In my next life, the one in which I finish all my holiday shopping in November, the Christmas season will be relaxed and I'll spend my evenings at home with my family, humming Christmas carols and baking cookies. In my real life, it's a week before Christmas and once again, I'm awake at midnight, wrestling with tissue paper, ribbon and packing tape, long after everyone else has gone to bed.
The best way I've found to avoid snarling at my family after a long evening trudging through stores or stringing outdoor lights in zero-degree temperatures, is to have something very, very nice to look forward to. Something that comes in a bottle. With a cork.
Two things that make wonderful gifts at this time of year - for others or just for yourself - are Armagnac, the legendarily fiery French brandy, and port, the wine that in England is a classic after-dinner tipple. Both are quintessential wintertime drinks, made for sipping slowly in front of a crackling fire while the wind howls outside and someone else shovels the walk. They're fun to give because they're slightly obscure and offer surprisingly good value for the money.
Armagnac, which comes from southwestern France, is often thought of as cognac's backwoods country cousin - cognac with more bite. It's an artisanal, handmade brandy - ruggedly individual, with a bit more power than finesse. Connoisseurs describe Armagnac's flavors with words like "ripe plums," "prunes," "crushed hazelnuts," "butterscotch" and even "cinnamon and graham crackers."
The French, who tend to be either terrifyingly technical or bewilderingly poetic about their wine, have other ways of describing Armagnac. Paula Wolfert, whose classic The Cooking of South-West France helped introduce Americans to Armagnac, says that in Gascony, where it's produced, people describe cognac as "a pretty girl carrying a basket of wildflowers," while Armagnac is "a tempestuous woman 'of a certain age,' someone you don't bring home to Mother, someone who excites your blood."
Armagnac may actually protect your blood, as well: researchers at the University of Bordeaux claim Armagnac has an anti-platelet effect similar to one of the leading anti-thrombosis drugs. As an added benefit, rats who are fed Armagnac lose weight.
An excellent, locally available Armagnac that's well priced for giving is Tariquet's Bas Armagnac VSOP ($40). Aged a minimum of 7 years, it's a beautiful amber drink with a strong aroma of prunes and, according to the maker, gingerbread. In fact, prunes and Armagnac have a wonderful affinity - for a dead easy holiday dessert, steep some prunes in Armagnac for a week, then chop them up and blend them into your favorite vanilla ice cream.
Or, for an even easier holiday dessert, open a bottle of port. Put a generous wedge of a really good Stilton or some other blue cheese on a plate to go with it, and you have a traditional English finish to a special dinner.
Port wine is actually Portuguese - a sweet wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal, fortified with brandy and then aged. The British adopted it during the Napoleonic Wars, when their beloved French clarets were no longer available, and it became something of an obsession, at least among the wealthy. Read any novel set in a British country house before the Great War, and the men are always sitting around after dinner, drinking port, smoking cigars, and discussing the fate of the Empire.
The classification system for port is a bit bewildering for neophytes. The basic distinction is between tawny and ruby ports. Tawny ports are lighter colored, drier and nuttier; ruby ports are dark, even blackish purple in color and much fruitier. Why not try one of each? I'm very fond of Churchill's 10-year tawny ($31), with its lovely fragrance of roasted nuts and dried figs. To taste a classic ruby port, you won't go wrong with Taylor Fladgates's 2000 Late Bottled Vintage ($24) or the Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve ($19) - both are full of rich, jammy fruit and would pair well with any chocolate dessert.
One of the nice things about the gift of a bottle of port is that it can be drunk slowly, over the course of a week. Tell the recipient to cork what's left every night and store it in the fridge - the next day, bring it back to room temperature and resume sipping. But really, at the price - why not pick up a bottle for yourself as well? Wrap it up, put your name on it, and stick it under the tree. You'll thank yourself all winter long.