It's all marketing from the producers and the retailers of course, but we are led to believe that Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without the wine.
It's fine if Christmas is at your place, but what if you are the driver on Christmas Day? Do you act responsibly and watch your intake, arrange for a taxi or Dial a Driver, or do you simply imbibe in all the goodies, particularly the liquid ones, and say, 'What the heck!'.
One thing you can bet is that the cops won't have Christmas Day off. They'll be sitting there with their radar guns, with their cars placed in a position so you won't notice them till you are almost upon them. They'll perhaps be setting up little check points where you can't turn away and they'll ask you to say Merry Christmas into an alcohol breath device. They won't tolerate drunks on the road this holiday period.
But we live in a country where drinking is part of our culture, a nation of binge drinkers, our heritage from the days of the six o'clock swill. Our parents and perhaps now even our grandparents were part of the era of rugby, racing and beer.
Rugby is still right up there although the All Blacks performance in 2007 means no-one really wants to talk it right now. There are other sports to bet on than racing and many more of us drink wine, that's because New Zealand is now a fantastic vino producing country and although wine is slowly decreasing the margin, beer is still by far the most popular alcohol drink in New Zealand. Beer accounted for almost two thirds of available alcohol in 2006 with wine just 20% of the total. The 2007 statistics are not released until February although I can't see the margins drastically changing. The beer producers are switched on, however, and there are lots of low alcohol options so the drinking driver can enjoy a tipple of a brew, or two.
But what do you do if you want a low alcohol wine? Imagine going into the supermarket and asking for low alcohol wine options. The assistant, who is probably a temp because of extra staff for the holiday period, will possibly shake his or her head in amazement. They might even ask if there is such a thing.
Yes there is. Low alcohol options do exist. And the easiest to find are the Muscats and Rieslings. Low alcohol and sweetish, for sure, but treat them right and you'll be surprised just how delicious they are. Part of that treatment is chilling, which helps to accentuate any acidity - a natural component of Riesling but sometimes rather lacking in Muscat.
A great find this summer has been Brown Brothers Zibibbo from Victoria, Australia ($17). Just 6% alcohol, this fresh, fruity bubbly Muscat wine with lots of crisp apple flavours reminds me of a 'wine cooler' of days longs past.
I also love Soljans Fusion NV ($17), a sparkling Muscat made from Gisborne grapes with 8% alcohol. It's fresh and fruity, creamy and just a little spicy, it's full of grapey perfume and bubbly, sweet, musky flavours with a balancing savouriness and a long tasty finish.
This style of wine is based on the Spumante (sparkling) wines from the village of Asti in Piedmont in Northern Italy. During the week we found some old wines that had been forgotten and they were still almost in fine drinking form. Riccadonna and Mondoro are popular supermarket brands and they often clock in at around 5% alcohol by volume. It's great to keep one of these in the fridge to open when you get home from work while you are thinking about cooking the dinner.
Brown Brothers have taken the low alcohol options further, with their sweet fizzy red - Brown Brothers Dolcetto Syrah. Although it hovers around the 9.5% alcohol mark, it's an attractive alternative sparkling fizz to accompany the Christmas Turkey. With its cherry and berry jam flavours, and even a hint of chocolate, it could work with the Christmas Pud too.
Funny how people turn their noses up at sweetish wine, but chill these options down and serve a glass to your guests, and you'll be amazed how quickly the drink disappears.
But it is Riesling where the world's greatest low alcohol wines excel. While Germany is the obvious home of the 7 to 10% alcohol style, New Zealand producers are great imitators and there are more than a handful to choose from now.
Two great new finds this year have been the pure and expressive low alcohol Rieslings from North Canterbury producer, Crater Rim. The Crater Rim Waipara Riesling 2006 (9.5% alc) just blows you away with its intensity and flavour and you wonder if it can get any better. Then you taste The Crater Rim Marlborough/Akaroa Riesling 2005 (8%) alcohol, which has you thinking it must be from the Mosel. What a treat to have these two wines side by side at a First Glass Wednesday tasting earlier this month.
Perennial favourites include Felton Road Block 1 and Pegasus Bay Aria (7.5% alcohol). These producers have perfected the point of equilibrium when it comes to balancing the naturally high acid and high sugar of the late picked grapes. The result is harmony in the palate.
Others who are tuning into the style include Forest Estate The Doctors' Riesling 2006 (8.5%alc), which keeps on wining wine show gold medals and Villa Maria, which have at least two in their Single Vineyard range.
Framingham does a gorgeous 'Select' Riesling (about 8.5%) - usually cellar door sales only and Chard Farm and Peregrine in Central Otago have been known to make low alcohol styles too.
But two of my absolute favourites come from Fromm.
At the Marlborough Wine Weekend's Riesling Rendezvous tasting and luncheon (I went to the beautiful Spy Valley winery), we were handed a glass of Fromm Auslese Riesling 2006 on arrival. What a gorgeous aperitif style. There's enough sweetness to balance the crisp, clean, bright drying acidity that presents itself in a delicate lemonade citrus and red apple form. It's a little malic (green apple skin) on the nose but mouthwateringly fresh, sweet and juicy to the taste with a lightly viscous texture, fruit purity and exceptional balance. It comes packaged in a 375ml bottle and totally prepared the taste buds for lunch.
At the Supper Club event at the Marlborough Wine weekend, where Marlborough winemakers poured a selection of their favourite wines, the Fromm Riesling Spatlese 2006 (7.5% alc) and the Pyramid Valley Lebecca Vineyard Riesling 2006 (8.5% alc) were the stars for me. It had been a long day and I didn't want a long night, so I decided to go the low alcohol way. But my notebook stayed in the handbag, as it was time to chill out, not take notes.
However, last weekend, a bottle of the Fromm Riesling Spatlese 2006 was shared with friends to finish off a long, lazy lunch. It's not a wine to think of as 'sweet', even though it has 89 grams per litre of residual sugar, because when it is chilled right down, as it should be for summer drinking, the naturally high acid (9.9grams per litre) makes it seen dry. Pale in colour, almost colourless, it has tantalising lime and lemon aromas with a hint of apricot and fusel undertones that expand on the palate with a power play of fruit on the finish. It's a bit like biting into a crisp juicy apple, the crispness offset by a delicate viscosity, the interaction of the citrus and stonefruit and a tanginess to the quenching finish.
At $29.50 a bottle, it's not your everyday Riesling, but with a low alcohol volume of 7.5% volume, the bottle contains 4.4 standard drinks, which is a generous 170ml glassful per serve. It's a wine for the drinking driver to consider, a wine to sip on and stay well under the limit. It should also work with the Christmas ham if it's made with a yummy brown sugar and pineapple glaze. The antique blue bottle will make a talking point too.
Find out more from www.frommwineries.com.
© Sue Courtney
24 Dec 2007