Friday, December 19, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 14, 2008: Party drinks - not just wine!

If I could choose whatever I wanted, I would probably serve Krug Rosé at my own party. I like a handful of other champagnes just as much, but Krug Rosé makes a statement. You can’t ignore it. But this year, even more than usual, it’s a case of dream on. Like almost everybody else, I’m downsizing in terms of outlay, but I still intend the party to go off with a bang, not a whimper. So, the drinks below are aimed at all tastes, but not quite all budgets: in compiling this, I had value front of mind.

Sacchetto Prosecco Colli Trevigiani, £6.99
Frizzante (semi-sparkling) with lightly yeasty, fresh pear flavours - and a budget-friendly price (The Real Wine Company, 01753 885619).

Le Coltore Prosecco Brut, £8.79
Elegant and dry with a gentle apple and peach flavour and zesty herbal freshness (Corney & Barrow, 020 7265 2470).

Tesco Finest Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, £8.99
Apple-scented, fruity, crisp and well-balanced (Tesco).

Autentico Lambrusco Reggiano, £7.49
Real red Lambrusco – a great party fizz. Medium-dry with with sweet-and-sour plum and pomegranate fruit (Marks & Spencer).

Prestige Cava, £6.99/£5
Crisp, sweet apple flavours with a herbal freshness; dry but not too dry (Marks & Spencer, £5 when you buy 2)

Langlois Crémant de Loire, £11.99/£7.99
Stylish floral, spicy aromas and wild strawberry flavours; dry and medium-bodied (Majestic, £7.99 when you buy 2).

Vitteaut-Alberti Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé, £11.50
Almost too good for a party: seductively raspberry scented and flavoured; soft, dry and finely textured (Stone, Vine & Sun, 01962 712351).

Duval Leroy Fleur de Champagne, £12.99
Down from its usual £25.99, this delicate, crisp, floral champagne is £12.99 for the last week of November only. From December 3 to January 6, it will be £16.99 (Waitrose).

Jacquart Brut Champagne, £16.99
Lightly toasty, fruity and approachable; down from £23.99 until December 30 (Somerfield).

Veuve Monsigny Champagne, £9.99
Easygoing nutty, appley flavours; soft, but crisp. No one can be making any money out of this (Aldi).

Waitrose Vintage English Cider, £1.59 for 50cl
Top-quality, intensely-flavoured, powerful, dry cider from Herefordshire; 7.3% abv (Waitrose).

Applewood Cider, £1.69
Medium-dry, softly fruity oak-aged cider from the West Country - a collaborative effort by Dorset brewers Hall & Woodhouse and Somerset cider-makers Thatchers; 6% abv (Tesco and Sainsbury’s).

Asahi Super Dry, £3.98-£4.29 for 4 x 33cl
Fashionable Japanese brand brewed in Kent by Shepherd Neame. Ultra-refreshing, crisp and light-bodied, but not low alcohol (5% abv). Perfect with spicy canapes (Sainsbury’s; Tesco; Waitrose)

Triple Karmeliet, £1.79 for 33cl
Winner of three titles at this year’s World Beer Awards, including World’s Best Ale, this is an Abbey-style Flemish beer made from three grains (wheat, oats and barley); hence Triple. It has a fresh, nutty, apple and banana nose with toffee, cream, orange and ginger on the palate. And it’s a powerful 8.4% abv, but it tastes it, so people won’t knock it back too quickly.

Brakspear English Pale Ale, £1.49 for 50cl
Quintessential, crowd-pleasing English ale – full and rounded with smoky, hoppy, orange flavours and 4.5% abv (Morrisons and Booths).

Badger Golden Champion, £1.69 for 50cl
Full and fruity with an orange marmalade flavour; 5% abv (widely available in supermarkets).

SKYY Vodka, £9.89
Made from filtered, 100% pure California water and grain from the Midwest, distilled four times and put through a three-stage filtration - all with the aim of producing the purest possible vodka. You’ll get a hangover from anything if you drink too much, but this might lessen the pain (Waitrose, on offer at this price until December 2, then reverts to £14.79).

Sagatiba Cachaca, £14.49-£15.49
Caipirinha may seem the perfect summer drink, but don’t put it on hold the rest of they year: it’s an ideal fuss-free party cocktail. All you need are limes, sugar, ice and your cachaca (Tesco, Waitrose, Oddbins).

Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, £15.99
Polish vodka with a distinctive herbal note. Put it in a pitcher with lots of ice and decent quality apple juice and you’ve got a tatanka (Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s).

2007 Asda Argentinian Torrontes, £4.12
Medium-bodied, flowery white with an outsize grapy, rose-petal perfume, a spicy, fruity palate and a sweet-lemon finish (Asda).

2007 La Dolomie Pinot Grigio, £3.99
Most sub-£5 pinot grigio has all the character of tap water, but this has proper flavour – lime, apple and minerals (Aldi; reverts to £4.99 after Christmas)

2007 Bushland Single Estate Chardonnay, reduced to £3.99 on Thursday
Nutty, oak-matured Australian chardonnay with fresh, bright fruit (Aldi; reverts to £4.99 after Christmas).

