How to Buy Wine at Christmas
Reasons to be Merry
by Paul Howard
What does a vision of Christmas mean to you? Is it the smell of the tree, the glitter of the lights and the rustle of wrapping paper? A time for friends, family, old and young – new toys to play with, old stories retold again and again. Maybe it’s the aroma of the turkey in the oven, a time for bling and parties, with good wine, good spirits and hearty cheer. I’m dreaming of Christmas. The presents. The arrival of family and friends. The food and wine. The special-ness of it all.
But this vision of the festive season can be fraught too. What to buy? Whose turn is it to have Aunt Mabel? What about the excess and the expense? Is the turkey burnt and have the sprouts gone to mush. And there’s still nothing on the telly. What to do with leftovers and hangovers?
While I can’t advise you about how to cope with any of those dilemmas I can suggest some delicious wines to enjoy throughout the entire festive period without wear and tear on the nerves. And never forget that a well-chosen bottle of wine always makes a much appreciated gift.
“Sherry is cool”
Think first about apéritifs. One word should be at the top of your shopping list – Sherry. Let’s get this straight; Sherry is not just for old codgers, so go to the back of your cupboard and throw away the half empty bottle of Aunt Mabel’s dank and sickly sweet cream sherry left over from last year. Sherry is cool – just ask the Spanish – and comes in a wide range of styles, so try a Fino, or the more delicate Manzanilla. Both are bone dry, pale white wines made by a fascinating process that allows yeast to grow on top of the wine in the barrel during maturation.
It’s this yeast (called flor) that imparts the moreish tangy and briny taste and makes it so good when served well-chilled, perhaps with a bowl of olives or with nibbles and cheese. They can be conveniently bought in half bottles and once opened will keep for a week in the fridge. Always are best drunk young, look out for bottles released within the last 12 months – the L number on the label shows the date.
“Christmas dinner is a minefield”
For celebrations there is nothing better than a bottle of fizz. In On issue 11 (August/September) I recommended some inexpensive fizzy alternatives to Champagne that are perfect for parties and New Year revelry, however, if you plan to be alone with your special one then really it has to be Champagne, the ultimate romantic indulgence.
You could spend a small fortune on vintage wines or luxury prestige cuvées, but these are best left to mature further over many years. Instead, my choice would be to look for a top-notch non-vintage Champagne from a famous house that will grace your table. The run-up to the festive season is the time to buy, with plenty of attractive discounts available. And if you want to stock up, wait until the January sales!
Christmas dinner meanwhile is usually the largest and most elaborate meal of the year. Regardless of the meat chosen for the centrepiece, (duck, goose, chicken, beef, pork, lamb or game are all viable alternatives to turkey), this is a meal that’s a minefield for wine matching. Just think of all the various ingredients; cranberry sauce, chestnut stuffing, horseradish, mustard, bread sauce, sausage meat, bacon, chipolatas and various vegetables including essential Brussels Sprouts. These myriad flavours combine to challenge any wine. In order to cope you need wine companions with power and vivid flavours.
“For a red wine, look for power”
White wines need to be full-bodied, fruity and voluptuous. In this category, the role is played to perfection by new world Chardonnay, especially as there is no other grape that has quite the affinity for a lick of judiciously introduced oak. The best producers from California, South Africa and Australia manage to integrate oak and wine perfectly, giving the wine additional backbone and complexity while preserving balance and elegance – no mean feat. Avoid those cheap and unpleasant versions that rely on the addition of oak essence or chippings for their oak flavour rather than use real barrels.
For a red wine, look for power, bold fruit and soft smooth tannins to cope with that riot of food flavours. For me, big red Zinfandel from California hits the spot every time, closely followed by the indigenous reds from Italy’s hot south – Primitivo (which is Zinfandel), Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro. Australian Shiraz, especially the big bruisers from the Barossa, follows closely behind.
If you still want to show off a prized pedigree bottle of red wine, for example from Bordeaux or Burgundy, then consider serving your roast meat of choice simply dressed, just with herbs and a few vegetables – that will allow the more subtle and complex potential of the wine to be fully appreciated.
“Nothing beats an off-dry German Riesling”
Inevitably, there are the leftovers. A wine that seemed great with Christmas dinner often fails to deliver with cold cuts the next day. With the exception of rare beef with Burgundy and Bordeaux, tannic reds are best avoided. I’ve found lighter and fruity reds such as Beaujolais and Dolcetto work well, while for goose, nothing beats an off-dry German Riesling. Sauvignon Blanc remains my weapon of choice against bubble and squeak!
Finally, it’s time to pass the Port. Here’s a stereotype: Port is red, alcoholic, drunk after meals, good with Stilton cheese or classic Christmas pud. It’s enjoyed mostly by ancient men with gout, smoking stogies in leather-backed armchairs, hidden inside a room from which women are barred. And then there’s all that decanting palaver. All quite enough to turn you into Rowley Birkin QC.
“A perfect after-dinner drink”
Here’s another stereotype: Port is either cheap ‘n’ rough Ruby, or else the good Vintage stuff is hugely expensive and needs years of cellaring. Thankfully, there is a great alternative – Tawny Port. This is a versatile drink with youth appeal that needs no decanting. It’s gender-inclusive, sold in chic bottles at nice prices and brilliant with nuts, cheeses, puddings, chocolate, dates and coffee, or just on its own. A perfect after-dinner drink, Tawny is also good as a long drink when topped up with ice and lemonade!
So if you follow some of these ideas this Christmas you’ll encounter some great wines guaranteed to add a little pizzazz to your seasonal enjoyment. As for me, relaxing at home in a state of well-fed contentment in front of a blazing fire is the festive experience I crave the most. Have a cool Yule.