Festive Food and Drink, Christmas 2015

Taster Collection

Taster Collection

Festive Food and Drink,
Christmas 2015

Em Marshall-Luck selects some treats for the Season

I have here a fine crop of recommendations for the festive season: all impressive and outstanding beverages for celebratory gatherings, family occasions and special meals, at really rather good prices. My choices consist of a sparkling, four reds – two, unusually, to pair with chocolate for an extra special treat, a Riesling, a rosé, some beers, ciders and mulling spices; and a fabulous hamper to enjoy at this most convivial time of year.

Let us start in true style with the sparkling – the Vallate Prosecco Extra Dry: a very fine, crisp and luxurious prosecco with gloriously floral nose of apple and orange blossom, and a burst of honey. On the palate it is much drier than the nose implies, with citrus fruits – mainly lemons and clementines – along with some floral tones. It is extremely moreish and perfect for festive celebrations – a very classy wine; even the bottle looks sophisticated. Available from the very fine Wine Trust Club (featuring one hundred of the best wines): www.winetrust100.co.uk, RRP £9.95.

The finest red I’ve come across recently is the Ramon Bilbao Gran Reserva 2008: a blend of 90% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo grapes from vineyards in the Rioja region. The grapes are grown on old vines on sandstone, limestone and alluvial soil, giving high acidity levels. They are then aged in new American oak barrels for 30 months, then in the bottle for a further 36 months to soften the acidity and tannins. The result is a wine with a deep, thick, rich appearance: plum in colour with a slightly tawny edge, and with the most exquisite nose of sweet ripe berry fruits – cherries and plums, mixed with some woodland odours. The taste is drier than the nose would indicate and immediately conjures up mental images of old stone Cotswolds houses with faded, immensely comfortable sofas, flagstone floors, blazing open fires with hounds spread out on hearthrugs enjoying the warmth, and old books on antique tables beneath standard lamps. The taste is noble and refined – like an elderly gentleman in whom good breeding and an excellent education has combined with a life-time of generosity, compassion, learning, spirituality, extensive travel and thus broad-mindedness, and merriment. There are woodland berries – brambly ones; there is cedar, oak and ash, and then there is an aftertaste of tremendous but almost indescribable maturity (leather and open fires) – and it is here that that refinement comes in. A truly superb wine, RRP £14.95-£16.95 from specialist wine retailers.

Lawson’s Dry Hills Pinot Noir 2012 Reserve comes from a family-owned winery with vineyards of their own unique microclimate in the Waihopai Valley in New Zealand. The colour is a morello cherry red, and the wine has a powerful nose of ripe red berry fruits – redcurrants and cherries, with some dark bramble fruits thrown in as well. On the palate the wine is rich and smooth, with those ripe fruits very much to the fore – especially the sweet and succulent cherries – along with woodland notes of oak (small batches of the wine are matured in French oak barriques) and a dash of bonfire smoke. I usually find pinot noirs rather on the light side, but this is a deeply satisfying wine; fully rounded and darker, deeper and more complex in taste than usual. Excellent. Also available from the Wine Trust (http://winetrust100.co.uk, RRP £16.00).

Finally for the reds, two offering from Corney & Barrow, who are collaborating with the luxury craft chocolatiers Cocoa Runners to offer fine wine and chocolate pairings. Eradus Pinot Noir 2013 is from the Awatere Valley in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, and its sophisticated bottle immediately boded well. The colour is a light pinkish shade of red and on the slightly delicate nose we immediately have sophistication, with fruity hints of plums, damsons and cherries with some more mature tones. The taste is full of those fruits but with darker notes of wood, leather and tar, as well as some spice, and some good ripe tannins. It is an elegant wine; its lighter body, nose and colour belying its depth of character. The recommendation is to pair this with Cacaosuyo, Piura Select 70% cacao chocolate, made with white organic cacao from Peru: a very fruity-tasting chocolate, very high in flavour, with overtones of berries and currants, a smooth texture and a complex and unusual taste.

I found the second pairing even more successful – the chocolate is Blaxart from the Dominican Republic, and the wine Domaine Saissac, Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 from the Pays D’Oc. The wine is a good deep ruby colour with a nose of dark berry fruits – blackcurrants, blackberries, sweet cherries and plums – all extremely ripe and sweet. The taste is darker and tarter than one might guess from the nose – rich, complex and sophisticated with a layer of those woodland fruits followed by dark earthier notes – wood (oak and cedar), liquorice and a hint of tar – really rather gorgeous. The Blaxart is smoother and deeper than the Cacaosuyo, with lower notes and seemingly a high melting point in the mouth. It is beautifully rich and boasts a good amount of sweetness tempering the bitter cocoa; this chocolate is really exquisite and works well with this very fine wine. These two pairings form the Taster Collection, priced at £54.99.

The award-winning company Wine Barn’s goal is to “find the very best modern German wines from the very best winemakers and then to make them easily available to the UK market” – a fine purpose indeed! Accompanying the wine is a rather beautifully produced spiral-bound book listing all the regions and wines for sale, with interesting information, maps and images. Impressive. The Allendorf Rheingau Riesling Trocken 2013 bears the slightly hackneyed legend “Save water: drink Riesling”. Thankfully the wine isn’t as old-hat as the strapline. It has a good golden colour and a nose of ripe golden fruit with some honeyed sweetness. The taste is intense and vibrant; quite sharp – full of citrus fruits – grapefruit and lemons, with just a hint of pineapple and a little grassy mineral element. I will be reviewing a second Wine Barn Riesling in my next column – but those interested in the very finest of German wines might make a note in their diaries of the 19th January, when Wine Barn will hold their annual portfolio tasting at which they will show 120 wines for trade and private customers, (£13.50 from www.thewinebarn.co.uk.)