2007 Merlot Vin de Pays de la Cité de Carcassonne, Canat, £3.99
Soft blackcurranty fruit flavour and a clean dry finish (Sainsbury’s).

2007 Popolino Rosso, £4.29
Medium-bodied, fresh, supple Sicilian red with a scent of sweet cherries and witchhazel (Marks & Spencer).

2007 Côtes du Rhône, £4.49
Well-rounded young Rhône brimming with juicy, ripe, spiced-plum fruit (Marks & Spencer).

Mulberry Fair, £3.29 per litre
There are two flavours of these new mulberry juice drinks – mulberry and sanguinello orange and mulberry and limonera pear. They’re both delicious, so all you have to decide is whether you need perking up with orange or soothing with pear (Waitrose, Selfridges).

joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 14, 2008: Tawny Port - the unsung hero

Something to go with the stilton; something for the chocolate pudding, mince pies, panforte, stollen, nuts and figs; something to sip after dinner; a last-minute Christmas present; an unusual aperitif. Five different wines? No, just one: port. But not the usual. Instead of LBV (late bottled vintage), the default choice of the harrassed at Christmas, try an aged tawny (aged meaning matured, rather than elderly, and pronounced accordingly).

Aged tawny – labelled, ten, 20, 30 or very occasionally 40 years old - is the unsung hero of port in Britain. We think of port as dark red, rich, powerful and sweet, but tawny isn’t dark - it’s, er, tawny. And, although it’s as sweet and alcoholic as other styles, it’s lighter in body. The taste is different, too. Tawny is matured for years, sometimes decades, in wooden casks until it ends up with mellow flavours of dried fruit, toasted nuts, roasting coffee, spices and caramel.

Two other key differences are that tawny, unlike vintage port, has no sediment, so it doesn’t need decanting, and it should be served lightly chilled (an hour or so in the fridge depending on its temperature).

Taylors Ten Year Old Tawny Port, £18.99
Classic tawny with an enticing fillip of freshness (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Oddbins, Majestic).

Warre’s Otima 10, £10.99 for 50cl
Stylish, contemporary bottle for an equally polished tawny (Asda, Thresher, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose).

Noval Ten Year Old Tawny Port, £18.50
Textbook nutty, dried fruit flavours with a hint of chocolate (Fortnum & Mason, 0845 3001707).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 7, 2008: Ten Top Wines for Christmas

Wine is always a welcome gift, but even more so in the current climate - and you don’t have to spend a fortune to find something special with a story to tell. Better still, make sure you have some of these to pour at your own celebrations. Each and every one would be an asset over the festive period.

2007 Viognier, Christophe Pichon
£13.95, Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770
Even if you can afford the Rhône Valley’s top white wine, Condrieu at £20 upwards, I’d be tempted to give this Vin de Pays. You can always make it two bottles. It tastes of Condrieu – heady floral perfume, apricot flavour, silky texture - because it’s made from the same grape variety (viognier) grown on the the same granitic east-facing slopes, but just a bit further south. Give it to anyone who loves sensual white wine.

2006 Etienne Sauzet, La Tufera, Bourgogne Chardonnay
£13.80, Tanners, 01743 234500
One for devotees of fine white burgundy, especially Puligny-Montrachet, and for fans of new world chardonnay who want to see why there’s such a fuss about French wine. Sauzet is one of Puligny’s star producers and this comes from two parcels of old vines (age is good for vines) just beyond the Puligny-Montrachet boundaries; hence the simple Bourgogne designation. It’s rich, but elegant, nutty and mineral.

2007 Ken Forrester FMC Chenin Blanc, £16.99-£17.99
Tesco; Waitrose
This is a statement wine. It’s impossible to ignore, so don’t give it to someone whose staple is neutral pinot grigio, unless they’ve expressed a desire for a life change. It’s mouthfillingly rich, nutty and creamy, with flavours of apricot and cocoa, and it’s off-dry: the wine equivalent of a voluptuous, yet majestic blonde. The anorak-fact background is that it’s produced in Stellenbosch from chenin blanc – old vines and the ripest grapes - fermented and aged in French oak barrels.

1998 Alfred Gratien Millésime Champagne, £34.95
Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300
If you can still afford Krug or Cristal, give, give, give. If you can’t, you’ll score brownie points with Alfred Gratien, an insider’s champagne from one of the discreetest of houses. This has honeyed crystallised-fruit flavours, hints of toast and steely acidity. If the recipient doesn’t feel there’s anything to celebrate at the moment, there’s no hurry; this will outlast any recession.

2004 Selvapiana Bucerchiale, Chianti Rufina
£20, selected Marks & Spencer
Selvapiana only keeps the wine from the Bucerchiale vineyard separate from the rest of the estate’s wine in the very best years, so that makes this special for a start. It has subtly spicy aromas and lovely, savoury cherry flavours. You could give it to someone who has a cellar, to keep it for up to 12 years, but maybe there’s someone deserving who would share it with you sooner.

