Much has already been written about The Spectator’s notorious spin around the Med this summer on board Cunard’s Queen Victoria, and there’s nothing much I can add except to confirm that, yes, we did indeed have a complete and utter hoot. In fact such a complete and utter hoot was it that once we’re all fully recovered and match fit we’re darn well going to do it again.
Needless to say, much of the jollity and most of the japes were the result of enjoying vast amounts of vino of the tippest-toppest quality in a seemingly endless supply. Just when we thought we’d succeeded in drinking the ship dry, more bottles appeared. I’d like it minuted, though, that we really did put our backs into it with several concerted and stout-hearted assaults on the wine list. After all, it was a Spectator cruise, not a New Statesman one.
Happily, I knew we were in safe hands the minute I saw the list and twigged that all the wine we were about to knock back in the Queen’s and Princess Grill restaurants had been supplied to Cunard by Messrs Corney & Barrow, titan of the British wine trade, still privately owned and going stronger than ever after 235 years in the business.
Corney & Barrow boasts two royal warrants as well as some remarkable exclusive agencies including such stellar names as Champagne Salon, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Pétrus. But, as with Berry Bros & Rudd, whose wines we featured the other week, their reputation rests as much on their own first-rate house wines as it does on any of the high-end, fancy-dan Château de Swank they might also stock.
Associate director James Franklin and I had Christmas firmly in our sights when we planned this offer, and since Corney & Barrow’s house range has just been completely revamped and restyled with chic new labels and since said range is so bloody good, I suggested that we look no further. Christmas is pricey enough as it is without having to spend buckets more on the wine. Besides, I believe the following bottles are of such fine quality, provenance, style and — especially — value that all you will need is to add one or two long-treasured vintage treats from your cellar and you will have all that you require to get through the forthcoming festivities.
And if one takes advantage of the fabled Brett-Smith Indulgence (£6 off a case when buying two dozen bottles or more), there is a double discount on offer. This makes the wines very accessible indeed and ideal for stockpiling in time for Christmas. The mixed case is only £100, for goodness sake!
Champagne can sometimes be a bit de trop, especially if you have hordes of friends and relatives visiting you over the holidays. Or perhaps you are reserving the best fizz for the festive feast. But that doesn’t mean you should be without bubbles. Nor does it mean that you should have to wheel out the prosecco yet again. This is where Corney & Barrow Sparkling Blanc de Blancs comes in, an absolute peach of a wine made expressly for Corney & Barrow by the century-old firm of Varichon et Clerc. A blend of white grapes only, namely Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, it’s made in the same method as champagne (with the crucial secondary fermentation in bottle) and is aged for over a year on its lees. The result is a bone-dry, deliciously fresh, creamy, toasty, brioche-y sparkler which, although weighty, has a wonderful lightness of touch to it. Mix it with orange or peach juice if you have to, but I suggest enjoying it just as it is. Best of all is the price: just £11.38 a bottle with the Brett-Smith Indulgence, otherwise £11.88, down from £12.50.
The 2014 Corney & Barrow House White is made by Producteurs Plaimont in Gascony, a co-operative I know well and admire greatly. They have supplied wine to Corney & Barrow for over 20 years and this half-and-half blend of Colombard and Ugni Blanc was produced in close consultation with Corney & Barrow’s buyers. And what’s not to like? It’s light, fresh, fruity, floral and zesty and what it might lack in complexity it more than makes up for in charm. It’s ideal party fare for when the neighbours crash in. It’s also perfect as a light and gentle, getting-one’s-eye-in aperitif or as the partner to rich and oily smoked eel or salmon. £6.63 with the B-SI, £7.13 without, down from £7.50.
The 2014 Corney & Barrow House Red comes from just south of Minervois in the heart of the Languedoc. They make wonderfully drinkable wine in this neck of the woods and this Merlot/Carignan/Grenache blend is instantly appealing with vibrant red and dark fruit flavours, silky smooth tannins and a long spicy finish. It really is so approachable that one could drink it on its own at a Christmas party even though it really does deserve some hearty grub. It’d be pretty much spot-on with cold game pie on Boxing Day. £6.63 with the B-SI, £7.13 without, down from £7.50.
The 2011 Corney & Barrow House Claret is far more grown-up and sophisticated than its modest price would suggest. A soft, plump, juicy and accessible blend of Merlot (mainly), Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, it’s unmistakably Bordeaux, although I reckon it could fool many a wine lover as to just what level of Bordeaux if served anonymously in a decanter. It’s made especially for Corney’s by Maison Sichel and as anyone who had the good fortune to come to our Château Angludet dinner in November, hosted by Charlie Sichel, will know, Maison Sichel produce extremely good and extremely good-value vino. £8.29 with the B-SI, £8.79 without, down from £9.25.
The 2011 Corney & Barrow House Côtes du Rhône comes from the family-owned Vignobles Gonnet — the legends behind Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape — and their vineyards on the right bank of the Rhône at Domazan in the Gard. A ripe’n’spicy mix of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, it’s deliciously scented with ripe bramble fruit, liquorice, pepper, herbs and chocolate on the palate. Heaven knows, I’m no fan of Christmas turkey and its ghastly trimmings, but if this was served alongside the dread fowl I reckon I could force some down. £8.53 with the B-SI, £9.03 without, down from £9.50.
Finally, the 2011 Corney & Barrow House Rioja Crianza from Bodegas Zugober and as decent a Rioja as I’ve had in ages. As with the CDR above, it’s beautifully mature with 14 months in oak with a nice bit of bottle age to it, too. It’s unmistakeably Rioja too, with all those lovely lip-smacking aromas and flavours of vanilla, plums, damsons, cherries and spice that are so typical. I’m not sure that it isn’t my favourite wine of the offer. I’ve asked Santa for a saddle of lamb for Christmas instead of the dire turkey, and this will suit it perfectly. I’ll certainly be stocking up with a couple of cases. £8.95 with the B-SI, £9.45 without, down from £9.95.