December is a special month. We acknowledge and review the year that’s passing and prepare with optimism and hope for the new year to come; nostalgia mingled with anticipation and hope.
To commemorate 2017 and with all the excitement that the festive season brings, stocking versatility in the drinks cabinet means we are prepared for any occasion and company. We’re sharing twelve of our favourite drinks for Christmas, the emphasis here is on quality not quantity and celebrating our own Irish crafted brews and spirits with some exceptional wines from Chile, France, America, Spain, Madeira Island and Portugal.
Best wishes for your good health and happiness!
Champagne Philippe d’Albecourt, Cuvée Réserve Brut, France
€14.99 375ml – Seasonal availability at Aldi stores
A survival kit-sized bottle to break open in case of emergency, or to add a little sparkle to a cocktail. Equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. Very attractive yeasty bouquet of freshly baked bread.
Rich and mature palate proven by how well the crisp acidity has integrated with the green apple fruity flavours.
Food friend: smoked salmon canapés for the lemony acidity to cut through the salmon’s richness.
Wild Burrow Slow Distilled London Dry Gin, West Cork Distillers, Ireland
€24.99 – Available at Lidl nationwide
It was a tug-of-war deciding between the Wild Burrow siblings of Distilled Gin (12 botanicals) in the distinctive blue glass bottle and the very newest creation of their London Dry Gin style (13 botanicals) in the green glass bottle. Both use the same twelve botanicals from Rabbit Island including dandelion flower, scots pine, blackcurrant leaf, wild garlic, wild fennel and furze petals.
The latter won by a whisker with its lucky additional thirteenth botanical, liquorice. This cockney has a local Cork accent where all 13 botanicals are distilled with the spirit in a copper still as defined for a London Dry Gin style. Delicious with tonic and a personal preference is to banish any garnishes. Both gins have the scots pine to emphasise the woodland character, but this one has more emphasis on citrus flavours and a distinctive liquorice finish.
Food friend: try with a homemade cheeseburger and pickle.
Swingletree Farmhouse Saison, Kinnegar Special, Farmhouse Beers, Donegal
€3.29 – €3.79 500ml – Widely available nationwide
A trinity of grain: barley, wheat and rye, each contributing malty spice, refreshing citrus and earthy flavours.
Traditionally brewed “in season” between November and March with the alcohol strength to age through the summer months.
However, it is the yeast that delivers the real character, believed to be related to a red wine yeast and capable of fermenting at much higher temperatures for a beer (32C), giving a distinct pepperiness. The clean hops attractive bitterness lingers on the finish.
Food friend: a heavyweight salad with turkey or ripe Brie wedges wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
Sauvignon Blanc 2016 National Gallery Series, Santa Rita 120, Central Valle, Chile
€15.99 at Tesco, Dunnes and SuperValu nationwide
One of a series of popular varietal wines and adorned by a miniature work of art, with the permission of London’s National Gallery. At home with masterpieces, as Santa Rita Estates have the finest collection of South American art at their popular gallery on their Casa Real property in Chile. A classic Sauvignon Blanc character in an understated Sancerre-like style. Fresh grassy aromas and crunchy green fruits, apples and limes.
Food friend: perfect as an appetite sharpener or serve with canapés of smoked salmon, mini quiche, spicy samosas and sausages wrapped in bacon.
Cigalus Blanc 2016, Gérard Bertrand, Sud de France
14.5% ABV (Biodynamic)
€38 – Available at O’Briens Wine nationwide
Biodynamic practices attract polarised opinions. Many are based on often forgotten traditions but maintain a deep concern not to upset the balance of nature with agrochemicals.
Letting the evidence speak for itself, a golden blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc influenced by the balmy Mediterranean from the Pays d’Oc.
Summer scents of warm hay and roasted hazelnuts. A full-bodied wine with a buttery texture of peaches and cream with delicate acidity. Finishing long with apricot flesh and kernel. An oaked white in the classic Burgundian Puligny-Montrachet style.
Food friend: a Christmas Day celebration with turkey.
Vacqueyras 2016, Caves Saint-Pierre, Cru du Rhône, France
€16.99 at select Eurospar, Spar, Mace and Londis
Named after the town, derived from the Latin for “valley of the rocks”. Sometimes called: “poor man’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape”, Vacqueyras derives its power from its principal grape, Grenache and its balance from Syrah and Mourvèdre its structure.
Regulated to a yield of 36 hectolitres per hectare, one of the lowest in France emphasises that concentration.
A rich meaty aroma of sausage and black pudding. Silky smooth tannins are underpinned by red berries and juicy strawberries.
