Local is liquor

Judging by the vast amount of alcohol that will be consumed in homes, bars and restaurants this month, Christmas is the season to be drunk and jolly.

This is habitually done with abandon and scant consideration about what is being poured down your throat. The emphasis seems to be on quantity rather than quality.

This has inspired me to attempt a survivor’s guide on festive tipples to suit four Christmas scenarios, including what to drink with roast turkey and how to reinvigorate your overfed guests on Boxing Day.

I’ve chosen the best and most interesting products South Africa has to offer and hope it will help you to savour rather than swig your libations this festive season.

Christmas parties

You’ve splashed out on a new LBD (little black dress), the tunes are lined up and the canapés are in the oven. But what to drink? One way to impress your guests seriously and get proceedings off to a swing is to make your own cocktails.

The thought of attempting to become a mixologist à la Tom Cruise in your own home, in front of guests, fills people with trepidation. But it’s really not that hard to create simple cocktails, says Michael Evian of mobile bar service Liquid Chefs.

‘People are becoming acquainted with what a good cocktail should and shouldn’t taste like and bringing that standard into their homes,” he says. ‘The common misconception is that it’s really difficult to make cocktails at home. For basic cocktails, all you need are your ingredients and equipment and you can then produce something really tasty.”

All that is required is a Boston shaker, a muddler (a mixing stick) and a strainer — equipment that can be bought at your local home store.

Evian recommends a classic Champagne cocktail as a good way to start. Place a sugar cube in a glass, splash four dashes of bitters over it, top up with sparkling wine or Champagne and garnish with a cherry or strawberry. For a variation, you can add a measure of a flavoured liqueur.

George Novitskas, the manager of the Bascule whisky bar in Cape Town, advocates that the whisky be sour for cocktail virgins. Place a measure of blended whisky, one part sugar syrup (you can make this by boiling one cup sugar and one cup water together) and two parts fresh lemon juice in a shaker with ice. Shake, pour into a chilled sour glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Luxury vodka brand Grey Goose has created a summer cocktail list with a local theme, including SA Idol, which is made by shaking up 35ml Grey Goose vodka, 35ml rooibos honey and a squeeze of lemon; top up in the glass with soda water.

Another creation is the Basilicious, which is made by muddling 20ml sugar syrup with basil leaves in a shaker with ice, adding 50ml of Grey Goose and a squeeze of fresh lime, topping up with lemonade (optional) and garnishing with basil leaves

To make things easier for your party, these recipes can be mixed up in bigger quantities.

Christmas toasts

There really is nothing like bubbly for getting people in a celebratory mood. There is something about the joyous sound of a cork popping and the bubbles fizzing in a glass that produces an almost instantaneous feeling of elation.

And what better liquid choice to celebrate Christmas than with a bottle of South Africa’s own version of French Champagne — Cap Classique? Both are made in a traditional way that involves a second fermentation in the bottle after the addition of yeast and sugar. You could choose a blanc de blanc (made entirely of white grapes), a blanc de noir (made of red grapes), a pink bubbly or a normal brut, which is usually a blend (red grapes such as pinot noir are gently pressed so the colour does not leach out of the skins).

I recently had the happy task of hosting a tasting of 16 of the best Cap Classiques. I experimented with different dishes to accompany the bubbly and found the best pairings were with fish and seafood dishes, such as sushi, a creamy mushroom pasta dish, spicy Asian food, such as chicken satay, and cheese platters.

Of course, you could just drink the stuff on its own — just keep an eye on the aged aunt who may find the bubbles going straight to her head on an empty stomach.

Of the bubblies that we tasted, the favourite was the Simonsig Blanc de Blanc 2005, with a lovely zesty and elegant fizz. This was followed by Klein Constantia Brut 2006, which had yeasty brioche notes and was judged to be the closest to the French stuff in style, and Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2003, which is only for special occasions because of the hefty price tag of more than R400. Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel 2008, Villiera Tradition and La Motte 2007 were also favourites.

Christmas turkey

The big day has arrived and you’ve spent hours preparing a traditional feast, complete with roast turkey and baked ham. The bird is turning a pleasing shade of golden brown in the oven and you now face the choice of deciding on which bottles of wine to open to please both your cantankerous uncle, who drinks only red, and your twentysomething sister, who drinks only chardonnay.

When faced with such choices, it can help to bear in mind a few pointers on food and wine matching. There are no hard and fast rules but, if you put some thought into choosing the right wine for the dish, it can help to bring out the best in both.

You should choose a wine that can match the acidity in the food, for example, a lemon-baked fish with sauvignon blanc and, likewise, a sweet dish such as Christmas pudding needs to be matched with the sweetness in a wine such as a noble late harvest. It also pays to match the weight of a dish with the wine, for example, a game stew needs a hearty red, such as a shiraz. Sometimes a contrast can work really well, hence a fresh and zesty white cuts through the creamy texture of oysters.

Turkey is a fairly delicate meat so it needs a wine that is not going to overpower it. Pinot noir, lightly chilled for 30 minutes before drinking, is a good choice as it is fruity, with a soft texture and a bit of acidity to contrast with the blandness of the meat. The cultivar’s spiritual and cultural home is Burgundy, but the best South African producers I have come across include Bouchard Finlayson, Haute Cabrière, Elgin Vintners and Chamonix.

For your sister, choose a quality chardonnay rather than her usual furniture-stripping choices.

Chardonnay is an ideal white to accompany turkey and the farms that know how to bring the best out of it include Paul Cluver, Julien Schaal, Fleur du Cap and Sutherland Estate.

But for my money the most versatile and interesting white wine to accompany food has to be riesling. It’s not a trendy cultivar in South Africa, but producers are slowly catching on to the wonderful opportunities it offers in terms of intense fruit quality, complexity and minerality. They include Paul Cluver, Thelema, Jordan and Klein Constantia, all of which make small, albeit growing, quantities.

Boxing Day

Serious inertia has set in. You’ve all eaten too much rich food and had too much to drink and, after being imprisoned in a house with your family for 48 hours, murder could soon be on the cards.

The solution, in my view, is to escape to the bottom of the garden with a selection of drinks that will help revive jaded palates and jangled nerves.
Neurologically speaking, gin is said to be one of the more uplifting spirits and a gorgeous example is Hendrick’s, which aims to mimic the flavours of an English garden with a heavy accent on cucumber and floral notes. For a South African gin, look no further than multiple award-winning Stretton’s, full of lemon character that should help pep you all up.

Another spirit winning accolades is the artisanally crafted premium vodka, Primitiv, recently launched by distiller extraordinaire Roger Jorgensen. He makes the spirit, designed to be sipped straight from the freezer, on his family farm in Wellington.

Whisky is great for calming the stomach and the nerves — just choose a lighter and more floral malt such as a Speyside whisky (Glenrothes and the Balvenie are always great) or, for a local dram, try Three Ships or Baines. A chilled grape spirit, such as Spirit of Constantia, should also help revive the senses.

Lastly, if you are having a braai, a fresh and zesty white that has a bit of weight to support the food such as a Swartland blend (AA Badenhorst, Vondeling and Sterhuis are always pleasing) should work well. If you must have beer, consider trying something a bit different, such as Darling Brew, a preservative-free ‘slow” beer. Everson’s Cider, handcrafted near Elgin, is a crisp, dry and refreshing drink that’s a far cry from the sickly sweet versions that attracted us in days gone by.

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