Sun, sea and Pinot Gris

Picture this. You’re at the beach. There’s not a cloud in the sky and anyone who’s not smothered in 30-factor sun-cream is in serious trouble. You’re in luck. A neighbour has brought you a kilo of boned snapper fillets that were swimming in the sea an hour ago. You’ve all the ingredients for a crunchy salad. This could be the perfect summer lunch. Except for one thing – the only bottle of wine you can find is a big Aussie Shiraz that’ll murder the snapper.

Or this. There’s a knock at the door. It’s some very dear friends from out of town. They’re on holiday and couldn’t resist a surprise visit. This calls for a celebration. Champagne or a good local bubbly at the very least. Unfortunately the cupboard’s fairly bare. You toast their arrival with a warm glass of sweet Riesling.

Having the right wine can make a difference. It’s not always possible to dash out and buy a bottle at a moment’s notice. With a little planning and minimal investment you can stock your liquor cupboard or wine rack to cover every possible situation. Buy in the month of December when prices are lowest and enjoy the savings you’ve made during the Christmas break.

Here are some suggestions to put a little extra Ho, Ho, Ho into your holiday season.

Party! Party!! Party!!!

If you’re a guest you’ll satisfy an unwritten social code by bringing a bottle of wine with you. Have you ever taken a good bottle of wine to a party only to see it disappear into the host’s cupboard leaving you to drink chateau cardboard all evening? I have. Many times.

I now leave my special bottles at home and instead take a less expensive wine that is slightly unusual. Instead of taking a Sauvignon Blanc why not be a little bit daring and choose a Viognier? Viognier is a relatively new white grape variety, at least in this country. A lot of people have never heard of it and many who have love it. It’s a full-bodied dry, or dry-ish white wine with plenty of pungent fruity flavours that often resemble apricot or honeysuckle. Yalumba South Australian Viognier 2004 is a great buy at $16.95.

Most party-goers choose Australia for reds and New Zealand for whites. You could break out of the rut by bringing something from another country, say France or Italy. Risky? Possibly, but you can reduce the risk by choosing a white wine from Alsace. Unlike most French wines these show the grape variety on the label. A good value buy is Laugel Cuvee Selectionee Riesling 2003 (tastings) which at $19.95 costs about the same as the local equivalent. If you’d rather have a red try a Cote-du-Rhone from France or a Chianti Classico from Italy. You’ll find good examples of both at around $20.

Hosts need to pick wines that will satisfy a wide range of tastes. I find that one bottle of red to three of white is a good ratio. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the most popular whites while Aussie Shiraz and local Merlot will satisfy the tastes of most red wine drinkers.

BBQ bottles

Balance is the key to barbecues. I like to balance a glass of good gutsy red in one hand and barbecue tongs in the other. Wine is an essential lubricant whenever you cook over an open fire.

Balance the strong smoky flavours of barbecued food with equally full-flavoured whites and reds and you can’t go wrong. In fact if things do go slightly wrong during the cooking process a good glass of wine can often save the situation. I recall having some difficulty getting enough heat out of a wood-fired barbecue many years ago. I lit the fire at 8pm and by 11pm the steaks were almost edible. My overseas guests remained cheerful throughout the long ordeal by drinking several expensive bottles of Pinot Noir. It’s an ill wind … The steaks didn’t taste great but it was a good night for the dial-a-driver people.

Chardonnay’s the perfect barbecue white. Avoid the lighter, fruitier unoaked styles and choose wines with plenty of everything, including smoky oak flavours to match the same influence in barbecued food. Matariki Aspire Chardonnay 2004 (tastings) is a great buy at $19.95. Second on my list is the slightly tangier and more supple Mount Riley Chardonnay 2004 (tastings) – it’s a snip at $18.95.

Picnic perfection

Since my family bought me a picnic hamper I’ve discovered the pleasures of al fresco dining – often in a vineyard but also at the beach or by a favourite river. On Boxing Day we spread out our picnic rug near the finishing line at the Ellerslie Racecourse.

Picnic wines must be fresh, fruity and not too serious. In fact it helps if they’re positively frivolous. I particularly like a chilled glass of Rosé, a wine that is strangely unfashionable in this country, with typical picnic fare – cold meats, crunchy salads and freshly-baked French bread. Taylors Promised Land White Cabernet 2005 ($14.95, tastings) and Villa Maria Private Bin Rosé 2005 ($16.95, tastings) are my two favourites of the moment.