Food friend: go to the dark side with protein this Christmas Day and match with spiced beef or venison.
Pinot Noir 2012, Julia’s Vineyard, Cambria Estate, Santa Maria Valley, California
€29.99 – Available at O’Brien’s nationwide
A wine strongly influenced by soil and sea. The crushed seashells embedded in the vineyard and the cooling fog that rolls in from the Pacific at night, slowing the grapes’ maturity. This helps to give time for the Pinot Noir vines to extract more from the soil to accentuate aromas and flavours in the grapes. Hints of a vegetal and an earthy bouquet. Smooth and mellow palate with refreshing acidity and subtle tannins. Seductive red fruits are grounded with an earthy finish.
Food friend: partner with any meat or poultry and a versatile friend to most dishes at Christmas time.
Very Rare Dry Oloroso, Emilio Lustau, Spain
€12 375ml – Available at Marks & Spencer
Made with Palomino, Sherry’s principal white grape. Its neutral character allows the ageing in old American oak barrels (butts) for lengthy periods to highlight its character to the wine. Fortified early with brandy spirit to sustain its life.
Living up to its name, oloroso means fragrant. Rich aromas of treacle, raisins and dates. Delicious and dry with its complex and deep flavours of walnuts and woody spice finishing long and hiding the alcohol.
Food friend: after dinner treat with a hard cheese and dried figs.
Malvasia 10 Years Old, Justino’s, Madeira
€40 at Marks & Spencer
Everything about Madeira is exotic. Being a tropical volcanic island, a Portuguese colony and a wine inspired when trading ships stopped to get provisions crossing the Atlantic. Barrels of Madeira’s wine were stored in the ships’ hold to act as stabilising ballast.
The wines virtually cooked when crossing the Equator, giving the wines their distinctive caramel tang.
Today the wines are heated to replicate that estufagem or cooking process. Madeira’s four single varietal wines range from driest to sweetest in the order of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual/Boal and Malmsey (Malvasia). Madeiras are one of the best fortified wines for maintaining freshness after opening. Classic caramel aroma. Seductive satiny texture and a contrasting salted caramel entry leads on to rich candied orange peel and a little white pepper on the finish.
Food friend: surprisingly versatile to serve throughout a meal with a fruity mains and dessert: lamb tagine and prunes, blue cheese and chocolate mousse.
Vintage Port 2003, Smith Woodhouse, Douro Valley, Portugal
€61.95 – Available at O’Brien’s nationwide
Wines made in one of the most challenging terrains in the world where the mighty Douro River carved a meandering valley through the steeply sloped granite hills.
Of all Port styles, Vintage Port is the most precious and long-lived. Coming of age after 15-20 years and continuing to improve for many decades.
This 2003 Vintage Port is just starting on its plateau of perfection and will remain there for at least a decade. Scented with violets and intense plummy fruit with bitter chocolate contrasting the wine’s natural sweetness. Power with elegance.
Food friend: an ageless classic with Stilton blue cheese.
Dingle Single Malt Batch No. 2 Irish Whiskey, Dingle
€65 – Available at O’Brien’s; Celtic Whiskey Shop; Molloy’s; Redmond’s; McHugh’s; Martin’s; Mulligans Grocer Whiskey Shop; Drink Store; Mitchell & Son; Baggot Street Wines; Blackrock Cellars; Templebar Whiskey Store, Fox’s Cigar and Whiskey Shop; SuperValu; McCambridge’s; Callan’s
Fragrant with vanilla, sultanas and cake spice expressing the accent of the trinity of casks used for aging, American Bourbon and Spain’s Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso Sherry barrels. Honeyed and elegant with the spicy malt delivering an endless top note effortlessly.
Food friend: a contemplative after dinner moment to savour with a piquant Hegarty’s Cheddar cheese and hazelnuts.
Ruby Blue Wild Cranberry Liqueur, Hughes Craft Distillery, Lisburn, Co. Antrim
€19.99 350ml – Available at Celtic Whiskey Shop Dawson Street, L Mulligan Whiskey Shop and many Supervalu, Centra stores
Perhaps more famous for its award-winning potato vodka, Barbara and Stuart Hughes’ wild fruit liqueurs are a pleasure to discover. Made with five times distilled Irish grain spirit in small batches and infused with either blackcurrants, blueberries, cranberries or chili peppers. A festive favourite is the Wild Cranberry Liqueur served with a chilled sparkling wine for a Kir Royale with a kick.
Food friend: after a rich meal, refresh the taste buds and pour over premium vanilla ice cream and let it ripple.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.