Turkey and trimmings have long taken centre stage at Christmas, but the wine is just as important
Holidays are about rituals: festive routines repeated year after year—so often we have long forgotten their origins. As a wine writer, one of my annual practices has been trying out novel takes on holiday food and wine pairing, itself a series of rituals with unfamiliar origins that can, with a little delving, begin to seem increasingly arbitrary.
A masterclass led by my fellow Master of Wine Tim Hanni, a man with a mile-wide contrarian streak, underlined this point. For one thing, what we consider “traditional pairing” is actually a fairly modern concept, even in France. For instance, the Larousse Gastronomique contained no food and wine pairing guidance until 1961 (hardly the hallowed days of old…).
At this point, Tim said, “the BS began to overtake the science,” resulting in constantly evolving “rules.” Today we recite the adage about dry white with fish, red with meat and sweet with sweet as if it were the 11th commandment.
A second point is that the wines of today differ wildly from those of yesteryear. Sancerre, the quintessential “dry white” of today, used to be sweet. Champagne too was much sweeter. The Montrachet referenced in the Larousse was actually a botrytized sweet wine.
However, though specific pairing recommendations may be poorly equipped to stand the test of time, Tim conceded that certain sensory realities persist. Simply put, some food elements like sweetness and umami are pretty tough on wine, while others like salt and acid tend to cast it in a flattering light. Because most holiday feasts fall firmly on the sweet end of the spectrum, anyone wondering why the Grand Cru they have lovingly saved for Christmas lunch tastes sour and flat should heed Tim’s sage words: “if the food is sweeter than the wine, it will probably suck.”
I should confess that I’m not a big sweet wine drinker and normally prioritise dental and metabolic health over the promise of pairing bliss, but in the case of most holiday meals, I feel that adding a sweet beverage or two is hardly going to be the straw that gave the camel diabetes.
However, if you’re someone for whom the month of December is not an adequate excuse to gain a dress size or two and your holiday meal is of the lean and green variety, several other pairing considerations apply (assuming wine is still on the menu). Take a healthy Christmas favourite like Cioppino. The San Francisco fish stew combines umami-rich seafood with sweet tomatoes; little wonder nobody seems to get far beyond their aperitif.
Umami—“deliciousness” in Japanese—comes from the glutamate found in many vegetables, seafood and anything fermented (i.e. most ingredients of a healthy holiday dinner) and, like sugar, makes wine taste less fruity, tarter and more bitter (aka “sucky”). Turning once again to Tim for advice, adding acid and salt to the food can reduce this effect, as does choosing wines with a little sweetness (champagne for example) and some umami of their own from contact with yeast (champagne, again).
So, because our rituals ought to be refreshed when they’re clearly no longer working for us, I give you two holiday pairing lists that—unlike the perpetually re-gifted fruitcake—ought to taste good with your meal. Only one question remains: this holiday season, are you going to be naughty or nice?
As an aperitif: JJ Prüm Graacher Himmelsreich Riesling Spätlese 2008 – although they call Riesling the perfect pairing wine, I’d argue its aromatic complexity, sugar-acid balance and sheer prettiness make it perfect on its own. This Mosel classic shows powdery white florals, piercing white nectarine and barley sugar sweetness with a clean, chalky finish.
With hors d’œuvres: Contrà Soarda Torcolato Riserva Sarson 2013 – from the almost painfully obscure, esoteric grape Vespaiola, grown only in this corner of the Veneto, this air-dried sweet wine brings a uniquely Italian vegetal savouriness and exquisite acid balance to 130g/L of sugar. Umami notes of olives and walnut oil make it a surprising hit with briny treats like sardines and oysters.
With the roast: Grahams Vintage Port 2016 – drinking young Vintage Port, once only for the truly masochistic, has become the preserve of iconoclasts and hedonists alike. With its intense burst of violets, gorgeously sugary purple fruit and lingering zephyr of sweet powdery perfume, this is like the world’s sexiest plum sauce (with alcohol!).
With the cheese: The Last Drop Colheita Port 1970 – Colheita is an undeservedly overlooked category, combining the seemingly inexhaustible complexity of Tawny Port with the finesse of Vintage (and it’s reflected in the price). The treasure hunting team behind The Last Drop have bottled a uniquely sophisticated one: it slips suavely back with golden raisin, quinine and bitter lemon notes, melding perfectly with anything firm and salty.
As dessert: Campbells The Merchant Prince Rare Rutherglen Muscat NV – the only dessert that won’t be put to shame by this unctuous, glossy delight is perhaps a dollop of ice cream (or clotted cream) to dribble it over. A lustrous mahogany, it’s perfumed and herbal, like black tea, boot polish and tar distilled into something delectable.
As an aperitif: Delamotte Blanc de Blancs NV – lean and lithe but not sharp, this ridiculously undervalued Blanc de Blancs from the sister winery of Salon is built on a cleansing saline centre with a soft halo of breadiness, alpine air and lemongrass around it. Far too easy to keep drinking, be sure to share it with friends.
With hors d’oeuvres: Dehours et Fils Maisoncelle 2009 – with an ineffable “mineral” quality on the nose, this 100 per cent pinot noir single-vineyard champagne’s intense umami and almost chewy texture from six years on the lees make it a killer match with delicate seafood appetisers.
With the soup: Jean Veselle Oeil de Perdrix NV – an idiosyncratic style straddling Blanc de Noirs and rosé, the festively named Oeil de Perdrix (“eye of the partridge”) is subtly pink from brief contact with pinot noir skins, giving it the texture and flavour intensity (think wild strawberries, mace and pink peppercorns) to get stuck right into a hearty vegetable soup.
With the main: Paul Bara Grand Rosé Brut Champagne NV – with a slightly higher dosage than many grower rosés (8g/L) and generous portions of pinot noir (around 80 per cent) and reserve wines (roughly half), this is a juicy, toothsome rosé with seasonally appropriate red currant, marron glacé and allspice notes. Serve it with something spicy for an electric jolt that will keep you awake through the last course.
Instead of dessert: Philipponnat Clos de Goisses 2004 – chosen not for its sweetness (it’s very dry) but for its richness, think of this as the champagne equivalent of a perfectly aged Comté (with which it would be glorious, if you want to go down that route). Structured and resinous, with candied ginger and cedar, this crown jewel from the re-energised house of Philipponnat comes from what some consider the greatest single vineyard in Champagne.