Sunday, 1 December 2013

Talking about Christmas Wine

With a host of Christmas wine offers on the shelves now is the time to be thinking about what you’ll be serving, to whom and when, over the festive period. 

And just as importantly, what you’ll be saying about it. 

Because let’s face it, anybody can plonk a couple of bottles of plonk into the middle of the table and say, 

‘Red or white?’

Wouldn’t you rather be saying,

‘They hailed this is the best vintage ever – the year after the best vintage ever …’ (2001 Claret)
The year after the best vintage ever?


‘Jancis Robinson regards this as the world’s greatest white grape. If it’s good enough for her …’? (Riesling)

Start with the ‘big meal’ wines, and I suggest that the moment you begin counting those big meals you will find you need more wine than you think. 

Christmas lunch or dinner – we all know about that. Maybe you’re hosting a Christmas Eve soirée, perhaps a post-Christmas Mass supper? Boxing Day – who are you seeing? Are people dropping in? Or are you dropping in, to some annual Bridget Jones style ghastly affair? 

Wouldn’t you like to arrive clutching a bottle of something that will so impress the host it will have to be hidden from the rest of the guests? 

So here are some suggestions for wines to keep tongues wagging.

Fizz. Sparkling wine. Bubbly. Call it what you will, it’s very difficult to get away from Champagne, not least as the snobbery attached to it means everything else just isn’t. Isn’t Champagne that is. So here’s your choice. Buy a case or two of an unusual non-vintage Champagne, such as Lucas Carton, which was made for the eponymous Michelin-starred Parisien restaurant that has since closed and know that if you don’t get through it all, it will be even better next year. 

What to say: Non-vintage Champagne takes on many of the qualities of vintage Champagne over time. At half the price.

Alternatively, buy a big name great vintage Champagne, like Pol Roger or Laurent Perrier – 2002 was outstanding – and say,

“Of course, all the 1988, 1989 and 1990 is long gone, but the 2002 is just as endearing. And ready for drinking now.”

Red wine. As a minimum you need two kinds, or styles, of red wine, maybe three. Firstly, dinner wine. 

This needs to be heavyweight and hard hitting to cut through all the rich Christmas flavours. Big wines like Italian giant, Amarone – it’s just about the only dry red wine made from dried out grapes you know. Yes, raisins! – or Bordeaux, which the British should stick to calling Claret. Just to keep a line drawn around these isles. The 2000s and 2001s need drinking up.

Burgundy is delightful at best but so unpredictable that unless you know exactly what you’re buying it’s better left to the experts. 

Rioja has something to offer of course but only in its traditional, oak-matured Reserva or Gran Reserva guise. Besides, anything less than 10 years old leaves you with nothing to say. In fact, Young Rioja is a contradiction in terms isn’t it? Rioja is supposed to have weight and authority. Gravitas. 

What to say: “You can’t have a young Judge any more than a young Pope. Young Rioja is like a young lawyer. And there’s little worse than a know-it-all young lawyer.”

And you need a lunch wine. For a lighter red wine you’re looking at either a young fruit-packed wine or a mature wine that uses a red wine grape with a lighter touch. In France, that would be Gamay, but from the rest of the world you’re probably looking at a New World Pinot Noir, with New Zealand and the USA producing the stand-out everyday candidates. Sadly, such is the American wine market they reserve their best wines for themselves so little of the best US wines make their way across the Atlantic. By contrast, the UK is the antipodes’ number one market.

Among white wines two candidates stand out from the crowd, Chablis and Riesling. 

In the 1980s Chablis came to be associated with excess almost as much as red braces and the whale tail guards red Porsche 911 of the same era. Which is a shame as it’s a drink we should return to. At its best it is limpid and mineral rich with barely a hint of oak.

What to say: “Hugh Johnson, him of the beetle brow, lists Chablis Premier Cru, rather than Grand Cru, as his favourite white wine because he finds it more expressive of the appellation.”

While Chablis is therefore quite rightly regarded by the French as one of the greatest expressions of the Chardonnay grape, Riesling is treated with such contempt that it can’t be grown in France more than 30 miles from the German border. 

Yet it is so extraordinarily versatile it is responsible for some of the world’s greatest white wines made in both northern Germany and southern California.

Young dry wines are ideal as an aperitif, especially if you’re having seafood, maybe salmon, and you’d probably opt for a German wine. 

Something with some bottle age is just right for enhancing a festive meal with an Asian influence and the softer, fruitier and weightier Californian Rieslings may be a more approachable as they are more European in style than the Germans. 

What to say: “All the flavour comes from the fruit and the minerals in the soil rather than the alcohol so it’s so light you can drink it all day long. Responsibly of course!”

With desserts and especially puddings you’ll want a sweet wine. Not everybody likes sweet wine – maybe they expect it to taste like wine, when it’s actually more like a liqueur. Just better.
Frozen bunches of grapes go
into Inniskillin Vidal Icewine

The best are devilishly difficult to make as the natural sweetness comes from three main grape selections that concentrate the sugars. Dried grapes as used in Italy’s Recioto della Valpolicella, frozen bunches of grapes as in German Eiswein and Canadian Icewine, or the selection of grapes that have attracted the benevolent botrytis ‘noble rot’ that creates some of the most sophisticated of all sweet wines, most notably Sauternes and the great Hungarian sweet wine, Tokaji Aszu.

What to say: “If you start your meal with foie gras the great thing about Sauternes is you can return to it with your dessert, and your cheese.”

Whatever you choose to serve over the festive period, remember you can always blame somebody else, 

“Sorry that wine was so weird – you can never trust anything on the internet can you?” 


English Sparkling Wine
German Riesling

California Riesling
New Zealand Pinot Noir
Beaujolais Villages

Sauternes (only with foie gras)
Chablis Premier Cru
2000/2001 Claret
Rioja Gran Reserva
Hungarian Tokay or Canadian Icewine.

© 2011 John Alexander