Dominic Rippon gives his advice on what to drink during the festive season, at home or in France.
Christmas is the perfect time to forget gourmet guilt and indulge all those cravings temporarily quelled by last New Year’s resolutions. Whether you’re following French tradition and feasting on Christmas Eve, or spending a lazy British 25th December at the table, the thought of a succulent roast bird without a few glasses of choice wine is something that could only be described as ‘triste’!
With most starters… champagne
Matching wine with festive starters can be something of a challenge. Finger food comes in all forms and flavours, so finding a wine that pairs equally well with blinis, pâté and sausage rolls is a tall order. While it’s tempting to crack open a cheap, light-bodied bottle of white or bubbly, it pays to begin with a real bang, or pop, with champagne! Fuller-bodied Pinot Noir-based champagnes, especially from the Montagne de Reims growing area, are surprisingly versatile food partners, with lively fruit aromas and rich, biscuity flavours, that pair well with anything from shellfish to spring rolls. Vintage champagnes are particularly good partners for foie gras, a favourite festive starter on French tables; unless you decide to crack open that bottle of sticky Sauternes early and save the rest for pudding.
With smoked salmon… dry white wines
Smoked salmon is a popular seasonal dish on both sides of La Manche, but can also be a fickle wine partner, with its strong flavour and oily texture. Sancerre is a frequent choice, but I find that dry white Bordeaux – especially Graves – sits more happily with the dish’s intensity. Dry Alsace Riesling is also delicious, or Chablis – that most versatile of white wines, with its delicious combination of steely minerality and sinewy refinement.
With oysters… Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie
I often begin with the most indulgent of French Christmas entrées and treat myself to a large plate of oysters. Chablis (or its cheaper cousin, Petit Chablis) works well, but its classic pairing is the vinous pride of Brittany, Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie: a dry, zesty white wine, aged on its lees to add delicate yeasty complexity to its briny citrus flavours.
With turkey… red burgundy or Chardonnay
Whether I’m eating turkey or goose in Britain, or capon with truffles in France, I always drink the same thing with my Christmas roast: red burgundy. The Pinot Noir’s combination of juicy red fruits, soft tannins and gamey flavours makes it an ideal choice. Its high acidity also helps to cut through the fatty texture of goose or duck. A light Bourgogne Rouge matches well with turkey or capon; while if you’ve invested in a gamier bird, it makes sense to go for a more robust village burgundy, a Gevrey-Chambertin or a Pommard. If the prices for these are a swig too far, then Côtes du Rhône Villages with a few years’ bottle age is a worthy substitute.
For the most determined revellers, champagne is a surprisingly good partner for roast turkey, but a more classic white pairing is Chardonnay from burgundy. Choose a ripe, fat example from the Côte de Beaune. The richness of goose requires some experimentation with white wine, so try a ripe, dry or off-dry Alsace Riesling… if you dare!
With gammon… Chardonnay
Chardonnay is also a good foil for gammon, with its combination of sweet fruits and a savoury finish. Look to the Mâcon, in southern Burgundy, or to the more exotic Chardonnays from Languedoc-Roussillon or Ardèche. Cru Beaujolais – Fleurie, Morgon or Saint-Amour – is a good red accompaniment; or try a supple Côtes du Rhône from a warm vintage.
With roast beef… Syrah or Mourvèdre
The festive period wouldn’t be complete without at least one roast beef joint. The very idea of juices oozing from a freshly carved rump makes me think of plump claret or Cahors. If the joint is well-cooked, the tannins in young Cabernet-based Bordeaux can feel hard against the meat’s rough texture, so better opt for a warm, spicy Syrah from the northern Rhône (think Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage or Côte-Rotie), or an earthy Mourvèdre from the Côtes de Provence.
With Christmas pudding… muscat
Sticky wines have fallen from fashion is recent years, but they’re a wonderfully indulgent accompaniment to festive desserts. Brandy-soaked Christmas pudding is my favourite, but it requires a wine that is fresh and fruity, yet powerful enough to match the dish’s rich flavours.
Fortunately, the Languedoc has the answer, in the small appellation of Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois. This white vin doux naturel wine shows exotic, clean, grapey flavours; palate-cleansing yet bursting with fruit. Alternatively, the fortified red wines of Rivesaltes, in the Roussillon, perfectly match the heady spices of Christmas pud. Christmas cake and mince pies are similar in flavour, so will also pair well with these stickies from the Oc – although fans of Sauternes will find their tipple of choice an essential treat.
With bûche de Noël… red vins doux naturels
Bûche de Noël – or Yule log – is that rolled chocolate cake, stuffed with chocolate and whipped cream, that disappears fastest when children are at the table. Chocolate is a tricky wine partner, so your choice of bottle will depend on whether you’re looking to cleanse your palate, or intensify the chocolate explosion! Sweet Muscat provides the relief, but to match your dish with an equally opulent, dark tipple, head for the Roussillon. The red vins doux naturels of Banyuls and Maury are similar in style to Port, but based on the Grenache grape. They offer dark cherry fruit flavours, mixed with mocha and hints of southern France’s garrigue herbs; a perfect alternative to Port, so remember to save some for the cheese board.
The cheese board is an opportunity to experiment. Nobody ever remembers what each cut was called or where it came from, but the chances are, the wines you’ve already been drinking will all find a tasty match.
Stilton – with Banyuls or Maury
Goat’s cheese – with Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé
Cheddar – with claret
Hard ewes cheese – with Cahors or Madiran
Roquefort – with Sauternes
Epoisses, Munster and other soft smellies – with red burgundy, or sweet white from Sauternes, Jurancon; or an Alsace Gewurztraminer
Brie – with what’s left of your champagne
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