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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Christmas Tipples
Eleonora Scholes

The holiday season is approaching fast. This is the time of year when we can finally relax and enjoy the company of family and friends. Wine is intrinsically linked to our sense of joy and conviviality. As such, it is a perfect festive drink. The ancient Greeks praised wine for its spirit of celebration, and we often recall that, too, when we rush to do our Christmas shopping. Wine is bought either as a universal gift or simply for the pleasure of drinking, or, very frequently, for both reasons.

Thankfully, our choices of wine for Christmas do not have to be rigid. Whilst Christmas dinner is impossible without the traditional centrepiece of a turkey, the variety of drinks on our table entirely depends on our whims and wishes—within a given budget, of course. If you want a glittering wine, literally, you can indulge yourself. There is a Spanish sparkling rosé that is mixed with a liquor containing silver dust. This is what Madonna and other show-biz people drink at Christmas— they say. I am not sure I would like to splash US$300 for the privilege of drinking silver, though I might get a couple of bottles of Il Vino dei Poeti Gold from the Italian Distilleria Bottega, just for fun. This is an easy going sparkling wine called Prosecco which is made close to Venice and sold in gilded bottles. It doesn’t break the bank, the bottles serve as an additional Christmas decoration and the wine drinks pleasantly.

Talking of fizz, any sparkling wine has a magical effect, not least because of the wonderful ceremony that it involves. The foil is carefully removed, so as not to spoil the bottle’s elegant appearance, a cage is untwisted, and a cork is slowly released. Pop! The wine flows in a glass with a gentle noise, its soft evanescent mousse and fine beard of bubbles keeping our attention.

As a symbol of celebration and happiness, sparkling wines have a universal appeal, from cheerful Prosecco to prestigious Champagne. While they all have bubbles, various fizzy wines actually taste quite differently, and it serves us well to remember what’s what. Champagne remains the king, even if it has many worthy rivals nowadays. In very broad terms, Champagne is distinguished by its particular freshness and finesse, complexity and minerality. Each Champagne producer has non-vintage wine as a signature of his style, whereas bottles with an indication of vintage or so called prestige cuvees showcase especially great harvests or blends.

There are plenty of wines around the world which are made following the same production processes as champagne. With this method, which is referred to as a traditional or classic method, wines undergo their second fermentation in bottles, where carbon dioxide is trapped to create an effect of mousse and bubbles. Some of the better known traditional method examples outside Champagne include French Cremants from Alsace and Burgundy, Spanish Cava and Italian wines from Franciacorta and Trentino. Abrau-Durso near Novorossiysk, a once renowned historic producer who is now reviving a Russian tradition of classic method wines, offers Imperial Collection Vintage Brut, cellared for at least seven years prior to release.

The process of making Champagne and traditional method wines is complex and time consuming which translates into higher price tags. There is, however, another group of sparkling wines, with a simplified production. They may not reach the heights of sophistication of Champagne, but they still give a nice play of bubbles, have an attractive taste and are friendlier on the wallet. These sparklers always come as a good alternative when we have a large number of guests, or simply want a lighter drink. The most popular wines in this class, Prosecco and Asti Spumante, both come from Italy. Prosecco from the north-east of the country has enjoyed a phenomenal success in the past few years, thanks to its clean, fruity flavours of apples and pears and an accommodating style. Romantic Venice, the city that loves to party, adapted Prosecco as its unofficial drink, readily available in Venetian bars day and night. Winemakers in Piedmont, in the north-west of Italy, make fizzy Asti Spumante with the Moscato grape. The aromatic, slightly sweet yet light and vibrant wine is also popular in Russia, especially with ladies. Asti Spumante has an “elder brother”, called Moscato d’Asti. It is sweeter, more complex and intense, and is traditionally reserved by the Italians for the end of the meal.

Sparkling wines are usually served as an aperitif and are rarely considered as an accompaniment to the meal. Contrary to this habit, I find Champagne and other high quality classical method wines as universal gastronomic partners and can happily serve them throughout the whole dinner. I may take, for example, several wines from Bellavista, a top producer from Franciacorta whose refined style wins my heart and taste buds. Non-vintage Cuvee Brut is indeed an excellent aperitif which goes with light snacks and canapés. A step up is vintage Gran Cuvee Brut, to be served with panoply of starters. Gran Cuvee Rose will show off elegant meat dishes, whereas luscious Gran Cuvee Pas Opere should be poured to highlight the most important course of the dinner.

Sparkling wine can go well with any meal, but then you might prefer to serve something else. Luckily, choice is not a problem. There is such a great variety of wines that the problem is often more about making the right choice. When buying wines for Christmas, my advice is to stick to trusted labels to avoid disappointment. Leave experiments for another time, unless you are absolutely confident that a new wine will suit your taste.

White wines, especially in lighter styles, may not always agree with the Russian winter and rich food. If you like them, it’s best to serve them as an aperitif, and leave more complex and structured wines for the meal. Chardonnay, aged in oak barrels, normally provides an extra layer of richness and concentration. Another safe tip is to look for wines made with grapes from old vines. This is usually mentioned on a label and indicates that the wine is likely to be more intense and complex. For the fashion conscious, Pinot Grigio and local varieties, found in specific wine growing areas, are in vogue, ranging from Albarino in Spanish Galicia to Gruner Veltliner in Lower Austria.

I cannot possibly cover everything that’s on offer for red wines. Christmas is a time of indulgence, and you might just get some special bottles. In my choices, I usually look for great red wine regions, be it Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, Piedmont and Tuscany in Italy, or Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain. Yet, outstanding red wines are now being made in all corners of the world, from Australia to California, and it is ultimately your decision what to buy.

Last, but not least are pudding wines. I am a huge fan, and drink them on many more occasions than just Christmas. Some of the world’s greatest white sweet wines are made in Germany and Austria with the Riesling grape which is capable of combining elegance and intensity, sweetness and freshness in a perfect manner. Italian wines from dried grapes, such as Vin Santo and Recioto, are also delectable. Finally, there are three all-time fortified classics: Spanish Sherry and Port and Madeira from Portugal, which are indeed great winter wines.

As a concluding note, don’t be worried about serving the wrong wine. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is to enjoy it in the company of those you love. I wish you all wonderful Christmas.

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