Darker drinks to warm your winter nights


There is a definite seasonality to my drinking habits. I have commented on it before: how I enjoy sharp and light drinks in the summer months, fino sherry in the sunshine or rosé wine with salads. By the same token, as the temperature drops and the nights grow longer, I naturally incline to darker, more full-bodied drinks in the autumn and winter. It's not just because winter foods tend to be deeper in flavour, although that certainly plays a part, but somehow the mood of the season calls for darker drinks. Even if I'm not drinking with food, I wouldn't think of opening a bottle of lager, dry white wine or crisp sherry. Even gin and tonic are less common for me come November.


Shiraz, Malbec and Rioja

People will tell you I'm not a fan of rich, heavily-oaked red wines. I think it would be more accurate to say I struggle to match them with food. In the winter months, I'm more likely to open a bottle after supper, or to open one early in the week and take a glass out of it each evening. This drinking wine on its own means that I need the wine to be full of flavour and comfort. The deep, plummy fruit of an Argentinian Malbec answers that need perfectly, and good oak in Rioja and Australian Shiraz carries comforting, childhood  memories of Thornton's toffee. At their best, these wines are really good, sipping wines, "wines for meditation," as the Italians say, and that's exactly what I want on a cold Wednesday evening, with the heating on and the sound of wind and rain outside. Life has few pleasures as wonderful as slowly sipping a deep, red wine and uncovering layers of cherry, plum, bramble, prunes and liquorice lying beneath the butter and vanilla that the aging imparts.

As any winemaker will tell you, heavy oaking can hide a multitude of sins, so it's worth bearing in mind if you buy cheap wine, that the toffee flavour might disguise a wine that is rougher than you first thought. You'll notice it at first at the back of your throat, where the wine's acidity and the astringency of young tannin will cause slight discomfort, as if you've been singing along at a Bryan Adams concert all night. Better to spend a little more and enjoy some serious fruit.


Dark Beers

Image: D Fogarty
Britain has an amazing array of craft breweries right now, each producing brew after brew of strong, hoppy IPAs. Sitting alongside these sharp, bitter brews is another, less well documented trend. These same breweries, bastions of in-your-face hoppiness are applying their considerable expertise to malt-forward bark ales, stouts and porters. To a man who started his drinking career in the dark days of industrial-scale, thin bitters and lagers, when only old men drank mild and old women stout, I find it both cheering and amusing that these darker, sweeter brews are most popular among younger drinkers. Not that such characterisation is helpful; it behoves us all to be open and appreciative of a wide variety of beer styles.

Darker beers, made so by the use of roasted malts, are usually brewed sweeter than their lighter counterparts. Roasting grain risks making it bitter, so a sweeter brew can counteract some of that. In turn, a sweeter, heavier liquor can support stronger hopping, too. The secret of any good beer is in the balancing of these two poles - bitter/sour and sweet/full. Like the heavier wines I drink in winter, dark beers are meant for slower drinking. The brewer will have patiently developed the flavour through the blending of several types of malt, sugars and different varieties of hop, each ingredient imparting a specific quality to the final flavour. Some add additional, non-traditional ingredients such as coffee, fruit and chocolate to bring yet more complexities to the flavour. Imagine sitting by an open fire, with a blanket over your legs, and sipping on one of these deep and dark brews.


Spirits and Fortifieds

At the risk of becoming repetitive, my tastes in aperitifs and digestifs swing at this time of year, too, from vermouths, dry sherries and gin to Madeira, nutty sherries and rum. All of these tend to be aged for longer, giving them warmer, deeper flavours. Although I still serve cocktails, they are likely to be still and semi-sweet, like a Manhattan. Because my preference in rum is for dark, funky rums from Guyana, Barbados and Jamaica, I'm more likely to drink rum in winter, when I'm after its warmth. 

Madeira gets its spicy, balsamic character from its exposure to sun and salt water. Dry or sweet, it goes well with nuts and dried fruits, and I always have a bottle in at Christmas. Indeed, a good, sweet Malvasia (Malmsey) is the perfect companion to Christmas pudding. Christmas has long been associated with cream sherry in the UK. Cream sherry is a blend of sherries and doesn't always reflect the quality of wines produced in the region. I love the aromatic, nutty flavour of a dry oloroso sherry. It's perfect with olives and salted almonds before dinner. The ultra-sweet Pedro Ximines is less well-known. It seeps out of the bottle like black treacle and seems just as sweet and rich. I'm not sure I would match it with any food, but it's gorgeous on its own, in a small glass, as a night-time treat when the family have gone to bed.



Next time: Christmas meats - not just turkey

Comments

  1. I must admit to being a fan of port, either on its own or with lemonade in the depths of winter. There's just something so warming about a glass of port. Usually consumed as a treat late at night, and not usually accompanied by anything at all. A port stands on its own I believe.

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