GREAT WINES – great Christmas

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Many years ago, when the Crusades against Islam were ongoing and the Moors still ruled Granada, a girl named Eleanor became one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in Europe. Her father the Duke of Acquitaine died, leaving his only daughter his lands and wealth making her the most sought-after prize in the known world. The king of France Louis VII thought she was too valuable a prize to leave to some foreign prince and so married her himself, and there his troubles started. It is said she made his life unbearable and eventually in 1152 divorced her. Eleanor did not waste much time and soon married Henry who a year later was made Henry II King of England. It was at Bordeaux that their two sons John and Richard (the Lionheart) were both born to become Kings of England in their turn. It was thus that Bordeaux and its famous vineyards became part and parcel of the English realm and its wine for more than three centuries became English wines. Then, as it is today, quality would have been variable; because of their general family likeness the reds were known as Clarets (and still are to this day).

Many consider the wines of Bordeaux to have no equal and today Bordeaux can offer excellent value for money. Other than the top-classed growths Like Lafite or Mouton Rothschild collected like gold or shares, most producers there are having a tough time and there has never been a better time to try their wines. The reds tend to be made from the classical blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and even modest examples can exhibit a typical cigar box or pencil shavings aroma and taste. Relatively easy to find in Gibraltar. Look out for 2009 or 2010 considered the best vintages of recent times.

Bordeaux whites can also offer lots of drinking pleasure. The best tend to be blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and even modest examples can provide real finesse and complexity something that neither of the grape varieties seem to manage on their own. It’s a pity many wine drinkers would never consider white Bordeaux a wine which can exhibit an understated elegance rarely seen in exuberant New World or Spanish Sauvignon Blancs.

The Rhône Valley in France is another region worth exploring. There are two distinct areas: the warmer Southern Rhone, and the much-acclaimed Northern Rhone where the cooler climate can produce tiny quantities of extraordinary wines capable of challenging top Bordeauxs and Burgundies. Northern Rhone wines like Cote Rotie or Hermitage are rarely approachable young and consequently mostly confined to those wine geeks willing to wait decades before opening. The South is a different story. Here Mediterranean-type climate produces voluptuous, spicy red wines in significant quantities. Chateauneuf du Pape being the best-known example and the grape par excellence here is Grenache. Look out for the emblematic, embossed glass bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape.

There can be no Punch without Judy and we cannot leave France without mentioning Burgundy. The world’s most complex wine region has the simplest allowable grape list – Chardonnay for whites and Pinot Noir for reds. Here the finest expression of both grape varieties in the world is made. They are never blended. For whites try Chablis or Meursault both available locally. Meursault, more than any other wine, is blamed for turning casual wine drinkers into wine geeks, so beware. Typical flavours of Meursault are tropical fruits particularly pineapple. Burgundian Pinot is slightly trickier. It can be expensive with no guarantee that the quality will reflect the price. Caveat Emptor!

Germany remains, in the mind of most consumers, as the origin for cheap sugary wines (think Liebfraumilch). This is a wonderful state of affairs for wine enthusiasts who, knowing better, can still buy world class wines at reasonable prices. Riesling is king here and many wine writers, myself included, would consider a well-aged Riesling from a top producer as their Desert Island Wine. Riesling with the counter play of high acidity and residual sugar can be sublime and complex. Global warming seems to be making great vintages the norm rather than exception. Perhaps the only wine to complement a curry. Look out for the black eagle symbol.  No eagle and you will probably be buying a bulk cheap wine. JJ Prum, available locally, is considered a top-notch producer. Don’t expect German Rieslings to be bone dry!

We leave France and move on to Italy. Perhaps the best-known wine here is Tuscany’s pride and joy: Chianti. Like German Rieslings Chianti suffered from over production sending millions of gallons all over the world to quaffed in trattorias everywhere. Chianti has made great efforts since, cutting back yields and encouraging small producers make the best they can. Chianti with its relatively high acidity and nuances of dusty black cherries seem to complement beautifully Italian dishes such as authentic Carbonara made with pepper-cured pigs cheeks and aged Pecorino.  Look out for Chianti by Antinori. (I once brought two bottles from Rome only to discover they were available here in Gib at a much-reduced price!)

Barolo made from the Nebbiolo grape used to be described as ‘Tar and Roses’ due to the heavy nature of the wine and the decades it needed before it became approachable. These day Barolo can be drunk much younger and its light ruby colour givers little indication of the potential for great complexity. Top producers like Conterno are highly sought after and go for eye watering prices. More modest examples at very reasonable prices can be found here. Definitely worth a try.

Lebanon might not be a region which comes to mind when talking about fine wine. Yet one producer there has managed to carve an important niche in the minds of the savvy consumer over the last few decades. Chateau Musar from the Bekaa Valley is now firmly an iconic wine. Because of the height of the vineyards, the climate there is reckoned to be on a par with Bordeaux, and Cabernet Sauvignon grows well there. Famous wine critics such as Michael Broadbent was hugely impressed with Chateau Musar and rated their wines equal in quality as some very famous names in France. The wine tends to be very dark, concentrated in nose as well as flavour.  Chocolate, tobacco, wood and dark fruits all come to mind. Polished, smooth and powerful. This wine will certainly engender lively conversation at you Christmas dinner table. Production of the wine continued throughout Lebanon’s Civil War and some reckon the wines have an unmistakable whiff of stray bullets. Available here or across the way in specialist shops. Expect to pay around £25 a bottle.

No wine article would be complete at this time of year without mentioning sparkling wines. Prosecco, Cava, Champagne and English Sparkling wines all available here. Proseccos and Cavas are inexpensive wines ideally suited to be drunk on their own at parties or receptions. Champagnes and English Sparkling wines are best appreciated with food. Try these with Scottish smoked salmon, brown bread and butter and a good slice of lemon.