For the first time in 8 years, and only the second time in the last 20 years, I won't be working in Christmas Eve. I can't tell you how excited I am by this. Today has been quite hard going at work (there doesn't seem to be a part of me that doesn't ache or have a bruise on it) tomorrow will be even more full on, knowing that I can stop at the end of it for 3 days will certainly help me keep it together. The idea of a Christmas Day when I'm not overtired, and therefore over emotional and grumpy, is an almost dizzying prospect filled with potential. I'm even beginning to feel a little bit festive.
Following that festive feeling I tried mixing something called a Golden Hamper that Fortnum and Mason were advertising. It was a mix of Madeira, English Cassis, a whole egg, saffron, pepper, and nutmeg. It had a flavour that might well remind you of the interior of an old hamper, I couldn't recommend it.
Madeira on it's own is a much better idea. It's something I get even more excited about than not working on Christmas Eve. I read early in my wine career that Madeira under 15 years old isn't worth bothering with. On the whole it's a good rule of thumb, though it's sensible to keep a bottle of something more basic for cooking with.
The thing that makes Madeira so unique is the way it's made. Its heated (something you would never normally do to wine) to replicate what used to happen whilst it crossed the Atlantic to America. The result is a wine that doesn't change much after a bottle has been opened - which is also unusual, but makes it worth investing in the best quality bottles you can because they make the perfect occasional treat that can be hoarded for special occasions.
The older the Madeira the more complex it becomes. One of the biggest treats I've ever had was the chance to try some really old Madeiras at a D'Oliveiras tasting. Wines from 1905, 1922, and 1936 featured. They were incredible, I wish I'd had the money to buy them at the time. (Wines like this are not cheap, coming in at a few hundred pounds, but they're unique, wonderful, fascinating, and worth it).
The rather more modest bottle of Blandy's 15 year old Malmsey I have in front of me is still delicious. The best way I can describe it is as tasting like brown sugar, coffee, and nuts. It's beautifully balanced, soft, and lovely. It is the perfect wine to sip with a good book, it's also going to go very well with Christmas pudding, Madeira cake, or a nice bit of cheese.
The oxidised and cooked quality of Madeira gives it both an old fashioned and quite sophisticated flavour (like smelling Shalimar or Mitsouko) which make me feel it's best enjoyed with an equally classic book. I find the same freshness and complexity in Wilkie Collins, and am thinking of reading The Moonstone this weekend, so that's my choice for it. An eighteenth century book would be more authentic, because they were drinking far more of it then (there were diseases in the 19th century that interrupted production) but the complexity and opulence of this particular wine feels particularly right for Collins with all his sensationalist twists.