Wild Thing Rose is an organic wine developed by Vintage Roots (a leading fully organic and ethical wine and drinks company), with bottles sold to benefit the Born Free Foundation. The wine is a peachy pink colour with an orange hue and has a nose full of strawberries – very fruity and sweet. The taste is far less sweet than the nose leads one to believe, but is still full of ripe berry fruits – summery strawberries, raspberries and cranberries, with some gooseberry, red currants and lemon adding tartness. An elegant, refreshing and supremely fruity wine that reminds one of the warmth of summer, RRP £7.99.

I am sure I am not alone in being partial to hot, spicy alcoholic beverages in the colder months and usually start making batches of my own mulled wine come late October. Spice Kitchen is a family-run artisan producer of spices and spice blends (run by mother Shashi and son Sanjay Aggarwal); supporting charities in Kenya and India and commended by the likes of Dhruv Baker, it won a Great Taste award earlier this year. Their mulled wine spice contains dried mixed peel, cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorns, nutmeg, bay leaves, cloves, star anise and ginger – pretty much what I’d use myself in mulling wine, but all wrapped up together in what looks like a giant teabag. This works extremely well – it adds a good hit of spice, and thickens the mulled wine nicely (though with my traditional recipe of a little fruit juice, and, as my husband deems, dangerously large quantities of wine, sherry and brandy, the wine is pretty thick already!). Both combination of flavours and quantities of spices in this blend seem just about right. I’d highly recommend these, if you need to whip up a batch in a hurry, to save searching amongst jars of spices! (£4.99 www.spicekitchenuk.com.)

If you have no time to mull the wine yourself, another good second option would be Echo Falls Red Fruit Fusion – a blend of wine with orange, lemon and cinnamon, for a drink to be either warmed or enjoyed cold. I warmed it and found it a good rich colour and texture – not at all thin and watery like so many mulled wines. There are powerful aromas of citrus, and the taste is an excellent balance of sweetness and acidity. On the palate we have a nice citrus and spicy tang, a good body, and a full, round, rich taste – not as good as home-made of course but certainly the best bottled mulled wine I’ve tried, (£5.99 RRP, available from Tesco.)

Sheppy’s Mulled Cider is another good warming wintery drink. The premium medium-sweet cider is blended with a secret recipe of traditional mulling spices including cinnamon and cloves. It has no “bits” in it, being a fully clear, transparent liquid with typical Sheppy golden hue. The nose is very apple-y, if not very spicy; and the spices aren’t particularly distinctive on the palate either – it really just tastes like warm cider, albeit very good cider, and the strongest hint of anything else is a little taste of cloves on the aftertaste, which imparts a gentle warm glow. This is an extremely pleasant and a very pure mulled cider, for those who prefer not to have chunks of thickening spices in their drink, (Six 750ml bottles for £27.60.)

Finally for drinks: two beers. Celia Dark is a hand-crafted Czech larger, made with toffee Bavarian malt, water from the Zatec foothills and bitter Saaz hops (the only protected hops in the world, which thus give Celia the PDO symbol). It is brewed in the cellars of a fourteenth-century castle, and has an intriguing bottle design with geometric designs on the lid and around the bottle top. The colour is a rich dark brown with reddish tint and the nose is very dark and extremely chocolate-y, with a hint of coffee too, lots of marmite and much malt, which latter comes through strongly in the taste, as does the marmite, along with some black treacle. This is a rather fascinating beer – rich and complex and highly recommended. (Available from Ocado and Oddbins at £2.50.)

From the same brewery comes Celia, a completely organic beer, also brewed in the castle with the Saaz hops, Zatec water and Moravian malt. This beer has also undergone a silicon filtration process, which claims to ensure that the beer is vegan and gluten free. It has a lovely colour of pure gold – very autumnal and warm. The nose is slightly sweet and delicately hoppy, and it has a clean taste: very hoppy, with a good balance of acidity; a rich and warming beer. (Available from Ocado and Oddbins at £2.50 but also coming to Waitrose.)

Food lovers Smoked Food Hamper

Food lovers Smoked Food Hamper

And to accompany these fabulous drinks, what better than a hamper from the Black Mountains Smokery? These contain such goodies as fabulously flavoursome oak roasted salmon – a rich, succulent, tender slice of fish, with gloriously but never overwhelmingly oaky flavour, a good depth of colour and wonderful texture. Enjoy with sautéed potatoes, haricot verts and a dash of hollandaise sauce for a truly magnificent meal. Also on offer is the Welsh Smoked Salmon, which has a texture that is quite chewy but not unpleasantly so. The flavour is full and wonderfully woody and smoky, though not overpowering; a rich and luxurious product. It goes perfectly with the sumptuously thick and creamy dill sauce. There is also smoked chicken and smoked duck, both of which also sport a gloriously smoky flavour and smooth textures – with the superior meat beautifully enhanced by the smoking process. Perfect for special but quick-to-prepare meals in the run-up to Christmas, along with one of my suggested wines above and some truly excellent cheeses.

Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic

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