The theory is simple. Counterpoint or match the flavours of the food with the wine. Match their weight and texture. Balance their intensity. But then you look at the menu for the Christmas table and this apparent simplicity goes out of the window. Turkey, cranberries, sausages, sage, onions, bread and potatoes. The sheer diversity of ingredients and flavours-not to mention your guests’ tastes-makes finding the right wine for Christmas a real challenge. The easiest, and possibly the only way out of the festive pairing quandary is to go for two or three versatile bottles that will see you through each course with ease.
You can go traditional and serve sherry, mulled wine or a Victorian-style punch. But the best drink to tickle your guests’ palate is undoubtedly something bubbly. It is sure not to clash with whatever you are going to serve next as an appetizer for those guests who are slow enough to take their welcome drink to the table-or those who, more likely, have managed to get welcomed for the third or fourth time. Go forChampagneorProsecco, a reasonably priced sparkling wine from Northeastern Italy with plenty of zest. Or alternatively, there are some very good English sparkling wines on the market which are coming down in price, and getting great reviews.
The rules of food and drink pairings usually have a medium-dry white served on your starters-chiefly because you should always start from white and young and proceed step by step to red and aged. But the choice of food is critical here in driving the choice of wine. The gustatory assault of an assiette de charcuterie filled with Parma ham, salami and olives would kill a mild white. Some may like to serve it with an intensely aromatic white, like Riesling, but I’d definitely go for a light to medium-bodied red, such asDolcetto d’Alba, from Piedmont, orMorellino di Scansano, an excellent-value wine from Maremma which is made from Sangiovese grapes-the same used in Chianti – and has a heady aroma of black cherries.
For a fishy dish, such as smoked salmon, you can continue with your bubbly or move to a seriously dry white likeSancerre. And if you are serving foie gras, the only possible choice is to fork out for a good bottle of heavenly, marmaladeySauternes. You’ll end up broke, but your guests will love you.
Turkey is a funny beast. On its own, it goes easily with anything from Chardonnay to Beaujolais. Add other ingredients, though, and it becomes a difficult client. Which is to say that stuffing and sauce have better dictate the choice of wine. White aficionados can do worse than chose aChablis. But a strongly-flavoured British stuffing with liberal use of sausagemeat, sage and onions-or chestnuts-works better with a medium-bodied red with plenty of ripe fruit like a CalifornianPinot Noir– or one from Burgundy if you’re a lavish host. If you started with a Dolcetto on the charcuterie, it will also do nicely on the stuffing. And if you want to make your wines really sing, ditch the cranberry sauce.
Cheese and Pudding
Now’s the time to dig out that bottle of Sauternes you opened over the foie gras. What? Not a drop left? Then your best options areTawny Port(great on Stilton),a sweet Muscator Madeira (to go on Christmas pudding) or a late-harvest Riesling. Plus, of course, champagne for an end-of-meal toast.
A final word of warning: unless you come from a family of wine buffs, Christmas may not be the ideal time to open your best wines. Save your precious Cote du Nuits for better palates than your cousin Michaela, who, despite being presented with Burgundy’s finest, will undoubtedly gripe at the dearth of Beaujolais Nouveau – as mine did.