(we originally posted this in Wines and Champagne in December, 2019)
Christmas is not only the time to celebrate but to indulge. Good food, wine and company are integral to the success and memories which make this time so special. We asked our resident wine expert Nick Adams to recommend options and ideas that might elevate your whole dining and party experience, whatever you are planning. As part of the suggestions, Nick has highlighted several suggestions for various themes and plans you may have for Christmas:
- Parties – hosting a drinks and canapés party for a group of people
- Christmas day lunch – the big day itself
- Special occasions – eg hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner, or frankly just indulging yourself
Nick will feature wines which are “crowd pleasers”, “try something different” or “treat yourself”
One of the great pleasures of the day is sitting by a fire, maybe opening your presents, and enjoying a glass of something nice with a selection of nibbles and canapés. One of the most conventional drinks is to open some fizz, but it’s down to you. Sticking with the bubbles theme though I would recommend the following, starting with a Champagne treat:
- Champagne – a lovely Champagne which does not break the bank. Also, importantly it is made in a true “aperitif” style – by that very delicate, refreshing and quite mineral – a real appetite lifter
- Or the immaculate English take on English Sparkler here which has an orchard fruits led quality and is ultra-crisp
- If you fancy a New World take on the Champagne model, then go for the excellent got to Quartet? with its toasty notes and stone fruit qualities
If you prefer something slightly less dry and with a bold fruit led profile, then I would recommend:
- Prosecco – quite soft, with bright pear and lemon fruits and a creamy feel
Parties and informal gatherings
This is about providing crowd pleasing wines which match nibbles and canapés without breaking the bank.
No doubt many of us will be hosting family and friends at various times over Christmas and New Year. If you are planning such an event and will be serving nibbles and canapés to accompany, what you need are good value, all round crowd pleasing wines. Quite often, when planning, you are probably looking for a white, a red and maybe a sparkler which will please most people without breaking the bank – and which are also versatile with light foods. Here are my suggestions:
- Prosecco – maybe no surprises here. The most popular sparkling wine style in the UK right now and ticks all the boxes for an off-dry, fruity, easy drinking wine which also works well with light foods and, above all, is great value
- Picpoul de Pinet – hugely popular Southern French modern style white wine it delivers with upfront, citric fruit flavour and a gentle texture and mouthfeel. Made from the local Picpoul grape, it is unoaked and no more than medium bodied, but nicely crisp. Prefect, again with light foods and canapés
- Merlot Central Valley Chile. Chile does the Merlot grape very well and this is a soft, bright, black fruits flavoured wine, with a rounded and juicy mouthfeel. No more than medium bodied, not too dry but with enough personality for slightly richer nibbles and canapés
Christmas Day Lunch – the big one!
Although this is a big day the cook, or cooks, also carry a fair degree of responsibility to put on a good spread whilst also trying to relax and enjoy the day themselves. So let’s look at the options and suggestions
Where else to begin? And we start with a twist. Good quality, free range turkey can be mildly gamey (like Guinea Fowl) and depending on how it has been cooked it can work surprisingly well with a light bodied red or fuller bodied rosé, as with (the more obvious choice) a dry white wine.
And don’t forget that the “trimmings” often come with a salty and tangy edge to them (eg sausage, bacon, stuffing). Also, if you are doing traditional bread sauce (with clove studied onion as its base) then you are also adding dairy and soft spice notes. In general, for white avoid anything that is heavily oaked as this conflicts with these flavours. Equally you want a white which has some weight, punch and fruit.
Regarding a red, opt for a lighter bodied red, which is fruity but not too tannic – and serve it cool (15 minutes in the fridge) as this lifts the whole profile if the wine with the food. Basically, any crisp, dry, unoaked white which you normally enjoy will work, but if you want to be a little different….
- Crowd Pleaser – unoaked fruity white: Light Spanish white
- Try Something Different – light red: Pinot Noir New Zealand
- Treat – classic barrel fermented white Burgundy – fuller dry style: your choice
Many people opt for this British classic and it is also great cold in evening sandwiches, or on Boxing Day with salad and roast potatoes. With its savoury richness, fibrous texture and infused fat it will come as no surprise that a dry, fuller bodied, more tannic red is a strong recommendation. And please don’t worry if you are not usually a fan of this style, because the drier tannins merge perfectly with the fatty richness and protein texture, to elevate the pure savoury character of the beef – whilst in reverse the soft fruity character of the wine is also elevated by the absorption of the tannins: result – a perfect marriage.
- Crowd Pleaser – juicy, soft and rounded: Shiraz Barossa Valley Australia
- Try Something Different – dry, quite rich and “beefy”: Douro Portugal
- Treat – very dry, textural and refined: Barolo Piedmont Italy
(can include Lamb here) – incl Goose, Duck, Pheasant, Vension etc.
