With the shortest day only five weeks away, it is time to start my four-part series of Christmas wine recommendations.
As in previous years, that means absorbing the usual Sunday Best and Friday Treat features into wines for Christmas and, of course, adding a few more.
Coverage of promotions gets reduced too so as simply to show the dates when the latest “tempting offers” begin and end.
Recognising that affordability and accessibility are key at the moment, many of the suggestions will be from the “usual High Street suspects” or Majestic.
We begin today with sweet wines for Christmas lunch and the fortified wines that come into their own at this time of year.
Reviews of (a) red wines, (b) white wines and (c) bubbles follow on in the next few weeks – interrupted only by an examination of the new Wine Tour in Lidl.
In the usual way, hyperlinks and pictures are used where possible to help you locate the bottle in question.
Starting with the classic and traditional.
2015 Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes (£24 at The Wine Society and 13.5% abv)
Typical Christmas fare often concludes with a substantial dessert and that demands wine of comparable weight.
Fortunately, the sweet wines of Bordeaux continue to meet that need with suitable style and depth.
Owned by a former general manger at Chateau Yquem, this Chateau is acknowledged as producing top level Sauternes and this luxury option from The Wine Society will not disappoint.
Aromatic and golden in colour, it provides classic mango, peach and honey flavours with ripe grapefruit centred acidity to create a glorious counterbalance to its weightiness – and avoid any sweetness overload.
A slightly lighter alternative
2018 Chateau La Rame (£12.99 for 50cl at Majestic but some stores have a different vintage – and 13%):
Over the Garonne, the soil in areas like Ste-Croix-du-Mont mean that sweet wines produced there seldom quite reach the dizzy heights of Sauternes, but their wines remain a joy to drink.
Ch. La Rame – like Ch. Raymond-Lafon – has a 80:20 split in its vineyards between semillon and sauvignon blanc and the first of those varieties plays a major part in the balance both wines achieve.
This is lighter and younger wine but still will work well with all but the most substantial of desserts.
Lighter in colour, age and body than the Sauternes, this fuses balanced apricot, tangerine and cooked apple flavours into a herbal foundation that has controlled sweetness – thanks in part to its lively lime acidity.
And for a Taster
2019 LFE Late Harvest Viognier/Sauvignon Blanc (£5.49 for a half bottle at Majestic):
Less prestigious occasions may call for a more modestly priced sweet wine and this well-made blend from a prolific Chilean producer fits that bill nicely.
Again, sauvignon appears on the cast list but this time it is accompanied by the especially fragrant and substantial viognier.
Rich but with savoury edges, the result brings us long pineapple, barley sugar and peach flavours with tangerine acidity.
Its texture performs the neat trick of combining a certain lightness of weight with some typical viognier viscosity.
Moving to Fortifieds
Best Oloroso Sherry (£5.50 – instead of £6.50 for a half bottle until 1 January – at Morrisons and 20%):
Yes I know that not everyone loves dry sherry but Oloroso is made in a different way to, for example, fino and can provide a more rounded wine than those with uncompromising dryness.
Despite it bargain price, this is a particularly good example and is made for Morrisons by a brilliant producer (Emilio Lustau).
If you doubt me, invest a fiver in a half bottle of this and hold some in your mouth for 10 -15 seconds as the classic dry sherry opening gives way to richer, rounder and more complex flavours.
Balancing sharp acidity with a rich fudge influenced framework, it delivers apricot, orange and apple flavours coupled with exactly the right hints of sweetness, and all wrapped in a glorious golden colour.
Getting a little sweeter
Gonzalez Byass Solera Cream Sherry (from £14.99 at Majestic and 18%):
When the sherry revival in the UK started to gain traction, cream sherry was the last style to complete its rehabilitation.
I guess that sweetened sherries were just too reminiscent of the simplistic inexpensive versions that probably caused the move away from sherry in the final quarter of the last century.
Make no mistake though, this is a bird of very different feather.
For sure, it offers some sweetness but never becomes cloyingly sugary and, better still, ameliorates it with citrus acidity.
Smooth with an inviting aroma of molasses, it features rich gingerbread, cooked apple, treacle toffee and burnt almond flavours yet still has enough acidity to keep the tongue tingling throughout.
