Katherine Donnelly: Sniff out some winter reds
It's truffle time in the south of France, the weeks when those pongy but delectable mushrooms are sniffed out from under the forest floor. These precious fungi are such a big part of the festive season in the Languedoc that you could find yourself at a truffle market down there on St Stephen's Day.
No such luck in Ireland (there's always truffle oil, I suppose), so I find consolation in the next best thing -- the sort of tasty French cuisine that the truffle hunters sit down to, alongside a glass of winter-warming red from the area.
Duck, for one, is definitely on the menu for December, its full flavours finding a particular resonance in the spicy, herb-scented wines of the south of France.
The four red grapes most commonly used in a variety of pick-and-mix combinations meld together to deliver robust reds that, at once, complement and cut through rich textures: the black fruit and pepper of Syrah; the juicy red-fruit spiciness of Grenache; meaty Mourvèdre, and characterful old vine Carignan's firm and rustic bite.
Wines from the south of France are everywhere and stealing back a march from the New World with a fruity juiciness, streaked through with more than a touch of Old World charm.
Regions in the Languedoc and neighbouring Roussillon representing a cut above the more everyday blends are Corbières, St Chinian, Faugères, Cabardès, Minervois and Fitou.
In the southern Rhône Valley, immediately to the north, the same grapes are also the backbone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and good old Côtes du Rhône.
Like the rest of southern France, good old Côtes du Rhône enjoyed a very good year in 2009, but, unlike some other Rhône wines that may still be maturing in barrels, the Côtes du Rhône is on the shelves and ready to drink now, including Superquinn's Classic Collection (€7.99) and Tesco's Caves St-Pierre (€9.99).
Australia too does a very good job on Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blends, often labelled as GSM.
Disappointed that the aforementioned truffles were not of the cocoa bean variety? Don't be.
Dark chocolate and your favourite Aussie Shiraz, as Syrah is called Down Under, is a simple and affordable indulgence this Christmas season.