Festive fine wines and top tipples
Choosing the right bottle - at the right price - to suit each occasion can be tricky at this time of year, writes Aoife Carrigy, who uncorks a few samples to help you to put the 'merry' into your Christmas
Choosing wine at Christmas time can be trickier than you might think, with several factors to consider beyond the more straightforward question of 'what do I fancy drinking today?' that wine lovers usually ask themselves.
For a start, it's not just your palate and preferences that you have to take into account. Whether it's for a festive come-all-ye, the more intimate main Christmas Day meal or simply choosing a few bottles to have on standby for unexpected visitors, the chances are that your wine choice will need to appeal to a broad and varied spectrum of tastes in wine styles.
So, while natural wines might be the hottest order in cutting-edge wine bars around the world, they probably aren't the safest bet for the multi-generational gatherings of this most traditional time of the year. But at the same time, we want to choose something that we can look forward to enjoying along with our guests, rather than playing it so safe as to wring the joy out of what should be the jolliest of times.
Remember too that this is a season in which any wine being drunk will invariably have a whole host of competing flavours to contend with, from party canapés through to that bottomless box of chocolates that always seems to be no more than an arm's reach away from any sofa.
Even the traditional Christmas dinner can be surprisingly challenging when it comes to pairing wine, once you factor in the sour cranberry sauce and the Brussels sprouts and the goose-fat roasted potatoes and the fruity stuffing and the herby stuffing and the clove-spiced bread sauce and whatever else you might well be having with the turkey itself.
The key steer here is to opt for wines with generous acidity levels to keep appetites sharp and palates refreshed. If in doubt, seek out wines from those countries in which wine and food go hand in hand, Italy being a classic example. In terms of body and intensity it's best to veer middle-of-the-road, so that the wine can support the enjoyment of the food rather than adding further competition.
Stay away from overly tannic red wines like young Bordeaux or other Cabernet-led reds which deserve the softening influence of some well-seasoned juicy red meats. (If you do have a grá for a Grand Cru Claret at this time of year, as many of us do, opt for something with enough age to have softened its edges.)
And save that big blockbuster red wine that you love curling up in front of the telly with for doing just that. Apart from anything else, all the daytime drinking that takes place at this time of year demands some restraint in terms of alcohol levels.
Finally, you want to get the balance right of choosing for general consumption wines that give good bang for buck, but with little splashes of luxury here and there. (It is a celebration, after all.)
If you're laying on wine for a large gathering, nobody expects a serious showstopper that's going to hog the conversation, nor do you want to come across as cheap. Better to source a good crowd pleaser that will offend few without breaking the budget than to opt for something that you can't really afford to pour generously.
Most of the supermarkets and off-licences are offering seasonal promotions, with some serious bargains out there, no matter what your budget. Most of the offers are built in to each wine's individual price, allowing for a pick-and-mix approach rather than rewarding for large volumes of the one wine.
Online wine merchants such as Wines Direct are offering discounts of over 25% on several hand-picked selections of six or 12 bottles, while O'Brien's offer free delivery on orders over €60 and a returns policy should you happen to find that you over-estimated what you might get through.
1 Chablis 2014
€11.99, 12%, Aldi
If you're looking for benchmark Chablis at a superb price, you've just found it - but move fast, because this cracker will fly off the shelves. With a whiff of classic flint on the elegant nose and lots of signature minerality and lean lemon juice on the palate, this is the perfect pairing for a seafood spread or to see you through the meal.
2 Alchimie Sauvignon Blanc 2014
Coteaux du Giennois, France
€10, 12%, SuperValu
A neighbour to the prestigious Sancerre appellation but with similar soil types, Coteaux du Giennois makes a great value alternative, marrying cool climate Sauvignon's classic nettle and gooseberry and citrus peel notes with the stony minerality of the Loire's best vineyards. This would make a great 'house wine' for the festive season.
3 Tesco Finest Pecorino 2014
€13, 13%, Tesco
For an easy-drinking Italian white wine with more character than most Pinot Grigio, it's worth looking a little further south where you'll find the likes of Pecorino, an under-appreciated but often charming grape variety. This version is versatile enough to serve with or without food, marrying a floral bouquet with creamy texture and a spicy peppery bit on the finish.