2004 Château Lalande-Borie, Saint-Julien
£19.99, Majestic
Lalande-Borie is under the same ownership as the glittering Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, so this is a chance to savour some of the magic of a top Bordeaux at a more affordable price. Supple and cedary with sweet fruit and a velvet finish. Anyone would like the taste, but it’s the men (boyfriend, boss, father-in-law) who are going to be most impressed by the name and the thought of claret.

2006 Yering Station Shiraz Viognier, Yarra Valley
£10.99, Sainsbury’s, Majestic
Stylish, full-bodied Oz shiraz with 5 per cent viognier - à la Côte Rôtie - to give a lift to the perfume. It’s not aged in oak, so the purity of the fruit shows and there alre also touches of dark chocolate and spice. It’s obviously ideal for oak-phobes, as well as fans of shiraz, but you should also consider it if you’re trying to convert an unreconstructed French red drinker to Australia. And if you know anyone who always loses/forgets/breaks the corkscrew, this has a screwcap.

2006 Carinae Malbec Reserva, Mendoza, £8.95
Stone, Vine & Sun, 01962 712351
This comes wrapped in tissue paper as if hinting that it should be given as a gift. Who to? The name Carinae will appeal to astromomers, but that’s a bit limited, so let’s add meat-eaters (malbec goes particularly well with beef) and those who like a stylish-looking but not overdesigned bottle on the table. If the intended recipient is a Francophile, play up the French connections: malbec is the grape in Cahors and the consultant winemaker, Michel Rolland, is from Bordeaux. As for the wine, it’s full-bodied and oaky, but not hefty, with a ripe blackberry and black pepper character.

1995 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904
£25, or £20 when you buy 2 or more, Majestic
Rioja is one of the best known names and most popular red wines, but not everyone has drunk grand old Rioja. Treat someone; perhaps someone too young even to have been drinking when this was made 13 years ago. It’s a gran reserva (top category) from a benchmark traditional bodega and it’s full of autumnal sweetness, sandalwood and cigarbox flavours.

2005 Aurélien Verdet, Gevrey Chambertin
£23.75, A & B Vintners, 01892 724977
You want to make someone feel really special? Give them good red burgundy. You’re giing a gift to a wine fanatic? Good red burgundy from a grower they may not have come across. Aurélien Verdet’s Gevrey is fragrant with cherries and roses and has a palate that is both sweet and savoury, vibrant and pure. It’s delicious now (partrdge would be a good partner), but it will open out over the next four years. Make sure you’re around.

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, December 7, 2008: Dinner-party choices

How did I get the idea that wine was supposed to be a source of enjoyment and relaxation? Seventy per cent of people feel intimidated in supermarket wine aisles, 36 per cent worry that they will take an unfashionable bottle to a dinner party and 20 per cent always buy the same wine. If the findings of this research by Sainsbury’s are to be believed, a lot of people find choosing wine a nightmare.

Sainsbury’s solution is to categorise its 163 own-label wines, including the superior Taste the Difference range, in one of seven styles – crisp and delicate, rich and complex, light and fruity, etcetra – and to identify the bottles accordingly. This should appeal to customers who are comfortable displaying the Sainsbury’s name, but those who worry about taking the right bottle to a dinner party may not want to take a supermarket own-label.

There’s no infallible answer to the dinner party dilemna, but, provided you avoid the cheapest, you are unlikely to go far wrong with Chablis, pinot noir or Rioja. Alternatively, if you fancy an upmarket own-brand the Fortnum & Mason selection is impressive.

2004 Viña del Encino Rioja, £10.90
Polished modern Rioja with seductive spicy fruit (Fortnum & Mason, 0845 300 1707).

2006 Ra Nui Pinot Noir, £11.25
Exemplary New Zealand pinot: pure, silky, raspberry-scented (01962 712351).

2006 Domaine Pinson Chablis, £11.90
Classic Chablis - nutty, creamy and mineral (Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770).

Joanna Simon in The Sunday Times, November 30, 2008: Great Value Growers' Champagnes

There are people who can still afford luxury-label champagne - good for them – but most of the world is feeling the squeeze. Champagne sales are down in all the top markets (France, Britain, America, Japan) and although they are still rising in Russia, India and China, the quantities in these new markets are tiny. So the Champenois are looking pinched for the first time in years.

Somehow I doubt many of you will be feeling sorry for them. I imagine you care more about whether you can afford to drink champagne at all this Christmas. With £10, you will be able to buy a bottle from the big supermarkets, but I don’t recommend it. It’s likely to be thin, sharp and/or coarsely sweetened. Sparkling wine from Burgundy, the Loire or the new world is a better bet. At £16 upwards, however, you can afford fine champagne – not a grand name, but one made on a small scale by an individual grower and sold through an independent wine merchant. Look out for the words “grower’s champagne” in lists, and try the gems below.

Chartogne-Taillet Brut Champagne, £21.25
Delicately honeyed, lemony and biscuity. Very stylish (Vine Trail, 0117 921 1770).

Chauvet Brut Blanc de Noirs Champagne, £15.95
Supple and fruity with textured richness (Private Cellar, 01353 721 999; normal price £17.43)

Carlin Blanc de Blancs Champagne, £17.99
Buttery, biscuity, all-chardonnay, and technically from a small house rather than a grower (The Real Wine Co, 01753 885619).