The wine buff: A Somm's Christmas
Christmas is a day to relax with family and friends, but if you're the one organising it, the number of people coming for dinner is going to influence some of your choices. One of these is wine. If it's a small group of wine lovers, you can crack open a few exciting bottles in the knowledge that they will be appreciated, and a little bit of discussion might ensue with no one at the table falling off their seat with boredom. If you're having a large group, you will probably be opting for a few different bottles to satisfy all tastes.
But what I've always wondered about is, what do sommeliers drink for Christmas? So I asked one of my favourite somms in the country - Cathryn Steunenberg, the sommelier at two-Michelin-star Aimsir, who received the Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year award.
"I really like to bring wines that, first of all, are fabulous and delicious in their own right, but also have enough tenacity to stand up to everything that's happening on the table," says Cathryn, who will be driving home for Christmas to her parents in Wales with some precious wine cargo. She is a big fan of grower Champagne and discovered some really interesting ones on a research trip to Champagne earlier in the summer with Majken Bech-Bailey, the manager of Aimsir restaurant.
"It just so happened that our trip coincided with a Champagne festival that was happening near one of the producers that we wanted to go see, out in the middle of nowhere in the Vallée de la Marne," says Cathryn. "We arrived to a barn that was laid out with long tables, with people eating slices of pizza from cardboard boxes, being served glasses of local biodynamic Champagne for €4.50 a glass by a lady in a straw hat behind a makeshift stall. It turned out that the Champagne was from the very same producer that we were in the area to visit and so we hopped on the back of a trailer that was towed by a tractor that was being used as the 'tour bus' around the village to go see them. The producer's name is Françoise Bedel and her son Vincent is now the main winemaker, making wines predominantly from Pinot Meunier, which is the king grape in the area. Deeply committed to biodynamic viticulture, which is no mean feat in this area, these wines have an incredible energy to them, very distinctive, very terroir-driven. My favourite cuvée from them is called Origin'elle', and Terroirs in Donnybrook import it directly. It's an NV [non-vintage], around 75pc Pinot Meunier, the rest made up with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. For me, this is a real 'winter' Champagne; it has a savoury earthiness from the Pinot Meunier, and it's quite full-bodied yet fresh, with intriguing depth to it. 'Soulful' is the best way I can describe it."
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Classic prawn cocktail or smoked salmon is their starter of choice, so Cathryn has something interesting in mind.
"I can't wait to try Domaine Goisot 'Exogyra Virgula' Saint-Bris," she says. "It's an unusual wine, in that the grape is Sauvignon Blanc but it's grown in Chablis, so this is a wine that has that classic Kimmeridgian soil character to it, with mineral tension at the core and a beautiful flesh to the fruit wound around it, finished by a lovely cleansing acidity."
Duck is a Christmas dinner tradition in her family, so she will have a few options to go with it.
"I'll be bringing one of my favourite white-wine discoveries of the year - Domaine du Tunnel Saint-Péray 2017. This wine comes from the south of the Northern Rhône and I was introduced to it by Simon Tyrrell whilst I was pruning with him in his vineyards in February this year. It's 100pc Roussanne that's been partly fermented in stainless steel and oak, and has then spent a further few months ageing on its lees. Beautiful on its own, but with enough presence to hold its own against the different layers of the main meal," Cathryn says.
"I'll probably bring a few reds, including Luis Seabra's Indie Xisto 2016 from the Douro. Luis worked alongside Dirk Niepoort for 10 years and so the stylistic influence here is very obvious - working with old vines and higher altitude means you get a wine with freshness and finesse, elegant structure yet beautiful depth and intensity."
So what does the future hold for Cathryn?
"In 2020, I just hope to maintain the momentum we have at the moment and keep pushing," she says. "I want to keep exploring, keep discovering new wines and producers; I want to get more experience in the vineyard, as I loved the time I spent pruning with Simon Tyrrell and Charles Derain in their Les Deux Cols vineyards this year. I hope to be able to make some of the harvest and vinification this year and there are a couple of international wine fairs that I am hoping to attend, too. That's the beauty of the wine programme at Aimsir - it's all new and exciting, and with Jordan and Majken being so supportive and encouraging to keep discovering, the sky's the limit."
I'll drink to that. To all of our wonderful Weekend readers, sláinte and a very happy Christmas.
Domaine Goisot 'Exogyra Virgula' Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Around €27, 12.7pc, from Whelehans, Dublin; Sheridans, Galway, and siyps.com
With flavours of pear, ripe gooseberry, wild pea and dill, Cathryn says that this wine will make a really interesting match for the sweet, salty, smoky and herbaceous notes in smoked salmon and prawn starters.
Domaine du Tunnel Saint-Péray 2017
€53.99, from Baggot Street Wines, Clontarf Wines, The Corkscrew, all Dublin; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, and wineonline.ie
Cathryn describes this as being "such a pretty wine", with opulent, rich pears, white flowers, jasmine, ripe lemon, stony minerality and a surprising acidity that lifts the generous weight and texture.
Indie Xisto 2016
€35, 13pc, from Ely 64 Wine, Green Man Wines and Lilliput, all Dublin
With a dark fruit character of Black Forest gâteau, plums and damson chutney, musky rose and soft, savoury cedarwood, this has freshness to cut through the richness of the meal and a velvety tannic structure.
Burgundy fans will love the recently updated edition of Puligny-Montrachet by Simon Loftus, which is an evocative portrayal of this village by the small, stony vineyard of Le Montrachet, considered to make the best white wine in the world. It's a fascinating account of a winemaking village, introducing local characters and capturing the rich history of the landscape and rural France. A perfect stocking filler, available from Eason, Dubray and leading bookshops, €15.99.