Don’t just play it safe with your Christmas wines

High vineyards in Piedmont, home of Italy's first sparkling wine.

High vineyards in Piedmont, home of Italy's first sparkling wine. - Credit: Archant

You will want to avoid strange and controversial bottles but the Ham&High’s wine expert suggests wines from the UK, Italy and Chile can ring the festive bells

Paula Fandio, maker of sparkling Albarino. Picture: Mar de Frades

Paula Fandio, maker of sparkling Albarino. Picture: Mar de Frades - Credit: Archant

No-one in festive times – especially this year – wants to mar the general feeling of good will by opening strange and maybe controversial bottles. So classic wines will be on most Christmas lists. Why not burgundy and champagne? Indeed – but there are rivals, tempting, delicious and sometimes costing rather less.

Those two famous northern French regions have long been known as cool-climate wine areas, but now they’re warming up. So it can make good sense to investigate once-marginal places where, not long ago, making such good wines in similar styles and from the same grape varieties was impossible.

England is the classic example. In the 1980s, chardonnay grapes notoriously looked like frozen peas at harvest time. Now they are a glorious ripe yellow and go into bottle-fermented fizz of world-beating quality. And some fine still wines – again with unique character – are being made here from both chardonnay and pinot noir, especially in vintages such as warm 2018.

Some ideas of which to choose are alongside, but do visit English vineyard websites – there are special offers aplenty and direct sales are crucial to their business.

Right across the globe, there’s a place that has a lot in common with England: Tasmania. There too, ripening is much less of a problem than a few years back and skilled growers turn their grapes into elegant bubbles and burgundian-variety still wines.

Back in France, southern parts seem unlikely alternative candidates – until you hit high, wet, wild Limoux, inland from Narbonne and home of the nation’s first bubbles-in-a-bottle. The present-day fizz is excellent, as are some chardonnays and pinots. Altitude matters this far south: that’s why there’s good pinot in Provence, too.

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Italy’s Lombardy offers smart Franciacorta traditional-method fizz. To the south west is Alta Langa, high in Piedmont and the top-class modern expression of the oldest Italian sparkling wine. Sadly, little reaches UK shores – but this is also asti land: what better to match with Christmas puddig?)

Thinking of both bubbles and burgundy alternatives, Chile can be chilly, too – cold winds from the Pacific and the Andes sweep through the vine-growing valleys. Pinot noir appears in plenty of styles, often excellent value, and chardonnay abounds too – examples of both come even from arid Atacama.

New Zealand’s Central Otago mixes extremes: cold winters, hot summers, and its pinots are deservedly admired. Other regions such as Martinborough and Marlborough offer alternative styles. Kiwi chardonnay can be superb.

The list doesn’t stop there. But there isn’t space here to continue or to suggest specialist suppliers for wines from these regions: is an invaluable first resource.