View from the far horizons

What have you given up for January? After the gluttony of the last few weeks, I have decided to give up standing on my bathroom scales for the simple reason that it seems unfair, not only on my self-esteem but also on the scales which have started to creak alarmingly.

I have also stopped trying to get into those lovely trousers I bought in the pre-Christmas sales and I have definitely given up the naughty food which is still sitting in deep drifts around the house in the form of luxury chocolates, fruit cake, cheese and the tag end of the Christmas pudding which is lurking in the bottom of the fridge. These various goodies will be dispersed around the family, or maybe even put in the bin, although I might hide a few items, just for emergencies and hope I forget where I have put them for at least a couple of weeks.

There are many people who give up alcohol in January. This is definitely a personal choice and while I try to give my liver a rest after all the Christmas indulgences, I find that the occasional glass is the only way to liven up the kind of rabbit food that the annual January diet demands. A small glass of wine contains about 120 calories which is about the same as a couple of small chocolate biscuits so why waste calories on chocolate when you can sip wine?

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And while there may be less wine in my glass for just a couple of weeks, I try to maintain a certain level of quality if only to compensate my tastebuds for their otherwise boring existence during this period. To relieve the tedium I have decided to review some of best bottles of last year, some of which have not yet made it into these pages,

One of the main highlights was a trip to South Africa, one of my favourite wine countries, to judge their major competition, the Veritas Awards. Most of the time was spent in a large tent, judging flight after flight of wines, all presented blind, but there were a few excursions, including one to the rather swish winery owned by golfer Ernie Els.

The great man was away playing golf in Massachusetts but he had left us plenty of wine to enjoy and his estate was remarkable, not just for the quality of the wines but for the golf ball, tee-ed up on a patch of close-cropped grass and a practice hole complete with flag right in front of the property. Apparently once a week the staff take it in turns to practise their swing but no-one volunteered to let me have a go.

The wines at Ernie Els have real concentration and style showing that this is not just a celebrity winery. I enjoyed the Big Easy, a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet, with a handful of Rhône varietals adding spice and aroma. At £14.99 (Harrogate Fine Wine, 01904 522270) this is great easy drinking.

For grand occasions, perhaps dinner with your golfing friends, or to celebrate a hole in one, you could try Ernie’s Signature 2006 which is an rich, deep, classic Bordeaux blend, but at £46.99 (Harrogate Fine Wine) this could make a distinct hole in your wallet. Both of these wines won Gold in the Veritas Awards.

Scoring one better with a Double Gold medal, is The Outlier Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from Jordan Estates, which is a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, made from grapes grown on a particular outcrop of rock. Gary Jordan is a geologist turned grape grower and he spotted this cool, blustery site where grapes ripen three weeks later than surrounding vineyards. By barrel-fermenting the wine he is not adding the flavour of wood but allowing the complexity of the grapes to shine through, as you might get in a top-class Pouilly Fumé. This is a citrus-edged wine, with layers of fig, gooseberry and tropical fruit, ending on a nutty, spicy note. The Outlier is available from Yorkshire-based mail-order company Find Wine (www.findwine.co.uk) at £12.

Last summer was memorable for a quick trip to Châteauneuf du Pape in the Rhône to taste through the wines of Ogier. Based in the centre of Châteauneuf but with vineyards across the region, the wines of négotiant Ogier are each characteristic of their terroir, in particular Clos de l’Oratoire Châteauneuf which is the kind of toe-warming, rich, deep-flavoured wine that will see you through the winter months (£18.99 Sainsbury). Further down the price scale, the Heritage des Caves des Papes Côtes du Rhône is much more suited to January supper-time drinking with warm, red fruits and a light dusting of spice (£8.99 Morrisons).

In January of last year I was in a very snowy Verona, visiting the Valpolicella region where quality has improved dramatically in recent years. Here they make wine from grapes that have been dried for several months in the lofts of special buildings known as Frutaio situated on the hillsides to catch the breeze. To make a Ripasso style of wine these dried grapes are added to newly fermented wine to kick-start the process again, developing darker flavours. Waitrose has Partnership Ripasso di Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2009 at £10.99.

So, from all my travels in 2011, what was my top wine? It is difficult to say. It might have been a gloriously old Burgundy, Bordeaux or Madeira but some of the best bottles have been simple, straightforward wines, enjoyed with good company and good food. And the great thing about wine is that there is always another vintage to look forward to. Just before Christmas I tasted through some sensational 2010 Chablis wines which won’t arrive on the shelves for months and the 2009 clarets are beginning to unfold like velvety giants. Thoughts like these should keep me munching lettuce for another week and then I shall probably go back to my bad old ways!