"So it goes."

With lots of inspiration for your Christmas grog, from sparkling wines to craft beers and gift ideas to boot, take a tour of Ernie Whalley's drinks cabinet just in time for party season. 

I do love to have plenty of choice for the fortnight that the festive season seems to have become. Here’s a quick tour of my drinks cabinet.

Sparkling wine 

The wealth of critical acclaim lavished on English sparkling wines made by ‘the traditional method’ has somewhat masked the rise-and-rise of Spanish ‘Cava’ over the same period. Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to Alex Butraco of Recaredo, founded in Spain’s Alt Penedes in 1924. Recaredo’s stunning Cavas are biodynamic - no chemical fertilisers, no herbicides or fungicides. They are currently kicking butt, even against champagnes, in blind tastings all over Europe. Three wines from the range are stocked by Terroirs, Donnybrook, Dublin 4. Currently they have the Brut Nature Gran Reserva ‘on special’ at €39.50. My favourite was the elegant Recaredo Brut de Brut 2008 aged for an astonishing 101 months. (€59.50, knocks spots off most big brand Champagnes for equivalent money). 

White and Red Wine 

Christmas is the only time of year I buy wine in bulk. This year, I set myself a budget of around €15 a bottle, case rate. So over Christmas and New Year I’ll be drinking, along with relations and friends, Nero di Troia 2016 (www.winesdirect.ie, Mullingar and in-store in Arnotts, Dublin 1) a sassy and surprisingly classy, rounded red from Puglia. Like with most good wines, there’s something of a tale to tell. It’s a blend of uve di Troia a grape native to a small part of a big province whose growers, despite low yields and general snarkyness, refuse to abandon it, because of the superb flavour (for an Irish analogy, think Wexford Golden Wonder) and aglianico. The white is a lovely Pays d’Oc oaked chardonnay, Extrait de Romarion 2017  (Baggot Street Wines, D4), made by some savvy Burgundians gone south to find the right terroir for less investment.

Sherry 

When will people come to realise that fino sherry, with its profusion of flavour compounds, is the most versatile and food-friendly wine in the history of ever? Mitchell & Son, ISFC and Glasthule, Co Dublin have the range of Lusta sherries including the brilliant Puerto Fino (€24 or €13 a half bottle). A minimum of five years aging in Puerto de Santa Maria lends a sea-salt tang to a delectable dry white wine that, for a fortified, isn’t overly alcoholic. For those who need the reassurance of famous names, high numbers, and stickers, Robert Parker gave it 91 points and it took Silver at the International Wine Challenge.

Gin Of the myriad new Irish gins I still find Blackwater No 5 and Drumshanbo Gunpowder at the head of my personal posse when it comes to mixing a G&T. But when a“grown-up martini”  springs to mind nothing displaces my long-term favourite, delicate Plymouth Original Gin, from England’s oldest distillery. (widely available, around €33). Mix 7 to 1 with Noilly Prat vermouth, shake with 3 ice cubes, pour, a twist of lime, cheers!

Whisky 

While stocks last visitors to our house will be offered a choice of Highland Park 12,  Old Pulteney 12, Redbreast 12, Powers John’s Lane and Connemara (gets better every year), all widely available from good offices. Note the frequent repetition of  “12”, for me the optimum time of aging, when a  balance is struck between smooth sophistication and fiery heartbeat (Note: if anyone wants to send me a silky 18-year-old for road testing, please don’t let this put you off).

Brandy 

“Only bought it for the pudding, darling.” Yeh, right, she says. Camus is a family owned and operated cognac house, founded in 1863 and now run by the fifth generation. Their Camus VSOP Elegance, a favourite of mine, is an object lesson in sensitive ageing. Medium toasted barrels keep vanilla overload at bay while allowing the fragrant perfume of the eau de vie to shine.

€60 L.Mulligan Whiskey Shop, Clarendon Street, Dublin 2.

Beer & Cider 

Variety, they say, is the spice of life. Savagely-hopped IPA’s; Weissbiers  (great with oysters); Irish red ales; heart and belly-warming Belgian Dubbels, bring ‘em on.  In the ‘Great Finds’ category comes Drivers Cider, produced by those innovative folk at Highbank Farm, Co. Kilkenny. “My chauffeur” recommends this for the pleasing flavour, lack of added sugar or chemicals and the breathalyser-free drive home. 

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND

I might be singing solo here but I always get the feeling that, when it comes to craft beer, stout tends to stumble. Maybe small brewers are inhibited by the shadow of style setter “Big G” over their shoulder. Too often I find excess woodiness or cough mixture flavours. Some are getting it right, though.

O’Hara’s limited edition Barrel Aged Series Leann Folláin Irish Stout is what I’d call a proper Extra Stout, aged in Irish whiskey barrels then bottle conditioned. Tasting revealed complex flavours of coffee, dark chocolate, hazelnuts, no more than a hint of caramel and just a slight waft of vanilla. All swathed in well-controlled hop bitterness that has you reaching for that second glass. Sold at good off-licences at €12.99 for a 750ml “sharing size” (yeah, right)  bottle. Shown here with O’Hara’s Christmas 3-beer gift pack (€9.99) a great stocking filler for someone with a big stocking. 

Coffee 

The coffee lover in your life would be delighted with a Christmas Tasting Subscription from specialist roasters 3fe. For €70 they roast and post a fresh bag of coffee to your door for Christmas week so you have something to wrap or gift over the holidays. The receiver will then be sent, in the New Year, a monthly coffee for the remainder of the subscription. Altogether an excellent way to learn about different coffees and what to expect from the various growing regions. Each coffee comes with an e-mailed newsletter highlighting the origin, quality and the range of flavours you can expect.

Mention of Terroirs, Donnybrook, reminds me that it’s a shop I try and steer clear of at Christmas (and always fail!). I drop in seeking a couple of gifts for friends and invariably come out with three for me - this year, no exception. A tin of Frescobaldi Laudemio extra virgin olive oil (€24.50/250ml; the legendary Bilame tir bouchon (€23.50), just the job for all those expensive bottles with old and fragile corks that pals are going to gift me; a packet of www.broughammon.com gorgeous Irish rose veal salami (€4.50). Terroirs’ Françoise Gilley has an unerring eye for products that look stylish and work well, including what is probably the best range of decanters in Dublin.

Author: Ernie Whalley