Christmas Wines-Report from London
Posted: 4th January 2021
The feast is not finished, nor have the lamps expired, the tree’s still up, and although I have yet to make the galette des rois, there is already a bottle of wine in the fridge earmarked to go with the pie when it rolls out at the Epiphany. It has been a quiet Christmas, for all sorts of reasons, but we celebrated stylishly enough, not least because I still had a few good wines stashed away. The stock is dwindling, however, and I am sure we will not see their like again.
In the nineties I still wrote a lot about wine: hundreds of articles and three whole books. That meant that there was always lots of wine about, and there was more money than I needed too in those days, so I used to buy doubletons in the vague idea I might ask people round to dinner. Either there were too many purchases, or too few invitations were sent out, but this stock is what feeds high days and holidays now.
Once the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve we started with some non-vintage Perrier-Jouët. We must have had it for at least five years, maybe longer? I like old champagne, the darker colour and more concentrated aromas. It went well enough with my terrine. I had managed to procure a liver on my whistle-stop trip to Calais on the 17th. Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast, and a fish night. In the past we have eaten lobsters, either bought here or brought up from the coast by my Devon-based brother-in-law. I assume the poor lobsters we normally eat were dying slow and painful deaths in the backsides of lorries on Manston Field. We had a big piece of halibut instead, which I cooked with a little wine, saffron, butter and cream, and although I say it myself, it was a triumph.
For the first time ever there was no great white burgundy to go with the fish. All I had was a curiosity: a 2010 Pinot Blanc Les Avoines from Jean Fournier in Marsannay. It was a wonderfully concentrated wine. Pinot Blanc ages extremely well, and this was just further proof.
A friend had given us some Norman cheeses that were too much for his needs, and there was a ripe camembert to follow. My Calais-bought vacherin mont d’or never ripened properly, although I was assured it was delicious on toast. I opened a 1997 Sämling 88 (Scheurebe) Spätlese from my friend Johann Münzenrieder in Apetlon. It was still walking, but with a stick. It was supposed to go with an excellent chestnut bûche.
Fortunately I had decanted some port earlier. I have run out of wines from the ‘British’ houses, but I still had some Rozès, which used to be owned by Moët & Chandon. From what I could see (the label had gone and the cork came out in crumbs) it was a 1991. It was more Graham than Dow, if you know what I mean: opulent and sweet. There were tastes of cherries, chocolate and nuts, and it was deliciously creamy: a bit like a liquid Schwarzwaldtorte. It had considerable staying power mind you and was still pleasant to drink three days later. There wasn’t much time to swill port either, as we scrambled off to a rather muted Midnight Mass at the Dominican Friary in Hampstead.
The best champagne was kept for opening presents around the tree on Christmas Day. There was to be none served on New Year’s Eve. I had some 2003 Roederer left over from a lot I was given for judging a wine-writing prize. It was no disappointment: baked apples and crystallised fruits. Before the Simon-Heffer forerib we ate some more of the terrine, but this time with a mature Saar wine: the 2007 von Orthegraven Kanzemer Altenberg Riesling Spätlese. It was as good as I expected, changing dramatically in the glass over time, but reminiscent above all of exquisite Seville orange marmalade.
The beef was accompanied by a gratin dauphinois and red cabbage liberally basted with the Scheurebe from the night before. With the rib I opened my last bottle of the 1992 Domaine de l’Arlot Vosne Romanée Premier Cru (Les Suchots?). I had the other bottle of this on my birthday, which I remembered being wonderful. There was nothing wrong with this either, mind you: tremendous power with some slightly spirity cherry fruit. There was a hint of sweetness at first, but it was on thundering good form.
As the vacherin was still not playing I had a little camembert-style cheese with truffles and a pont l’evêque. A Sussex pond pudding followed with a 1993 Eiswein from the Weingut Unger. Wolfgang Unger had taken the lease on the thirty hectares of vines at Stift Göttweig across the Danube from Krems. He died shortly after making this wine and the arrangement was taken over by his daughter Petra. I remember a charming old gent who had spent many years in Manchester and South Africa. The label gave no indication of grape variety. The wine was the colour of tea and rich and jammy.
There was a Norfolk capon for Boxing Day; not a real capon – it is against the law to castrate a cock in Britain – but a mature male bird. We had one last year and I realised how good they could be. I had noted that the hot summer had taken its toll on a number of corks among the older wines. One victim was the 1992 Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru Les Vaucrains from Robert Chevillon. It was weeping a bit so I thought it time to operate. There was nothing wrong with the cork, and I quickly decanted the wine just before I tried it. It was a gorgeous colour and gave off a heady bouquet of creamy strawberries. The only problem was that it faded fairly quickly once the oxygen got at it. I’d made a quince tart, which was paired with Münzenrieder’s 1997 Bouvier Trockenbeerenauslese. This was all buttery raisins, with a useful seam of acidity to prevent it from cloying.
Over the next few days there were important accommodations to be made concerning the leftovers. The capon gave us a short crust pie and a risotto ‘rustico’; the beef provided a beef and Guinness pudding, using some suet I had taken off two veal kidneys and frozen. None of these merited better-than-average wine. On the 31st, however, we have a north Italian meal: a stuffed pig’s trotter or zampone with lentils (they represent the money you are going to earn) potato purée and tomato passita. With this I brought out another weeper: the 1981 Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Reserva.
This was part of a three-pack I brought back from Il Greppo in (I think) 1988 when I visited the estate with friends. I was writing an article on Brunello and wanted to interview the late Franco Biondi-Santi and his son Tancredi. The Biondi-Santi family had started Brunello in the nineteenth century. I had intended to drink the wines with the same friends, but thirty years later we have all gone into our separate corners (and one tragically to heaven) and the time has come to drink up.
As it was the wine was already down to high shoulder. I treated it much like the Nuits Saint Georges. The cork came out in two bits and I decanted it immediately before drinking. The colour was once again magnificent and the wine gave off a delightful aroma of ceiling wax and oranges with a little bit of fresh meat. On the palate there were black fruits – blackberries and blackcurrants – a wonderful structure and a cooling finish. The only disappointment was a tiny ‘point’ (as the French say) of bitterness on the finish. It was a superb end to an otherwise abominable year.