And at the top of the sweetness tree.
Finest Pedro Ximenez (£6.50 for a half bottle at Tesco and 15%)
Few – if any – wines cover the taste spectrum more comprehensively than sherry with delicate manzanilla at one end and the opulent density of its sweetest versions at the other.
Two letters are at the centre of those sweet versions – PX – or to provide its complete handle the Pedro Ximenez grape variety.
As dark as midnight and as richly concentrated as treacle, it provides a perfect companion for hearty puddings, pours beautifully over ice cream and some use it with cheeses.
As opaque and viscous as you would expect, this example offers us chewy dark chocolate and fig flavours in a creamy texture that rides out on a warming walnut and gaellic coffee finish.
Switching away from Spain
Blandy's Madeira Duke of Clarence (£12 at Sainsbury’s and 19%)
Madeira wines rose to fame as a sea-farers drink containing enough brandy to avoid deterioration during a long voyage and as an excellent (also agreeable) way to prevent disease.
Nowadays, it sits neatly in the fortified wine hierarchy somewhere between sherry and port and is, sadly, neglected by far too many wine drinkers.
With four principal grape varieties and different levels of sweetness and of aging, madeira offers a whole world of wine and this entry point version is great place to start exploring that world.
Opening with date and dried fruit elements, this follows up with caramel, maple syrup and marmalade touches yet, despite the consequent sweetness, never loses the essential clarity that makes madeira so enjoyable.
Finally, Vintage Port
2004 Croft ‘Quinta Da Roeda' Vintage Port (from £18.99 at Majestic and 20.5%):
Last week, I gave you an excellent recommendation for tawny port and that should occupy an important place on your Christmas wine shopping list.
However here is a more typical port – in “single quinta vintage” format.
I have explained the benefits of Single Quinta Vintage Ports before but, for anyone that missed it, here is the broad gist.
Classic Vintage Port that (in 30 years’ time) will be perfectly balanced yet consistent with its producer’s “house style”, demands three things.
One is a good year, the second (inevitably) is high quality fruit and, third, to get balance and consistency, the grapes in the blend will be from a carefully selected patchwork of locations.
In other years (probably two out of every three) good fruit may still be available – and when it is, can be used to make “Single Quinta Vintage Port”.
These wines are made in broadly the same way as traditional vintage ports – although the grapes come from just one estate – and generally are simpler, ready sooner and much more keenly priced.
Smooth but with all constituents beautifully integrated, this example of the genre exhibits minty raspberry, black cherry and prune flavours partnered by good orange acidity and suggestions of cinnamon, star anise and black pepper.
Being the third Thursday of November, today is the release date for the new vintage Beaujolais.
While the worst kind of hype that surrounded this occasion was abandoned long ago, the wine itself remans an attractive option for light “don’t take life too seriously” drinking.
The one being offered by Wickham Wines (Beaujolais Nouveau 2022, Domaine Bel Avenir from £12) is a good example of the point.
Soft and predictably light, it is Beaujolais Villages with slightly earthy raspberry and red cherry flavours balanced by good acidity and background suggestions reminiscent of parma violet sweeties.
As mentioned in the introduction, details of the promotions scene will be concentrated on just start and finish dates as supplied to me by the relevant retailers.
Expanded details are expected to resume when the site returns after the Christmas break.
So, here, is the latest information:
A new set of deals began this week at Morrisons and is expected to run until 4 December.
Meanwhile don’t forget that the current promotion at Sainsbury’s only has a few more days to go and is due to end on 22 November.
Over at Majestic, this week saw the launch of their Black Friday deals with “sale prices” offered on 23 different items.
These include The Guv'nor Spanish red dropping to a “mixed six” price of £5.99 while Aimé Arnoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape is down 40% at (again a “mixed six”) price of £14.99.
This week Majestic’s annual ‘25% off of all Fine Wine' offer also began and that is scheduled to run until 28 November. Do check the details though for how fine wine is defined.
Tune in again on Monday when value at budget price points is, once more, the theme of my latest Top Tips post.
Subscribe for FREE!
Do you want every review I write, direct to your inbox, absolutely free?