non Vintage
Charles Heidsieck relentlessly win medals and trophies for its wines – it may not have the marketing clout of some of the most famous marques, but it punches well above its weight on quality. For this, its standard champagne, around half of the blend consists of reserve wines, the oldest of which date back to 1990. And you can see that in the wine itself.
It is honeyed, rich and powerful, with biscuit and brioche notes combined with lemon curd. For the money, this is hard to beat and will satisfy and impress all your guests.
£25-£30 per bottle
Champagne for You: Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2007
Made from 100% Chardonnay, this luxurious wine is always one of my absolute favourites, and as such is firmly reserved for treating myself with. It’s like drinking fine, mature white Burgundy, but with bubbles.
This wine receives nearly 10 years of ageing on lees in the bottle, yet retains real freshness and a lightness of touch. Full of fresh fruits and floral notes, there are lovely toasty, bready flavours and a touch of salinity on the finish.
£85-£100 per 75cl bottle
Sherry: Cayetano Del Pino, Palo Cortado
Much maligned and misunderstood, Sherry should be widely recognised as one of the world of wine’s greatest (and best value) styles. From bone dry to super-sweet, Sherry makes thrilling, evocative and unique wines that we should all drink far more regularly than just the odd bottle at Xmas! And this example shows just why.
This is an excellent example of a rare Palo Cortado style, with an average age of over 40 years. Mature and deep yet extremely elegant and focused, a dry style, rounded and nutty on the palate, with a complex, fresh and endless finish.
The Wine Society
£23 per 37.5cl bottle
White Wine: Shaw and Smith M3 Chardonnay 2017, Adelaide Hills
I’m a massive Chardonnay fan, so it’s a given that this will feature for me at Christmas. The only question is really where that Chardonnay should come from, and thanks to the sky-high prices of Burgundy, and the fantastic quality of New World Chardonnays, I find myself more and more regularly looking outside of France.
Shaw and Smith consistently make some of the best wines in Australia. Based in the cool Adelaide Hills region, it makes excellent Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and of course Chardonnay. The M3 is a selection of its best fruit each vintage, which is fermented in a mixture of new and used French oak, with wild and cultured yeasts, all to gain complexity and richness. The result is always highly stylish and refined, with citrus and stone fruit characters overlying a lovely biscuity nuttiness on the long finish.
£30 per 75cl bottle
Red Wine: Château Léoville-Barton 2005, St Julien, Bordeaux
Growing up, the centrepiece of the family Christmas dinner was always the claret, lovingly selected and stored for years by my father. Complaints that claret doesn’t go well with Turkey were neatly dismissed with the addition of a joint of beef to the Christmas lunch. So regardless of what the best food and wine match is, and I do so tire of people boring on and on about this subject, I will be drinking claret at Christmas.
But what claret to drink? Frankly, anything from 2005. To my palate, this is the best vintage of this century, and the wines are just starting to show their full worth. Despite being 14 years old now, they’re still very youthful and will age for decades more, but they are already sensational. I recently had a bottle of the Léoville Barton 2005 with some old friends over a dinner at the wonderful St John Restaurant in Farringdon (they do corkage at £25 per bottle, so one really can go fully armed). It was fantastic, rich and powerful, yet supple, lithe and soft. Still quite fruit-forward, the palate is awash with blackcurrants and tobacco, and the finish goes on forever. I’d advise decanting this as your first job of Christmas morning (it will need a few hours airing to show at its best) so just before you open the Champagne!
£100 per 75cl bottle
Dessert Wine: De Bortoli Noble One, 2016
Since the first vintage of this iconic Australian wine in 1982, this has become the benchmark for new word dessert wine. Always offering incredible value, I regularly choose this wine over Sauternes.
Super concentrated, yet with a lightness of touch and zippy acidity, it’s packed full of citrus fruits, vanilla and honey, in succulent layers, which will go beautifully with Christmas pudding or the cheeseboard.
£20 per 37.5cl bottle
Port: Guimaraens 2004 Vintage Port, Fonseca
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a bottle of Port, which is good news for the Port producers who sell the majority of their production at this time of year. I recently attended a fabulous evening at London’s oldest cheesemongers, Paxton and Whitfield, where its magnificent cheeses were expertly paired with the wines from the venerable Port House, Fonseca. I could have chosen a number of its excellent wines to recommend, but ultimately I decided to go for that most ‘British’ style of ports, Vintage.
The 2004 Guimaraens Vintage from Fonseca is sublime, and surprisingly good value too. Made in years where the wines are forward and supple, this matures at a younger age than a full vintage Port. It displays a lovely balance between a core of rich, silky, brambly sweet fruit and the soft grip of the ripe tannins and alcohol. Warming, yet balanced, this is the ideal ending to your Christmas lunch.
£28-£35 per 75cl bottle
Brandy: Delamain Pale and Dry XO Cognac
The historic Cognac producers, Delamain, do not mess about when it comes to quality. For them, entry-level means XO, and not just any old XO either. The production rules for Cognac state that to achieve the status of XO, the spirit must have been matured in oak casks for a minimum of 10 years. Well the Pale and Dry from Delamain, only sourced from the best vineyards of the Grande Champagne region, has to stay for a minimum of 25 years in very old oak barrels before the master blender will even consider releasing it. Fortunately for us, they do all that waiting and we can just pop online or into a store, and it’s ready to drink!
Only aged in old oak barrels so as not to extract too much colour from the wood (Pale), and without any addition of sugar syrup or caramel (Dry), the style for Pale and Dry was set in 1920. Each master blender of the House since then has the enviable task of maintaining this style through the careful and skilful blending of their eaux-de-vies, tasting literally every day to ensure that all is progressing to plan. The result is a delicate and gentle Cognac, full of marmalade, figs and light citrus notes which dance across the palate. The palate is warming with spices added to the mix, whilst the finish is gentle and luxurious. Just right for sipping in front of the fire, and talking bollocks deep into Boxing day morning.
£90-£100 per 70cl bottle
£25-£30 per 20cl bottle
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