Kill two birds with one sweet grape this week...
There are two notable dates this week in the celebration-wine calendar. First, with Easter falling so early this year, comes Shrove Tuesday on February 12. For those forswearing alcohol for Lent, my sympathies. But at least it's an excuse for a really good bottle before the 40 days begin.
For everyone, intending abstainers included, I'd like to suggest a lavish sweet wine with the pancakes. And for those not going dry on the following day, anything left in the bottle will do nicely for the second big day in the calendar, Valentine's on Thursday.
The best sweet wines come from Sauternes. It is a village and vineyard area south of the city of Bordeaux where they grow two grape varieties, Sauvignon and Semillon, especially to make what the French call "dessert" wines. The bunches are picked in early winter when they are over-ripe and infected with a benign mould called "noble rot", shrivelling the grapes so there is maximum sugar, minimum water.
The grapes are pressed and the precious juice fermented out, so the wine reaches normal alcohol level of 13% or 14%. But so concentrated is the natural sugar that it gives a golden colour and ambrosial richness. And there is natural acidity too, which balances the flavours, giving them freshness and vitality, a clean, even tangy, finish.
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These are the greatest sweet wines of the world, and correspondingly expensive. Try Waitrose Sauternes 2006 at £15.49 for a half bottle as an introduction. The wine is made at Chateau Suduiraut, one of the top dozen individual estates of Sauternes, and it is nectar: lemon gold in colour, honeysuckle perfumed, lusciously rich with sweet-pineapple and peach notes, and balanced with a delicate lime twang. It is, I promise, a fairly priced wine by the standards of Sauternes.
If there is a rival to Sauternes for sweet wines, it's the appellation of Monbazillac, not far to the southeast of Bordeaux in the Dordogne. Here the same Sauvignon/Semillon grape team dominates most of production, and the bunches are allowed in the same way to develop noble rot by lingering very late on the vines. The wines tend to be paler in colour and lighter in weight than Sauternes, and sometimes to have less balancing acidity, but when they're good they're very, very good – and a lot cheaper than their neighbours. My favourite of the moment is Domaine de l'Ancienne Cure 2009 at £8.25 for a half bottle (or £14.25 for a full size) from Yapp Bros of Mere in Wiltshire. This has a glowing gold colour, a fruit-flower, orange blossom nose and creamy-rich honeyed flavour with a dancing lightness of touch.
France does not have a monopoly. At Majestic, I recommend The Ned Noble Sauvignon Blanc 2010 from New Zealand, at £12.99 for a half bottle. Besides the reassuring name, this is a simply glorious nectar of a wine, golden and mineral pure. I can even detect the rush of grassiness that is the Kiwi Sauvignon trademark, in startlingly stimulating balance to the honeyed richness.
Another style of sweet wine altogether is Muscat. The Muscat grape is really the only variety that tastes of itself even after it has been vinified – sweet table grapes in liquid form. Wines from the grape are produced in every part of the world, but one of the best I have found is from Spain, Torres Floralis Moscatel Oro (Majestic £9.99 or £7.99 each if you buy two). It comes in the gleefully gaudy 50cl bottle pictured here and is simply wonderful. From the vineyards of the Torres family in Catalonia, it has an autumn gold colour, the nose is as floral as the picturesque name hints at – roses and lemon verbena both figure – and the flavour is as faithful and pure a rendering of the Muscat tune as I have ever found – delectably honeyed but uncloying.
Do serve these wines well chilled. They are as delicious with cured meats, blue cheeses or sticky buns as they are with pancakes. To avoid a clash, go easy with the lemon juice on the pancakes.
A small glass goes a long way, but if you don't finish the bottle, or even half-bottle, these very stable wines will last in perfect condition until Valentine's Day – and maybe, if absolutely necessary, all the way to Easter.