Parties and canapés
It’s hard to beat Sauvignon Blanc as a crowd-pleaser white wine, but it’s also very versatile with food, which makes it a very useful wine to serve at parties. It can work with fish, white meat, salty food, tomatoes and is the perfect match with common canapé ingredients like goat’s cheese and feta. The subtle Sauvignon Blanc choices would be Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, those from Bordeaux and South Africa are generally a little richer while those from New Zealand or Chile are the most pungent. A dry rosé and/or Beaujolais are very useful party wines because they match well with different dishes too, especially charcuterie. If sparkling wine is required for a party, I always think Crémant is a great value for money choice, because it offers that toasty, nutty flavour that you get in other sparkling wines, but with lighter bubbles and can work brilliantly for a crowd as the salty nibbles are being passed around.
The most elegant of starters at Christmas time is smoked salmon and the most elegant of wine matches with it is Chardonnay. This could of course mean a fresh and vibrant Chablis or even a Premier Cru Chablis of the salmon is heavily smoked. But we mustn’t overlook the cvastly underrated Chardonnays from the southern hemisphere either, those from New Zealand and Western Australia especailly. Or – and perhaps this is more appropriate for this time of year – a sparkling Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs Champagne has a beautiful and natural affinity with smoked salmon, although for a lighter touch (lower atmospheric pressure), a Franciacorta Satèn is another classy option, while an English sparkling wine Blanc de Blancs also works fantastically well with smoked salmon.
Turkey, rooster and/or vegetarian
Although most of the meat on traditional Christmas birds is white, the best wines to match these festive dishes are typically red thanks to the combination of other flavours on the plate. Think about all those added extras; the mini sausages (chipolatas), stuffing with pungent herbs and chestnuts, sausage meat stuffing, brussel sprouts with bacon and chestnuts, gravy, redcurrant jelly and probably much more besides.
This red wine rule also applies to many of the vegetarian dishes served at Christmas, which typically use earthy ingredients such as mushrooms, chestnuts, red cabbage, beetroot, puy lentils and slow-cooked onions.
All of this means it’s time to break open a bottle of Pinot Noir. Whether it’s a Red Burgundy, a Spätburgunder, one of Oregon’s or Central Otago’s finest examples of this red grape, Pinot Noir does a delicious job of pulling together different ingredients on a plate. An alternative, and slightly richer choice, would be a fresh and vibrant New World Syrah, perhaps one from Swartland in South Africa or one of the exciting Syrahs to come out of Elqui, or other parts of Chile.
A lesser-known alternative to match these dishes would be a Sicilian wine, Etna Rosso. Made mostly from Nerello from Mascalese and sometimes Nerello Cappuccio too, this wine is a little bit harder to find, but usually worth the effort as it is delicious and aromatic, and tastes like a combination of Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo.
Although it is full of flavour, goose meat is also famous for being quite fatty, so a white wine that is famous for acidity acidity is always a winning match. Hello Riesling! Any off-dry Riesling would be delicious for goose with apple, but a German Spätlese would be especially good because not only does it have the bite of acidity, but if the goose is being served with apple (traditionally, it usually is), it’s a perfect match with a Spätlese’s juicy apple flavours.
Although Riesling is a brilliant pairing with goose, if there is no apple in the recipe, a completely different – but beautiful – match is actually a Barolo (believe me, this is a tried and tested formula!). This handsome, rich Nebbiolo wine from Piedmont has an earthy flavour profile that really matches up to the earthiness of the goose. But not a young Barolo, the tannins definitely need to have time to soften out.
The cheese board is a minefield for wine because there are so many different styles of cheese. If there was only the option to choose one wine, I would buy a bottle of off-dry Pinot Gris.
This leads me to talk about the choice of wine colour with cheese, because the world has moved on from thinking cheese should only be paired with red wine. Of course, some red wines do work very well, but I find white wine much more versatile, because its freshness cuts through the high fat content of the cheese.
The flavour of chalky cheeses like feta or goat’s cheese is taken to a new level when it is paired with a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc. There’s something about the freshness of Sauvignon Blanc that cuts through the texture of the cheese, plus they match each other on a purity-of-flavour level too while hard, mature and fruity cheeses like Comté, Cheddar and Parmesan work extremely well with a nutty and waxy Chardonnay. Despite what people think, the pungent flavour of blue cheeses like Stilton and Roquefort can actually stop a red wine dead in its tracks. The most seamless wine match is actually a sticky white like Sauternes or for something a bit more niche but devastatingly good with blue cheese is a sweet Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh from South West France. These wines have a tangy marmalade and honey flavour – the perfect foil for the pungency of the cheese.
Mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding
The rich (often alcohol-soaked) fruit in these festive treats work extremely well with a homemade mulled wine because the spice in the fruit and the spice in the wine partner up perfectly. Let’s not be snobs about mulled wine, it’s a classic and hugely popular Christmas drink, and can be extremely useful at using up a red wine you might not want to serve by itself!
For the purists, there are plenty of sweet wines that could work, but one that is especially delicious is Rutherglen Muscat. A fortified wine from Victoria, Australia, that provides a serious melt-in-the-mouth drink, it’s a winning combination with mincemeat and dried fruit puddings because it tastes of dried fruits itself, but it also has luscious flavours of caramel, toffee and honey. It’s a gorgeous way to end a meal.
Matching wine with chocolate depends on the sweetness or bitterness of the chocolate. The darker and purer the chocolate, the better a table red (seriously) would match with it, the two Italians Amarone (still) and Brachetto d’Acqui – with their dense fruity flavours – would be great. But if you want a sweeter and stronger wine with your chocolate, a glass of LBV Port would work, or a glass of Maury would be gorgeous with a buche de noel. However, chocolate combined with toffee, caramel, honeycomb and/or roasted nuts is also delicious with the fortified wine called Rutherglen Muscat (if you have some leftover from the mince pies!) or a sweet Palo Cortdao Sherry. And speaking of Sherry, if there’s a strong vanilla flavour in the chocolate, Oloroso Dulce is the wine partner answer.