Crack open something sweet


WINE: Cheeseplates, sandwiches, mince pies and other treats call for festive drinks

IN THE DAYS around Christmas, it is always nice to have a few treats to dip into when the mood takes you. I like to try out drinks that I might not consider at other times of the year. In particular, I crack open bottles of fortified wine, or something sweet, both of which keep well once opened. They are even better drunk with a slice of Christmas cake, mince pies, or a mature blue cheese and a few crackers.

It is also handy to have a few interesting beers on hand, again great to sip with leftovers, sandwiches and cheese.

As a nation, we also drink more spirits around Christmas; a bottle of something a little bit different will add to the pleasure. I have always been very keen on good Calvados, but this year I shall keep it Irish by sipping on a glass or two of the apple brandy mentioned below.

It seems we still shy away from fortified wines. The range available continues to shrink, not helped by the departure of Berry Brothers from their shop in Harry Street in Dublin. Sherry, port and Madeira are all wines with a very long noble history, dating to the days when wine needed to be fortified by the addition of brandy in order to survive long sea journeys. Each developed into very individual, sophisticated and complex drinks.

While I do not recommend keeping these for long periods once opened, you can happily share a glass or two for a week or more before they begin to lose flavour.

Port is probably the most popular of the three, especially at this time of year, but sherry also makes a fantastic Christmas drink. A glass as an aperitif, digestif, or simply with a few nibbles as a late night snack can be wonderful.

Lustau Don Nuño Dry Oloroso, 20%, €12.99 – €13.50I featured the medium-dry Apostoles Palo Cortado sherry as one of my top 50 wines of the year recently. However, I have also bought a half-bottle of this very tasty dry Oloroso. Lustau make some of the very best sherry, available in handy half bottles. The Don Nuño is dry, with intense flavours of roasted nuts and toffee. Perfect with a few slivers of Manchego cheese and a handful of walnuts. The same company produces the Lustau East India Solera, rich and nutty with caramel and raisins, which would go down very nicely with Christmas cake. Stockist: Mitchell Son, CHQ, Glasthule and Rathfarnham; O’Brien’s; Brechin Watchorn, Ranelagh; Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Bin No. 9, Goatstown; McCambridge’s, Galway; Avoca, Rathcoole; Liston’s, Camden Street, D2; Wicklow Wine Co.

Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage 2000, 20%, €32.95Christmas does not officially kick off in the Wilson household until the tree decoration ceremony. Once that has been accomplished, the poor over-worked, harassed father is rewarded with a warm mince pie or two and a glass of Port. Warre’s LBV is always a little pricier than its rivals, but with good reason. This is the best late-bottled vintage port on the market. Richly fruity, with plenty of firm dark plums, some Christmas cake spice, and a really long finish that is beautifully rounded, but never sickly sweet. Drink with desserts, blue cheese or on its own. Stockists: O’Donovan’s, Cork; Wine Centre, Kilkenny; Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Bin No. 9, Clonskeagh; Thomas’s Deli, Foxrock; Wicklow Arms, Delgany; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin; McCabe’s, Mount Merrion; The Gables, Foxrock; Donnybrook Fair; selected SuperValu.

Kracher Tockenbeerenauslese NV, 12%, €13.50Dessert wines are not the most popular in our household, other than with myself, of course. If your partner is equally lukewarm, a half-bottle or even better this quarter-bottle, is the perfect way to enjoy a sweet treat without dithering about whether to open a full bottle for one person. Do remember that sweet wines will keep fresh in the fridge for up to a week. Alois ‘Louis’ Kracher, one of the world’s great winemakers sadly passed away recently, but this wine is a fitting tribute. Rich, intense pineapple and barleysugar fruits in a wonderfully light but unctuous glass of wine. It even has some seasonal snowflakes in the bottle (a harmless light deposit of crystals). Stockists: The Cheese Pantry, Drumcondra; Next Door, Enniscorthy; Corcornan’s, New Ross; The Vintry, Rathgar; Next Door, Myles Creek, Kilkee; Searson’s Wine Merchants, Monkstown.

Duvel, 8.5%, around €3 per 33cl bottleIf you are interested in joining the growing band of beer aficionados, why not buy a selection of beers to try out over the holiday period? Most forward-thinking off-licences around the country offer a good selection of premium beers; Redmond’s in Ranelagh, McHugh’s in Artane and Deveny’s in Dundrum would probably have the widest selection in the Dublin area. This Belgian strong pale ale is not a session beer, coming close to a German wine in alcoholic strength. Complex and full of character, lightly hoppy, with a lovely subtle fruitiness, deceptive power, and dry finish. I would drink this with food, possibly a turkey and stuffing sandwich, or savour slowly in the evening. Stockists: Check your local off-licence, this is one of the more widely available premium beers.

Eden Apple Brandy, 40%, €40Michael O’Callaghan of Longueville House spent many years trying to produce wine on his farm in Mallow. As we do not get sufficient sun in most years, he decided to switch most of his attention to apples, a far safer bet in our climate. Eight years ago he planted 30 acres of cider apple trees, with the aim of making an apple brandy. The best-known apple brandy is Calvados, made in the Normandy region of France, although it is also made in other parts of Europe. The best Calvados is a very fine spirit, as good as most Cognac or Armagnac.

O’Callaghan’s brandy has already won a bronze medal in the prestigious IWS competition. Quite full and rich, with subtle apple fruits, this is a very tasty after dinner drink, and could also be used in a number of savoury pork dishes as well as in cakes and puddings. Stockist: Tel: 022-27643, or email

Tullamore 12 year-old Special Reserve, 40%, €36.99Tullamore Dew is the second best selling Irish whiskey world-wide, and number one in many countries, including Germany. Until recently, it has been less well-known in this country.

The Dew part of the name has nothing to do with misty mornings, but is apparently derived from Daniel E. Williams, one of the first owners. Whilst the basic Tullamore Dew is most widely available, I found the 12-year-old Special Reserve a big step up in quality. My usual favourite is Bushmills Black label, but this Christmas I shall certainly try a glass or two of this. Mellow and rounded with a nice toastiness and a light spicy touch. Stockists: Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Mitchell Son, CHQ; The Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson Street, D2; Molloy’s Liquor Stores; World Wide Wines, Waterford; Freeney’s, Galway; Harvest, Galway; Tullamore Heritage Centre; Coyne’s, Tralee.