Making merry: what to drink at Christmas
There are few things lovelier than arriving in a warm, welcoming home and having a delicious drink thrust into your hand.
I do quite a few wine tastings at this time of the year and I’m always being asked about drinks for Christmas, so I thought it merited a few words, bringing together some appealing ideas for kicking off a celebration, making Christmas a little merrier.
… starting things off with a bang …
Christmas is a time for Champagne – and it needs to be toasty. That means it really has to be ‘Traditional Method’, the process of fermentation in bottle that results in those wonderful flavours that come from ‘autolysis’ (the process of yeast conversion).
The classic examples come from the Champagne region, of course, but the overwhelming majority of English sparkling wine is also produced this way, as is Italy’s Franciacorta, Spain’s Cava and Crémant, generally from France. These latter two, normally produced with a different mix of grapes to Champagne, make an excellent alternative for those on a tight budget.
If you’re heading to someone’s house, then Champagne makes the perfect arrival present.
The ‘big names’ offer limited edition Christmas packaging. These look great and can even be useful longer term. A good example comes from Nicolas Feuillatte, a co-operative of growers that produces the biggest selling Champagne in France.
The popular Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé travel sleeve (£35 at John Lewis) makes a gift that’s literally cool. The chiller is great if you’re hoping it’ll be opened on your arrival! It’s also a really useful thing to have in the cupboard for summer picnics. More importantly, what’s in the bottle is good quality too, making a really nice pairing with smoked salmon.
Sadly, not all Champagne is good, so be discerning. The supermarkets generally offer a cheap ‘tertiary’ brand that you haven’t necessarily seen before and may not see again (Louis DeFlouffé or something like that). These are best avoided. They are, however, happy to own their ‘premium’ offering (i.e: ‘Taste the Difference’, ‘The Best’ etc) and these are normally very good.
At the press tastings this year, my favourite Champagnes came from Tesco. Produced by a large co-operative, Union Champagne, I really liked the Tesco Finest Premier Cru NV (for the non-initiated, that’s non-vintage, meaning it is blended with reserve wines from a number of different years to achieve a consistency of style). Excellent value at £19, it offers classic biscuity aromas, nicely structured clean citrus flavours and a decent length of finish.
Better still, Tesco Finest Vintage Champagne 2012 Blanc de Blancs (meaning it’s 100% Chardonnay) is a proper Christmas cracker at £25. There’s a nutty depth to the nose, tempting toasted brioche, purity from the citrus fruit and green apple, and a generous finish. Despite our Brexit-battered currency, Tesco have still managed to bag a bargain. I’m intending to stock up, laying down a few bottles, as I think this has further to go.
If you’re planning to go English this Christmas, then Marks and Spencer have a brilliant sparkler from one of this country’s best producers, Ridgeview. Marksman Blanc de Blancs 2014 is toasty, but also fresh and crisp, with just a hint of spice, making it ideal for a festive meal, at £26.
I’m a big fan of English sparkling and this is honestly one of the best I have tasted this year.
Smoked salmon blinis are divine with proper sparkling wine, but so is a simple puff pastry cheese straw, where all that delicious biscuityness comes together.
… A winter’s cocktail …
Whilst Champagne makes for a classy start, a Christmas cocktail might be more fun.
The team at Vinosaurus have been experimenting with recipes for a ‘Winter Negroni’ and we think this one hits the spot. Not only does it look amazing, a rich festive red, it also smells fabulous, sending wafts of winter spice up your nose as you take a sip. Most importantly, its tastes wonderful, with the ‘mulled gin’, the sweetness of the vermouth and the savoury twist of the bitters all working in perfect harmony.
This very special cocktail requires a little bit of homework I’m afraid, but it’s well worth the faff.
Around five days before you want the cocktail, get mulling. I’m a gin snob, so it’s rare that I say any brand will do, but as you’re adding spice to their creation the master distiller isn’t going to love you very much, so just use what you have. We used Gordon’s for this one.
… the recipe …
Take a piece of star anise, two cinnamon sticks, a pinch of nutmeg and ten cloves and crunch it all up in a pestle and mortar. Pop the whole lot in a frying pan and gently heat it for a couple of minutes. Wait until it cools, then add the lot to a 70cl bottle of gin.
Once a day, turn the bottle upside down, so that the spices travel up and down the gin. It will look like pond water, but fear not.
For the cocktail, take some ice, preferably one very large cube, but several small ones will do (a large cube is better because it melts more slowly, so there’s less dilution and the drink stays colder) take equal measures (50ml) of your mulled gin, a decent red vermouth (Martini Rubino is excellent), and bitters (Campari is the classic, but the Martini 1872 Bitter is just a little bit sweeter, which is good for the mix) and finish it off with a dot of orange bitters (this is an optional extra, but it’s worth it) and a fresh slice of fried orange. Frying an orange? Yes. Cocktails are all about that je ne sais quoi and frying your orange slices in a tiny splash of oil adds a seductive smoky note.
The result is a classic cocktail, reinvented for Christmas.
… a deliberate ‘mistake’ …
If you fancy something a little longer and slightly less nuclear in terms of alcohol, then the Negroni Sbagliato is a great option that doesn’t require gin, so avoids all that mulling.
Sbagliato means ‘mistake’ in Italian. Apparently the drink was created by accident in a Milan hotel, when the hapless barman reached for the wrong bottle. Serendipity.
Place a nice big ice cube (or four smaller ones) in a tall glass, add smaller measures of both the vermouth and the bitters – 30 ml of each – then add 60ml of Martini Prosecco, give it a very brief stir and add a slice of orange.
Both the Sbagliato and the Winter Negroni will be wonderful with cashew nuts and juicy green Nocellara olives from Sicily.
… have a Sherry little Christmas …
If you’re looking for a lighter option, that still feels special, then try a dry Sherry and tonic. Fino is lovely on its own, but it’s magical mixed with a regular tonic water like Schweppes, using the same proportions as a classic gin and tonic, ice and a slice of lemon.
With less than half the alcohol of a G&T, it’s a more restrained option for midweek entertaining during the Christmas period. With a 75cl bottle of Tio Pepe costing less than a tenner, it’s great value too.
If you can’t be bothered to do any mixing, then the clever people at Gonzalez Byass have taken the idea of mixing Fino a step further, creating a pre-mixed spritz, Croft Twist.
Mixed with Belvoir elderflower, lemon and mint cordials and sparkling water, it’s only 5.5% alcohol, making it perfect for those who don’t want to overdo it. I was at the UK launch of this drink and I feared it might be too sweet for me, but it was a really nice surprise. It’s the perfect party pop at just £7.50 from Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Ocado, plus some independent wine stores.
Coming next, what to give a wine lover for Christmas.