Sauvignon Blanc is another great picnic wine. Choose wine from the generally excellent 2005 vintage and enjoy them while they’re at their freshest best. Shingle Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (tastings) is excellent value at $18.95.

The big night in

One of my greatest pleasures is an occasional “big night in” when we raise the gastronomic sights a little. Sometimes we invite guests, but often we simply indulge ourselves in a carefully planned night of food and wine pleasure. The Christmas period offers more opportunity than other times of the year to indulge in what a friend of mine described as “gastro-porn”.

Cook books are studied days in advance and shops scoured for seasonal foods that are at their freshest best. When the menu has been prepared I find a wine match for each dish.

You’d be surprised at how often I manage to include a Pinot Noir in the line-up. My favourites in the money-no-object stakes are from the generally excellent 2003 vintage and the Martinborough or Central Otago regions, although Canterbury, Nelson and Marlborough are also making wines that are likely to qualify.

I like to start with a slightly sweet German or German-style New Zealand Riesling as an aperitif. There are a growing number of local Rieslings made with the similar low alcohol, subtle sweetness and exquisite acidity found in fine German wines from the Mosel region. Framingham Select Riesling 2004 ($35, tastings) is a good example.

We always finish with a dessert wine, usually a botrytis-affected Riesling such as Sileni Pourriture Noble 2004 ($31.95, tastings).

Chilling out

In sweltering weather it’s hard to beat a beer for its sheer thirst-quenching qualities. The most thirst-quenching beer I’ve tasted is Monteiths Radler – a tangy mix of lemon and lime flavours that are guaranteed to make the world a cooler place. On par with beer in the thirst-quenching stakes is my favourite cocktail Mojito. This combination of fresh mint and rum is an absolute knockout. Crush freshly picked mint leaves in the bottom of a glass. Half fill a shaker with ice. Add a good measure of rum, about the same quantity of soda water, the juice from half a lime, a dash of bitters and two teaspoons of sugar or, better still, the equivalent in sugar syrup. Give it a good shake and pour it into the glass of crushed mint. You might want to begin preparing a second glass as you drink the first.

The most thirst-quenching wine of all is, believe it or not, Asti Spumante. This low alcohol and intensely fruity sparkling wine should be served well chilled to beat the heat. Mondoro Asti Spumante (tastings) is a great example at a good price of $16.95.

From Santa’s sack

Wine makes a great gift, particularly if the person receiving it is a wine lover. It helps if you can find out his or her favourite wine style before consulting a good wine store to find a state-of-the-art example. If you’re not sure what they like buy them an Australian Liqueur Muscat or Tokay – I’ve yet to find a wine lover who doesn’t love these exquisite fortified wines. With any luck they’ll give you a glass. Prepare to be amazed. Chambers Grand Rutherglen Muscat (tastings) is about as good as it gets although you’ll need to pay $78 for 375mLs of this precious liquid. A budget alternative is Campbells Rutherglen Tokay ($25, tastings).

Bob’s Budget Christmas Survival Pack

  • Lindauer Special Reserve Blanc de Blanc – $14.95: On special at Fine Wine Delivery Co (tastings)
  • Mondoro Asti Spumante – $16.95: A cool sparkler to beat the heat (tastings)
  • Six-pack of Monteiths Radler – $13.95: Indispensable if the weather gets hot
  • Mount Gay Barbados Rum (750ml) – $39.95: For mojito cocktails
  • Shingle Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2005 – $18.95: Seriously sexy Sauvignon (tastings)
  • Taylors Promised Land White Cabernet 2005 – $14.95: The ultimate picnic wine (tastings)
  • Mount Riley Chardonnay 2004 – $18.95: Full-flavoured Chardonnay at a great price (tastings)
  • Yalumba “Y” Viognier 2005 – $16.95: Dare to drink different
  • Wild Rock Gravel Pit Merlot Malbec 2004 – $19.95: Gutsy red at a great price (tastings)
  • Plantagenet Omrah Cabernet Merlot 2002 – $17.95: Top value red from Western Australia (tastings)
  • Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz 2002 – $18: A super-smooth Aussie

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Dec 2005.

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