It was not long before I heard the large front door slamming shut, the sound of the heavy, cast-iron knocker echoing around the vast Victorian hall as it loudly fell back into place. Footsteps quickly followed and there stood Mrs Bruce-Lockhart wearing fawn coloured trousers, a thick cashmere sweater and leather gardening gloves nonchalantly removed to meet my extended hand as I rose awkwardly from the sofa. She looked younger than I had imagined, radiating that unmistakable self-confidence common amongst attractive women with expensive educations and privileged lifestyles. Earlier, I had arrived by taxi from the local railway station after an uneventful journey spent wondering what I was letting myself in for as the scenery whizzed by on this crisp December morning. The house lay at the end of a long-gravelled driveway. It was more of a castle than a house with the inevitable turrets and elaborate roof structures much favoured by Victorian architects trying to recreate a romantic past more imagined than real. Either side of the house the ground sloped gently down to a large meadow where sheep grazed and a river snaked its way lazily into a small loch. Dotted here and there where small, pretty cottages which I later learned where let out to salmon fishermen or grouse shooting parties.
I have always enjoyed December. At work I had enjoyed the feverish excitement of “getting things done” before a two-week break when everything seemed to close down and one could relax knowing there would be no urgent messages or emails wanting immediate attention. December is when we can open those bottles saved for a special occasion and that old vintage port you have kept for years can be uncorked after a sumptuous Christmas lunch without worrying about over-indulging or insulting fellow guest by falling asleep on the sofa. For years we have made the journey to London, always by train, so we can meet Gibraltarian friends the week before Christmas, before most of the group headed back south for family get-togethers. We meet at a cosy restaurant run by a Greek husband and wife who seem happy for us to bring our own wine without charge which we make up for by generous tipping. Here we will eat tasty tomato fritters with fresh mint and oregano, vegetarian moussaka with apple tzatziki and salmon filets with Greek yoghurt and olive oil from Kalamata. Tradition dictates we each introduce our own wines exaggerating their qualities to the accompaniment of good-natured exclamations of “rubbish” and “skinflint!”. Later, once settled, and on a slightly more serious note, we will comment on the wines and it was here where I tasted my first Jura wine and my first Marsanne/Roussanne blend from the Languedoc. Both turned out to be revelations.
It was early December when I received an email from Mrs Bruce-Lockhart inviting me to attend a charity wine dinner at her house where I would introduce the wines and give the guests a brief description and background before each wine was served. In her email she said I had been recommended by a friend though she didn’t say who. Rightly, she had been told I would not charge for my time but would request a charitable donation be made to one of several charities. Being December I would normally have turned the offer down but Mrs. Bruce-Lockhart had unselfconsciously included the amount would donate to charity, a substantial sum, and I decided I couldn’t deprive some deserving organisation of such a generous donation. If I accepted I was to make my way to her house as early as possible so we could discuss arrangements. A room would be made available for an overnight stay. Dress would be formal. I accepted.
…very traditional had it not been for the beetroot.
Mrs Bruce-Lockhart turned out to be a widow. A recent one as far as I could surmise from her comments though she didn’t dwell on this other than to tell me her husband had left a well-stocked wine cellar. She herself had only a passing interest in wine. For years they had invited friends and immediate family to a pre-Christmas charity dinner where her husband had taken the role of sommelier, explaining the intricacies of the chosen wines and generally keeping guests amused with anecdotes and jokes. It was understood that the dinner and accompanying fine wines would serve as a Christmas present and no further stocking-fillers could be expected from the Bruce-Lockharts. Additionally, a voluntary donation would be made by each guest to a well-known local charity. This arrangement had worked well for years and Mrs Bruce-Lockhart intended to restart the tradition which, unexpectedly, had come to an abrupt halt after her husband had an unfortunate encounter with a large stag whilst driving on a nearby country road.
Her husband sounded like a larger than life character and she must have seen the look on my face.
“Oh don’t look so worried. Have a look at the menu, choose the wines and tell our guests a little bit about them. I’ll do the jokes and stories. Go and meet Victoria she’s our outside caterer and has been for years. Discuss the menu with her. She has done this dinner countless times. She’s Australian you know!”
Victoria told me she had been coming to the Bruce-Lockharts for years. A local boyfriend, now her husband, had brought her to these parts and finding little to do she had enrolled at catering college, eventually starting her own business. Now, she mainly catered for shooting and fishing parties and was pleased Mrs Bruce-Lockhart was restarting their annual charity dinner after the unfortunate accident. She handed me a hand-written copy of the menu which would have been very traditional had it not been for the Burrata with beetroot and pickled walnuts.
The wine cellar, as expected, was located in the basement. I had followed Mrs Gibbs down an elegant stairway leading on to a well-lit, wide corridor. At the end of the corridor could be seen a large stag’s head hanging on the wall and guiltily I could not suppress a smile and the thought that venison was off the menu! To our right was a room with a billiard table covered with a dust sheet and further on behind a small, unlocked door was the wine cellar. Mrs Gibbs handed me a torch and wished me good luck.
It was a traditional cellar, mostly French, Italian, German and Spanish wines in racks and boxes scattered everywhere. Orderly it was not. There was no cellar book. It was, none the less, a wine lover’s dream with ancient vintages of Mouton, Montrose, D’yQuem, Taylors, Tondonia and many others. I was to choose two bottles of each wine for the dinner and two bottles for myself which I was to take with me. I decided to carry these down for my friends in London to taste.
The dinner went exceptionally well. Victoria was clearly an exceptionally gifted cook and she turned apparently simple dishes into very special ones. Her beef Wellington was wonderful aided and abetted by Mouton 86, perhaps the best wine I have ever tasted. The Burrata with pickled walnuts was served with a 1997 Jadot Meursault. The guests had been greeted with a glass or two of Krug 89 though I did see one guest sniff their glasses suspiciously. Perhaps unused to the ripe smell of apples in a wine. With the cheese I took a risk and chose a CUNE Viña Real 1946 which was still bright and alive and quickly followed by a sweet D’yQuem 1990 an outstanding treat with a simple apple crumble. To finish off an old Taylors Vintage Port from the fifties.
For my two bottles I chose more modest wines than those served at the dinner. I felt choosing hugely expensive wines would have been taking advantage of Mrs Bruce Lockhart’s generosity. They were nonetheless a hit with our friends in London.
For those of you still not decided on your Christmas wines I have some personal recommendations for this Christmas. These are wines I know well, provide exceptional value for money and are available locally. I have only included wines available on on-line wine lists. Unfortunately, some wine merchants and supermarkets don’t provide wine lists though these can still provide valuable sources of quality wines. (Vintages included where available.)
Juve y Camp Brut Rose Cava £12.90 – Dependable and value for money
Laherte Rose Ultratradition £40.00 – A wine geek’s wine.
Tondonia White Reserva £22.75 – Possibly the only world class white wine in Spain. It’s an oxidised style so beware.
Muga White £10.45 – Traditional white Rioja. Good.
Tondonia Reserva £20.95 – Another class act from Tondonia. Don’t bother with the Gran Reserva at more than double the price unless you are feeling flush.
Viña Real Gran Reserva £18.70 – A dependable favourite.
Taylors First Estate Port £7.10 – Enjoyable, moreish, cheap.
Taylors Vintage Port 2003 £51.50 – A classic. Still a baby. Perhaps better to look for a more mature vintage if you can find it and afford it.
Crusted Ports – Second only to a mature vintage port. Really good, inexpensive generally. Various producers. Ask around. Try the supermarkets.