A Vinous Sandeman Family Christmas

by Patrick Sandeman

The run up to Christmas Eve is a long one for the wine-trade, and as we do not close our shops until 6.00pm, by the time we get home a sharp restorative measure is needed in order to take the edge off of exhaustion and at the same time make greeting Mother-in-Law all the more pleasurable. A large glass of chilled Inocente Fino, Valdespino , and a bowl of freshly toasted almonds (with Malden salt and a hint of paprika) hits the spot before supper.

Supper is a simple affair of rare roast fillet of beef and home-made béarnaise sauce, accompanied by what has become another tradition on Christmas Eve, Castello del Terriccio’s 2004 Tassinaia . Whether it is the star on the label that evokes Christmas in the mind of my children (now 23,22 and 17) or the fact that it has long since been on of my absolute favourite Tuscan wines (many years ago it used to be Tignanello that filled this slot), it is a wonderful wine with which to start off the Christmas celebration. The 2004 is richly textured with sweet fruit, a wonderful underlying perfume and lovely texture; reminiscent of a very fine St Julien from a ripe vintage.

Christmas Morning is a relaxed affair with Katie’s family tradition of salmon fishcakes for breakfast (delicious!), accompanied this year by a bottle of Champagne Larmandier-Bernier ‘Terre de Vertus’ Extra Brut 1er Cru , a wonderfully bracing Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay) from a single vineyard plot in Vertus and given no ‘dosage’ to keep it almost bone dry (and biodynamic to boot). Appetisingly dry with biscuity character and a creamy mousse this is a great way to start the day and matches the salmon fishcakes superbly. Unfortunately a touch too dry for Mother-in-Law.

A short sharp walk to Mass (incense, bells and hymns) brings Christmas Day into perspective and puts one into a celebratory mood, and after a certain amount of chatter with the Canon and his congregation it is home for a spot of light lunch. Smoked salmon, salad and Blue Wensleydale cheese, a modest affair, accompanied by Bert Salomon’s 2006 Gruner Veltliner Von Stein Reserve , a dazzling example of this bone dry and refreshing Austrian grape variety. A wonderful palate lifter, you could drink this at almost any stage over Christmas to revive your flagging spirits; with notes of melon and quince on the palate and such mineral clarity it is bracingly dry, but not so dry that Mother-in-Law does not enjoy more than a glass or two. A glass of red with lunch is almost ‘de rigueur’ and our Lea and Sandeman 2005 Bordeaux  fills the gap brilliantly. Packed with dense fruit this is an almost impossibly good claret at this price. Full of juicy cherry and blackcurrant fruit, with a hint of underlying vanillin oak, a second glass is almost unavoidable.

If one must remain in London for Christmas, and this year we must since the cottage in Devon is otherwise occupied, then Richmond Park provides a wonderful backdrop for an afternoon walk on Christmas Day once the turkey has been anointed and put into the Aga. A cigar and a small hipflask (filled with Lea and Sandeman Armagnac  provide some comfort as we march across the park among the deer in the dimming light of a fading afternoon.

Back to a house filled with the mouth-watering aromas of roasting turkey and our Christmas Night really begins. Another tradition that has evolved in the family is that we only open presents once it is dark, the fire is alight and Christmas dinner has been prepared. Now that the whole process of opening presents has become an altogether more civilised affair, a really decent glass of champagne is the perfect way to start the evening. Egly-Ouriet’s ‘Tradition’ Brut Grand Cru  is about as good as it gets and is a serious wine rather than a simple champagne, and in the words of my twenty-two year old son ‘just about the best champagne’ he has ever tasted. Rich, and full-bodied, with notes of toasted hazelnuts and creamy gutsiness this finishes with striking clarity and persistence. (A fabulous alternative for those who follow the wines of Jacques Selosse and at a much more affordable price).

Christmas dinner is a meal that requires a wine that will stand up to so many distractions: a medley of flavours on the plate, both savoury and sweet, and a variety of palates around the table. My obvious choice might be the extraordinarily good current vintage of 2007 Gladstone Vineyard Pinot Noir (£14.95), a wine that is rapidly gaining the reputation as one of New Zealand’s most serious Pinot Noirs. Full of smoky, dark berry fruit and spiced cherries with a long savoury finish, this is deliciously easy drinking Pinot that will cope with most Christmas fare. However, this year we favour something with a little more earthiness and depth, and while Mrs Sandeman does not appreciate the more evolved ‘farm-yard’ style of red Burgundy she does enjoy the brighter flavours of Nicolas Rossignol’s wines and although his 2005 Volnay 1er Cru Clos des Angles  is still very youthful it is packed with lush fruit and elegant minerality in perfect balance. Something of a treat at this price level, but then again the Mother-in-Law does not drink red wine.

Christmas would not be Christmas without Vintage Port and there is always a decanter on the go, with walnuts and caramelised orange peel. But a great addition to the repertoire is Sandeman’s 20 Year Old Tawny port , still the finest of all the aged tawny ports and about the very last of the great wines still made under the Sandeman label. Quite pale in colour, but intense in flavour with a sweetness and richness that is never cloying, and perfect for drinking slightly chilled with the Christmas pudding.

Boxing Day is a day for being up and about bright and early so as to build strength for a ‘left-over’s’ lunch, though this year my mother (the ‘other’ Mother-in-Law) is coming to lunch so we will bake a ham and leave aside the cold turkey. Another refreshing wine is called for as the palate reawakens to the smell of the baking glaze and Maverick’s Eden Valley 2007 Trial Hill Riesling cannot fail to hit the spot; a wine that will persuade almost anybody who says they do not like Riesling to drink and actually enjoy Riesling. This is a dry, lemon zest fresh wine with naturally crisp acidity and mineral dry feel, and so very refreshing too. However, almost certainly too dry for both the M-in-Laws, so we will spoil them with a bottle of Jean Thevenet’s 2004 Vire Clesse Quintaine Domaine Emilian Gillet , a richly textured, but dry white Burgundy with soft, buttery fruit and bright minerality on the finish. Both as a sop to the Spanish mother, but more because it is such a very exciting wine, a bottle of 2005 Clos Abella Priorat  from the biodynamic vineyard of Bodegas Marco Abella will also be decanted to go with the ham. This blend of Grenache and Carignan, with a touch of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, is full of black cherry, liquorice, mineral and coffee flavours with a very long, fresh finish.

Decisions, decisions… most of them now made apart from two: what to drink on New Year’s Eve, but still time for that, and more importantly whether or not to wear my brand new kilt to Christmas Day Mass (the Sandemans wear the Ramsay tartan, but nothing to do with Gordon!), after all our Irish Canon will surely appreciate the gesture being a Celt, but then again, the children do keep reminding me that I am half Spanish!