Approach game not unlike with beef, but game is often more fibrous, and although sometimes fatty to start with (classically goose and duck) this rapidly drains away and does not quite infuse into the meat as with beef and lamb for example. Good game is also nicely textural and very savoury. And do go for the trimmings, like classic bread sauce, redcurrant jelly, game chips …
Also, it is a myth to think that all game must be, or has been, hung for long periods – please do not be put off as most hasn’t and doesn’t need to be! Full bodied, savoury and rich reds work well in general. All those mentioned in the Beef section will work, but with game New World reds can come into their own. Lamb, duck and lighter game birds, such as Guinea Fowl, Quail and Partridge, also work very well with Pinot Noir
- Crowd Pleaser – supple, juicy red fruits: Rioja Joven, Rioja Spain
- Off-Piste – medium bodied, subtlety spicy: Carmenère Chile
- Treat – classic savoury, refined Burgundy: eg Nuits St Georges, Gevrey
Ham on the bone
This is an old and often forgotten classic – and a real seasonal treat. A great way to enjoy Christmas Eve, along with some good soup and a cheeseboard. There will always be an element of salt, but it should not be “salty” if that makes sense. Good cured ham should be moist and (maybe surprisingly) taste of pork. It is one of those dishes which can be served with a white or red wine, but the red must be light bodied and have good acidity (and again serve cool as mentioned before). Rosé is also an option here. Whites which work best are unoaked, with plenty of acidity (this really cuts through the salt). Any white wine with a “tangy” note to it works well – again probably no surprise to you.
- Crowd Pleaser – crisp, citric and zesty: Sauvignon Blanc South Africa/Chile/NZ
- Try Something Different – crisp, citric and slightly spicy: Grüner Veltliner Austria
- Treat – dry, creamy, red berries: Côtes de Provence Rosé France
Easy to forget that many fish and shellfish are in plentiful supply (and at their best) in the winter with the following particularly good examples:
- Wild Sea Bass (though rightly restricted catches)
- Farmed Sea Trout
- Gilt Head Bream
- + as ever – smoked salmon!
I remember a friend saying that for a change they did an oven baked wild Sea Bass for Christmas day one year and it was a revelation. I think the recommendations are quite straight forward – always white wine and unoaked and crisp for plainly cooked fish; richer, maybe oaked Chardonnay based wines (as a substitute to list below) with fish with butter based sauce (beurre blanc/noir, hollandaise).
- Crowd Pleaser – dry, crisp and zesty: Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough New Zealand
- Try Something Different, off-dry, citric and racy: Riesling Clare Valley
- Treat – dry, steely, mineral and stone fruits: Chablis 1er Cru
I think vegetarian dishes allow for a broad cavass of wines to choose from – including sparkling – hence the longer note! In general, though, I would avoid dry and big, tannic red wines – they tend to sit aside a bit from many vegetarian dishes.
I often think the key to this is does it include tomato? If so, the naturally high acid in tomatoes requires a high acid wine to compliment – which could be red as well as white. For example, a homemade pizza, with a rich tomato base – and maybe roasted vegetable and mozzarella topping – could work well with an Italian red – if not too tannic; the same principle also applies with a good ratatouille.
If you like some spice – such as a curried vegetable samosa for example – then a lightly oaked white can also work, along with spicier white grapes such as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Grüner Veltliner.
If you char grill vegetables (winter root vegetables are a delight at this time of year) then you can be bolder with the wine – due to their “toasty” character – to include rosés for example. A lot also depends if you are using pastry and/or eggs – eg making a tart – as this means you can serve a richer and fuller bodied white – such as a gently oaked Chardonnay. This is especially so if you have a gratin (cheese) element such as with an onion and cheese flan. The stronger the cheese element the bolder the wine choice can be.
Peruvian asparagus is good currently and works well with most Sauvignon Blancs for example – including if done classically with Hollandaise sauce. One of my favourite dishes is risotto with wild mushrooms and a vegetable stock (with Parmesan/Parmignano shavings). This works very well with Pinot Noirs – whether Europe or the New World
With salads (and crudités) a lot depends on the intensity of the leaves and vegetables, plus the dressing combination. At the blander end of the scale, for example, is iceberg lettuce, maybe at the other endives such as radicchio, or frissé. Then there is onion – the minute this enters the fray the whole salad “warms” up. Add water cress, or rocket, and the peppery levels increases; just a few coriander leaves add citric notes. I think it very difficult to be at all definitive here other than to say that white wines invariably work better – and again unoaked.
Nothing beats a mixed plate of blanched, crunchy vegetables – crudités – and I think especially when served with Mayonnaise, or even better Aioli! If you use these richer sauce accompaniments, then you can indulge in more medium bodied and even lightly oaked white wines.
A final note on the ever-popular beetroot. With its firm earthy notes and fleshy texture, it is difficult, but not impossible! Lighter Grenache based reds and rosés from the south of France work well here.
