The 12 wines of Christmas (part 1)
Having tasted thousands of wines this year, here are my dozen top drops to celebrate the festive season, from Greek Chardonnay to Piedmontese Pinot Noir.
The following selection represents some of my favourite wines from across db’s extensive programme of Global Wine Masters, which have continued throughout 2020 in-between lockdowns, and in line with physical distancing guidelines and UK Government regulations.
What’s important to state at the outset is that each one of the wines below have been rated as brilliant when judged blind against their peers – be they within our Champagne or Tuscan Masters, Rosé of Chardonnay Masters.
These top-scoring wines have all earned Gold medals or above in these demanding competitions, requiring all our Master of Wine judges to agree on their excellence.
They are also a snapshot of my favourites from across the tastings this year, representing the bottles I would buy for consuming at any time of year, but particularly during Christmastide.
For this reason, the recommendations below tend to be those that are both first-rate and affordable – it’s common for the most outstanding wines from the Masters to also be among the most expensive of their category, making them beacons of brilliance, but inaccessible for all those but the most extravagant drinkers.
Champagne: Palmer & Co, Brut Réserve
While there’s an increasing array of fine, good-value, traditional-method sparkling wines from around the world, certain times of the year demand Champagne, and Christmas is definitely one of them. And such is the scale of Champagne, and range of producer types, there are plenty of keenly-priced, first-rate options for those put off spending big sums on a single bottle. Among these, one in particular label shone in 2020, and can be picked up for around £30 – and that’s when sold by the single bottle, at full price.
It’s made by one of Champagne’s grower-cooperative producers, and it’s called Palmer. The bottle to go for is called Brut Réserve, and it was one of the few producers to pick up a Gold medal in its price category in this year’s Champagne Masters. In terms of style, it provides a wonderful combination of flavours from creamy coffee to roasted hazelnuts, tangy lemon and baked apple, providing you with a layered, bright, dry, nutty style of fizz – the sort I love.
However, if you desire a ‘grande marque’ Champagne brand, then the best-performing famous label of 2020 was Piper-Heidsieck, be it for the producer’s excellent, creamy, nutty Cuvée Brut, or drier, smoky, chalky Essential. While its prestige cuvée, called Rare, was, with the 2006 expression, our highest-scoring fizz of the year (and its rosé Rare not far behind).
- Wine: Champagne Palmer & Co, Brut Réserve (NV)
- Producer: Champagne Palmer & Co
- Region: Champagne, France
- Grape(s): Chardonnay (55%), Pinot Noir (35%), Meunier (10%)
- Abv: 12%
- Price (UK): £28-35 (current cheapest in the UK is with Simply Wines Direct)
Pinot Grigio: La Roncaia Pinot Grigio
With the season of goodwill being an ideal time to alter preconceptions, I can think of few more suitable opportunities for a bit of image-building for the much-maligned grape that is Pinot Grigio. While one could do this with an outstanding Pinot Gris from a top producer in Alsace, such as Zind-Humbrecht – who has strong views on the grape – I think it’s better tackle the roots of this variety’s problem by finding a great wine from the same country that turned this grape into a mass-market product – Italy.
Thankfully, although discovered blind, this year’s Pinot Grigio Masters unearthed the ideal wine. Called La Roncaia Pinot Grigio, it comes from the slopes of the Colli Orientali del Friuli, where poor, free-draining soils produce bone-dry whites of concentration, such as this, which has also benefitted from fermentation and maturation in French oak barriques. The result is a revelation for those who thought Pinot Grigio was little more than an almost tasteless form of refreshment, with layers of flavour from fresh apple to ripe pear, toast and nutmeg, and a lasting, mouth-cleansing, chalky finish.
- Wine: La Roncaia Pinot Grigio 2019
- Producer: La Roncaia
- Region: Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, Italy
- Grapes: Pinot Grigio
- Abv: 13.5%
- Price: Around £20 (although an older vintage is listed here for £14, and the 2018 is with Vinissimus for €20).
Chardonnay: Alpha Estate, Ecosystem Chardonnay, Single Block Tramonto, 2018
With Chardonnay being the most widely-planted grape in the world, one isn’t particularly shocked to come across samples from almost any place where wine is made. But discovering a good example that’s also affordable is surprisingly rare. Having said that, in this year’s Chardonnay Masters we did taste some delicious Chardonnays from places that are hardly famous for the grape, such as Mexico (Vinicola San Lorenzo) and Turkey (Chamlija). But there was sample that really wowed me, and it hailed from a part of the world where I have yet to taste Chardonnay. Indeed, it was so good, I’ve decided to choose it as one of this dozen. And it comes from Greece.
Made by the slick operation that is Alpha Estate, it uses fruit from a two-hectare, north-west facing block of vines at more than 600 metres above sea level on the Amyndeon plateau in Florina. The altitude and aspect explains the freshness in this wine, which has an intense, lingering limestone and citrus finish, even though it has ripe apricot and pear characters at its core. It also displays a lovely, restrained oak influence, with a hint of vanilla, some toast, and a touch of smoke, and hazelnut too. I would imagine it could age well, but it’s fantastic now, and costs a little more than £20 – a good price for Chardonnay of this quality.
On the subject of price, if you are happy to spend more, and almost five times the sum of the Greek recommendation, then this year’s star drop was Capensis 2016 – the relatively new top-end white from the Western Cape, made by California’s Chardonnay experts, Jackson Family Wines. It’s outstanding, mixing creamy, toasty oak, peach and apple fruit, with the perfect Chardonnay texture: it’s soft and rich as it hits the tongue, zesty and bright as it slips down the throat, with a lovely lingering note of freshly roasted nuts. (If that floats your boat, you can pick up a bottle in the UK for £92 at Hedonism Wines, although this is for the 2015 vintage).
