Wines for the festive season

TWO years ago my annual blood tests showed alarmingly that my "good" cholesterol (HDL) was down. For years, it had been within the normal range. All other parameters were normal. I had a choice. Take drugs OR drink more wine. No prizes offered as to my choice. More wine, especially red wine.

Within six months all the results were back to normal. Back to business!

It may be of interest to look at the relationship between wine and health, or more specifically, wine (alcohol) and heart disease. Some readers may recall the huge interest stimulated by the TV broadcast some four decades ago which was summarized in the popular press as the "French Paradox".

A recent survey at the time had shown that the incidence of heart disease in the population in the south of France (below Bordeaux) was very low, despite a diet rich in carbohydrates, fat and protein - and wine.

Numerous epidemiological studies since then showed there was a significant connection between alcohol (wine) consumption and a low incidence of coronary heart disease. What we now know is that both the alcohol content in wine as well as some other constituent/s in wine (from the fruit) exert a protective effect against ischaemic heart disease. The active component in the grape is now known to be Resveratrol, a substance which largely resides in the skin of red grapes.

This seems like a good time to revisit this interesting and very helpful piece of information as we are on the eve of the Chinese New Year, a period which will see the traditional family reunion dinners. AND this festive season is also the time (and excuse) for much dining - AND DRINKING.

Though this is much more disciplined and therefore healthier than it used to be. I recall in the days of my youth when Chinese New Year was the time for hearty eating and drinking of the "hard" stuff - high-alcohol whisky and brandy. Today, more wine is consumed than the hard stuff. From the lessons of the French Paradox we can reassure ourselves that we are drinking for a good cause!

Bearing in mind the kind of dinner fare that will be on dinner tables - raw fish salad, suckling pig, seafood in various preparations, et al - I set aside two generic classes of wines.

For white wines, my first choices are the lightly sweet, low-alcohol German wines, especially those from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Nahe regions, rather than the Rheingau.

The light sweetness makes them easy to drink and for first-time wine drinkers quite a discovery. They are also low in alcohol, 8.5 per cent as opposed to 13 - 14 per cent alcohol. And this is a decidedly huge plus. Names of estates to look out for include the usual suspects - Egon Muller-Scharzhof, Wilhelm Haag, and Joh Jos Prum, Helmut Donhoff, Schlossgut Diel, and more.

You could not go wrong with any of these names. They are the creme de la creme. And as for the style or type of their wines, my preference is for the lowest rung in the sugar ladder, the Kabinett. This is a good all-purpose wine, very good freshness and acidity, and lightly sweet. And when served properly chilled, they are most refreshing.

The more recent Grosses Gewachs style was introduced to produce wines drier than the Kabinett wines, but which have two disadvantages. In reducing the sugar, the alcohol content has got bumped up and so has the price. Not my cup of tea. No one else can make Riesling Kabinetts and Spaetleses the way they are made in Germany.

A few estates have started to produce an even drier wine than Kabinetts, usually by blending the wines from different parts of their estates, and calling them Estate Kabinetts rather than "Single-Estate" Kabinetts. These are much less sweet while retaining their low (8.5 per cent) alcohol, a real benefit.

For really dry whites one would have to go to white Burgundy and white Bordeaux. These would not be my first choice for Chinese New Year dinners, as they are likely to be too dry for Chinese New Year cuisine.

For red wines, there is an even wider choice. Apart from the usual suspects - Bordeaux and Burgundy - I tend to lean towards Spanish and Italian wines. Within the last two decades or so, the wine regions in these two old-world countries have produced stunning new wines at very reasonable prices. And all from famous old estates.

Take Vega Sicilia as a good example. A very old estate, founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda Eloy y Chaves who planted the Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and since its purchase in 1982 by the Alvarez family, they are making - apart from the classic Vega Sicilia Unico - lovely drinking wines such as Alion from an estate in the Ribera very near the original Vega Sicilia.

Not content with that, the Alvarez family acquired another winery at Toro, some 100km down the road, where they produce a 100 per cent Tinta de Toro (Tempranillo) wine, Pintia, from 60-year old vines, a wine which is easy and enjoyable and can cope with any Asian cuisine - almost.

Many Italian wines are well suited to Asian cuisines, particularly those from Tuscany and Piedmont. I am especially drawn to such simple wines as the much neglected Rosso di Montalcino from Montalcino in Tuscany, from any of the top producers - such as Talenti, Argiano, Biondi Santi, Casse Basse, et al. Then of course from the Bolgheri area there are the inexpensive second wines of Ornellaia as well as Sassicaia.

The wines from the Rhone Valley, both North and South, are particularly well fitted for Asian cuisine, with a slight preference for the Southern Chateauneuf-du-Pape from any of the big names - Guigal, Chapoutier, Domaine Vieille Juliene, and more. For Hermitage there is no better choice today than Chave in Mauve, Northern Rhone. Classic, full of breed, complexity, serious.

A little expensive but well worth the extra dollars. From Southern Rhone, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape of Chateau Rayas is not too expensive, but scarce. Again, well worth the effort. But both the Chave and the Rayas need ageing for a minimum of seven to eight years, at the least, before reaching sufficient maturity.

For Bordeaux, the softer and more lush Merlot-based wines from the Right Bank are good with Asian food, and price-wise, especially the second wines of the top Chateaux - Carillon from Angelus, Petit Cheval from Cheval Blanc, Virgine de Valandraud, and Pensees de Lafleur, the last named a particular favourite, but also the most difficult to find.

And Burgundy, if you wish to splurge, the Village wines from the Communes of Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle-Musigny, Beaune, Volnay and Pommard. Soft, rounded, lovely wines. But difficult to find because of small productions and huge demand. Having said that, I would not squander them on Asian cuisine, even at Chinese New Year!

This article was first published on February 5, 2016.
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