Tis the season for soup – for sure. The classical chefs I work with generally prefer to serve their soup without any wine at all – hmmm! However, and this is my homemade recommendation for the holidays – nothing beats a great pan of vegetable soup – onion, leek, celery, carrot, black cabbage (cavolo nero is just so good in soups) garlic, borlotti beans, flat leaf parsley with pressed tomato and deseeded chopped pulp. And what makes this so flexible is you use two pans – in one add chicken stock and shredded ham hock for the carnivores; and in the other, skip the ham and use vegetable stock for the veggies – then everyone is happy! And to finish it off use any leftover bread to make your own crostini (roast in the oven with a little oil) topped with cheese and re bake – either a good cheddar or gruyère.
Or, with your left-over game and chicken bones, roasts these and use as the basis for a game soup –just perfect when you come back from that Christmas or Boxing Day walk.
But to finish the whole experience off – and please trust me – chill down a bottle of Fino sherry – yes, I did say that – please do try it you might just have found an unexpected new wine match.
- Crowd Pleaser – dry, pears, soft spice: Pinot Gris/Grigio lighter style (Italy or NW)
- Try Something Different – dry, crisp, bready: Classic Dry Fino or Manzanilla Sherry Spain
- Treat (and something different) dry, stone fruits, toasty: New World elegant Chardonnay
Another must have for Christmas! And is there anything more appealing than a great board of cheese on Christmas or Boxing Days? Sadly, the great Turkish fig season is over by then to go with them, but look out for Fenland winter (white) celery – a classic savoury accompaniment – and some good grapes (I love the “Muscat” flavoured Sable grapes). Also, quince paste or jelly is a fine partner.
The paradox with cheese is that for all its dairy richness the very product is itself very acidic, as souring the milk to start the whole process of production is essential to allow the milk to coagulate. Do not be deceived by the more-ish richness – there lurks behind an acid grip! Therefore, a high acid, tannic red wine is maybe what you don’t need to accompany it. You may be pleasantly surprised that a fuller bodied weightier white wine works rather well – especially with nutty cheeses like Comté, or a mature cheddar.
Otherwise trusted old favourites such as Port and fuller bodied sweet wines work well with almost all types of cheese. I happen to live not that far away from the superb Stilton dairy of Colston Bassett – my own personal favourite for this cheese. They nearly always say when you buy directly from the dairy – and to quite them “this cheese has been made and matured at the dairy and is ready to be enjoyed right now” – and please do not pour port into it – drink it with it – they would all curdle at the dairy at the prospect of this direct blending! Also, older cheese tends to produce ammonia – especially blue and soft cheeses – you can just smell its acrid notes in an instance and it is a complete killer for any wine.
Letting a good Brie or Camembert run like Sir Mo Farah is not a good combination with any wine, however much you might like that style of cheese! Also, there is Roquefort which is aged in salt, so beware no territory for any red wine, but wonderful with sweet whites. Here endeth the lesson!
- Crowd Pleaser – sweet, rich and plummy: Ramos Pinto Port, Douro Portugal
- Try Something Different – very sweet, caramel: Classic Pedro Ximénez, Jerez Spain (please serve very well chilled) please select one, or a Rutherglen Muscat (again please choose)
- Treat – sweet, full bodied, liquorice: any Vintage Port to suit you, Douro Portugal (NB this wine needs to be decanted)
Christmas Pudding & Desserts
The key principle to matching sweet wines with desserts is to make sure the wine is at least as sweet as the pudding, else it tastes weak and rather thin (and paradoxically dry).
The first consideration is probably what goes with the Christmas Pudding (and Christmas cake and mince pies)? The wine needs to be as sweet and as rich as you might imagine – in fact you could consider Port again here, or a rich Pedro Ximénez from Spain
Then you have sweet but more delicate items such as meringue, fruit pies which would be swamped by Port. Here a more refined sweet wine such as Sauternes or Tokaji Aszú from Hungary works well. Likewise, these same wines also team up with caramelised desserts (classically Tarte Tatin).
The biggest challenge comes with chocolate dishes – chocolate (especially high cocoa content) really challenges a lot of sweet wines – again they need to be really sweet but also savoury, maybe even caramelised themselves in nature. An aged Tawny Port is a good partner for example – try it cooled down it really does work better.
Apart from Late Bottled and Vintage Ports, all sweet wines should be served well chilled – this is very important to maintain balance and keep them from tasting heavy and cloying. And the good news is sweet wines go a long way – they can be sipped, savoured and stoppered and returned to the fridge where they can last happily for up to a week, or longer in some cases. A little goes a long way!
- Crowd Pleaser – not too sweet, perfumed and grapey: eg Muscat Late Harvest (non botrytis)
- Try Something Different – sweet, honeyed, apricots: Tokaji Aszu 5/6 Puttonyos, Tokaj Hungary
- Treat – sweet, savoury, crème brûlée: Ramos Pinto Colheita or Reserve Tawny Port (NB no need to decant)
I hope this guide is useful – and covers as many options as possible for your plans and preferences over the coming holiday season. It is only a guide I must stress and eventually you must enjoy the sort of wines which appeal to you personally and – very importantly – within your budget.