- Wine: Ecosystem Chardonnay, Single Block Tramonto, 2018
- Producer: Alpha Estate
- Region: Florina, Greece
- Grapes: Chardonnay
- Abv: 14%
- Price: £21.50 (Malty & Greek in the UK, although the old label features on this online retailer’s site)
Rosé: Château la Sauvageonne, La Villa, 2019
Despite the associations of pink wines with pool-side sipping, rosé is a brilliant partner for turkey – the standard meat for the main feast at Christmas. And this is particularly true for oak-influenced rosés, which are getting not only more numerous, but better, marrying the creamy influence of wooden barrels with the ripe, bright red fruits of the wine they briefly contain.
With this in mind one should certainly consider pouring some pink wine at Christmas, although it’s hard to decide exactly what. While it’s tempting to crack open a bottle Les Clans – my favourite of the barrel-fermented rosés of Chateau d’Esclans – I’m going to pick out the similarly-priced Château la Sauvageonne La Villa from Gérard Bertrand. This is mainly for the novelty value that comes with the fact it’s not actually from Provence, but a fantastic site in the Languedoc, where old vine Grenache and Mourvèdre cling to the hillsides, bringing a crushed strawberry richness to the wine.
It also has an appealing peachiness, and pink grapefruit brightness, due to the presence of Vermentino and Viognier in the blend, while there’s plenty of vanilla too, as 80% of the rosé is matured in French oak.
If such an array of flavours sounds a bit strong, don’t be put off, this wine may be juicy and complex, but it’s also wonderfully refreshing – and, as a result, dangerously drinkable.
But, if you’re unsure about shelling out £40+ on barrel-fermented rosé, then there is a cheaper alternative from the same producer. Called Joys, it’s also from the Languedoc, and it has some of La Villa’s creamy oak-influence, if not its peachy complexity, but this substitute rosé sells for under £15. And you can read more about that wine, and others like it, by clicking here.
- Wine: Château la Sauvageonne La Villa, 2019
- Producer: Gérard Bertrand
- Languedoc-Roussillon, France
- Grapes: Grenache 65%, Mourvèdre 25%, Vermentino 7%, Viognier 3%
- Abv: 13.5%
- Price: £45-£50 (The 2019 vintage can be bought in the UK via winepoole.co.uk)
Pinot Noir: G.D. Vajra, Langhe Pinot Nero, 2017
With the increasing popularity of Pinot, and the associated rising prices for its most famous and sought-after sources, particularly Burgundy and Oregon, one is always on the look-out for new, distinctive and good-value places for this wonderful grape. And few better turned up in 2020 than this sample from G.D Vajra in Italy. Using vines planted in 1999 at almost 500m above sea level in Piedmont’s Lange wine region, Vajra decided to plant Pinot in the land of the Nebbiolo 20 years ago because the latter grape cannot by law be grown at such a high altitude.
And the result is brilliant, vibrant, and memorable, featuring Pinot’s sweet ripe red berry fruit flavours and floral aromatics, along with a complementary vanilla note from the oak barrels using to mature the wine, and then some appealing, firm, dry tannins, giving the red a classically Piedmontese texture – after all, this Pinot hails from the land of Barolo, Italy’s most deliciously tannic drink.
- Wine: G.D. Vajra, Langhe Pinot Nero, 2017
- Producer: G.D. Vajra
- Region: Langhe, Italy
- Grapes: Pinot Noir
- Abv: 14%
- Price: Around £25 (available through vinum.co.uk for £24.05)
Tuscany: Lucente 2017
If there’s an area of the wine world that’s in vogue right now, particularly among fine wine collectors, it’s Toscana. Home to classic Sangiovese-based stalwarts Chianti Classico, Montalcino and Montepulciano, along with more modern introductions such as Bolgheri or Maremma Toscana DOC, as well as the catch-all that is Toscana IGT, this part of Italy offers much for the drinker, with a wide range of styles and a high level of quality. It’s why we saw such an impressive tally of top medals in this year’s Tuscan Masters, making it hard to select a single representative.
Nevertheless, I have, and it’s Lucente, the second wine of Luce Della Vite’s Estate, which was founded near Montalcino in 1995 by Marchesi Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi. Why have I opted for this? Well, when tasted blind, I was enthralled by its combination of fleshy dark berries, fresh plums, creamy oak and cigar box notes, and, while it is a wine with ripe fruit flavours, it had a bright, dry finish. Plus, all this was delivered for around £30. And having since seen its make-up, I like the fact it combines the dual personality of this part of Italy, where old and new co-exist: combining Sangiovese and Merlot, it brings together the native / traditional with the alien / modern. Successfully too.
But if you do want to spend less, and remain classic, then I also highly recommend another Gold medallist from this year’s Tuscan Masters, which was the £20 Contessa di Radda Chianti Classico (available at Madaboutwines.co.uk). This is a brilliant-value benchmark example of a longstanding wine style, with fleshy cherry, orange zest, a touch of vanilla, and a fairly light, fresh feel.
- Wine: Lucente 2017
- Producer: Tenuta Luce
- Region: Toscana IGT, Italy
- Grapes: Merlot 75%, Sangiovese 25%
- Abv: 13.5%
- Price: £34 (Ocado, UK)