4 Crego e Monaguillo Godello 2014
Monterrei DO, Spain
€14.85, 13%, Wines Direct
The rain-drenched north-west corner of Spain has been turning out some very smart white wines in recent years, with fashionable Albarino leading the charge and making room for grapes such as Godello to appear on our shelves. This delicate but textured charmer offers an expressive bouquet, lush palate and crisp mineral finish. A wine to see you through the big day itself.
5 Porta 6 2014
Vinho Regional Lisboa, Portugal
€9.99 (reduced from €12.99), 13.5%, O'Brien's Wines
It's easy to see why Saturday Kitchen's celebrity chef James Martin professed his love for this wine (causing it to sell out within hours): warm and attractive with lots of ripe bramble fruit for easy-drinking but just enough tannic structure to pair well with charcuterie, salty cheeses or other grazing-friendly food, this is sure to get the party started.
6 Castellani Poggio al Casone 2013
Chianti Superiore, Italy
€10.99 (reduced from €12.99), 12.5%, Spar and Mace
Entry-level Chianti can be a little mean but not so this soft and perfumed bargain, with its orange and clove-spiced sour cherry aromas, leading to winter berry fruit on the smooth yet bright palate. There's plenty of food-friendly acidity too, perfect for pairing with a range of rich canapés, and a dry finish keeps things nice and clean.
7 Cepa Lebrel Rioja DOCa Reserva 2010
€8.99, 12%, Lidl
We Irish love our Rioja with its friendly red fruit balanced by smooth tannins and juicy acidity, and all the more so when some oak ageing has fleshed out the fruit with some caramel and spice notes too. Lidl's range of Cepa Lebrel Rioja start at €6.99 for the unoaked 'Joven' - €2 extra will get you this very party-friendly oak-aged Reserva.
8 Chateau Tour Baladoz St Emilion Grand Cru 2005
€30 (reduced from €45), 13.4%, SuperValu
Hailing from the Right Bank of Bordeaux, Saint Emilion is a Merlot-led blend which translates as more juicy fruit to soften the tannin influence of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Ten years of ageing has softened this further, leading to a supple but layered and structured wine still brimming with pure cassis aromas and fresh berry flavour (think boysenberries, cherries and strawberries). Well worth decanting.
9 Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura N/V
€10.79, 12%, Aldi
It's hard to get past this champagne-method sparkling wine for its disarming combination of class and value. 'Cremant' signifies a bottle-fermented sparkling wine made in France but outside of the strictly protected region of Champagne, in this case using 100% Chardonnay. The result is fresh and thoroughly drinkable with nutty, baked apple character and a crisp citrus bite.
10 Tesco Finest Bisol Prosecco N/V
€17.99 (€15 until Dec 6), 11.5%, Tesco
Cheap Prosecco is certainly not hard to come by these days, if it's fruity fizz you're after. What is more challenging is to find a Prosecco that offers value worth spending a little extra on, but this is just that: fruity and friendly yet crisp and dry in style with an understated restraint that would set the tone nicely at the start of any Christmas meal.
11 Bollinger Rosé N/V
€65 (reduced from €83), O'Brien's Wines
More strawberry-blonde than raspberry pink, and with the kind of steely structure, surprising complexity and generous length that would put many a more 'serious' wine to shame, this pink champagne is pure class. What's more, its mellow yeasty aromas, redcurrant fruit aromas and juicy acidity make it extremely food friendly. And at 25% off, sure it'd be rude not to.
12 Very Rare Palo Cortado
€11.99, 19%, Marks & Spencer
There's something of a sherry revolution taking place in recent years. If you want to get a glimpse as to why, treat yourself to this brilliant value Palo Cortado - a very dry style that brings together the qualities of many other sherry styles, marrying the fresh bite of yeast associated with finos with the nutty character of amontillado and richness of oloroso. Try as a festive aperitif or with cheese.
The cream of the craft: Three top beers
Of course Christmas drinking isn't all about the wine, and craft beers are giving fine wine a run for their money these days.
Five Lamps Lager
33cl can, 6 for €10, O'Brien's Wines
A sessionable but reputable offering from one of Dublin's most consistent new-wave breweries.
O'Hara's Leann Folláin Full-Bodied Extra Irish Stout
€3 for 500ml, 6%, Drinkstore.ie and selected independents
A rich stout combining mocha notes with layers of spice and a generous dose of bitter malty flavours, this is worth getting cosy by the fire for.
Franciscan Well Rebel Red
330ml, 4 for €8.96, 4.3%, Molloys
One of the best Irish amber ales going, with great balance between caramel malt flavours and some bitter hops to keep it fresh and lively.