(photo credit RTE)
So, here we are again – Christmas!
Put the kettle on, grab a few biscuits and have a read of my musings on wines for Christmas day, examples of which, I’ll be putting together as packs for the big day on my partner retailer SIYPS’s website in the coming days. Enjoy! Now, I’ll admit that I’m not really one for tinsel and baubles, but I am hugely into the smell of Christmas! The perfume of a real Christmas tree, clove studded oranges on all the surfaces, cinnamon sticks and star anise in everything. My mother would be the first to admit that she’s not much of a cook, it’s not really her thing, however, every year when I was growing up, she would set herself a Christmas Dinner plan that even Nigella Lawson with Mary Berry as co-pilot, would have a hard time pulling off. Nevertheless, she gave it her best shot, and although dinner would invariably be served several hours behind schedule it was always a sensory feast and formed the foundations of the happy associations I have with smell of anise, clove and orange. What also made this feast more remarkable was the inexplicable break from tradition in serving duck instead of turkey. I have no idea how and why that started and she can’t remember either, but that duck, and what happened to around that duck, formed what I class as the gusto sensory soundtrack of Christmas ever since! So what does that mean for wines to go with this Christmas feast? My philosophy is that as much as possible, we should lean in to magic of the day, everything about Christmas day, as best we can help it, should be about the joy, the pleasure, the love, the truce in animosity, the pause of the headaches and revelling in everything that is nice about the day. (I’m not alone in this philosophy I’m sure – why else would we spend the day in our flannelette pyjamas and wear sequins for dinner?) My motto for the wine approach therefore, is “more deliciousness please”. Wines that in their own right are tasty and glorious to drink, but also act as amplifiers to all the wonderful stuff that’s happening on the table. This means that I turn to wines that have the holy grail of inherent Christmas aromas to echo back at you, the tenacity to hold its own at the table but the good grace not argue with anyone. As ever, I like to stray from the beaten path, because I’m curious, and I think curiosity reaps reward when it comes to pairings and Christmas is no exemption. These are my suggestions therefore, of some of the wines that I think make for the most amplified, wonderful, Christmassy Christmas day experiences. Bubbles Sparkles and Christmas go hand in hand. It’s the one day of the year that we can put bubbly in our orange juice and no one seems to mind. If Buck’s Fizz is the order, I would say spend on the orange juice and not on the wine, but if the bubbly is to be the treat in itself, there are a few options here. Cava is on a roll at the moment, nay a mission. Lots of faction within its ranks of late, has seen producers carve out definition based on geographical location, viticulture and vinification and aging practices in order to give us consumers more information about the quality of the product and highlighting the work of the winegrowers and winemakers. Look out therefore, for producers like Agusti Torello Mata, Raventos I Blanc, Gramona, Llopart and Recaredo, all offering brilliant and lovingly made wines organically and biodynamically, full of the nuance and charisma of good Champagne but at half the Champagne price tag. However, good Champagne is more than worth the price tag, especially Grower Champagne, of which, thanks to the brilliant work of our Irish wine suppliers in sourcing and securing tiny allocations of these ethereal wines, there is an incredible but limited selection available in Ireland. It would take another post on its own to properly convey why these wines are so special, but let me tell you, these are wines with bubbles, with heart and soul and if you want something to steal a quiet moment with on Christmas day, then let it be with one of these. In the spirit of Christmas and generosity, I will tell you that some of my favourite producers at the moment are Savart, Georges Remy, Benoit Marguet, Ulysse Collin, Bourgeois-Diaz, Larmandier- Bernier, but I will not hesitate to fight you for the last bottle. Starters If something like smoked salmon and/or prawn cocktail is on the menu for starters, I like to go for wines that inherently marry with the flavour accents of the garnish for these things, that’s to say the dill, the chives, the capers, the horseradish in the crème fraiche, the cayenne pepper and lemon, the kick of the Worcestershire sauce, the sweetness of the ketchup. All this whilst also carrying the salinity and the minerality of the salmon and prawns, enveloping the smokiness and the sweetness and finally cleaning away the richness. Whilst it is important that the wine has acidity to cut through all this, it’s even more important that it has a smoothness, a roundness to its flesh so that it can temper the saltiness and embrace the intensity of these components. Whilst the wine can have minerality to compliment the minerality of the salmon and the prawns (Chablis), too much minerality and not enough flesh (Muscadet) will only enhance the salinity of the food and bring on an unpleasant salt burn. The wine needs flesh, opulence of fruit and wonderful herbal and even better – spice undertones, all the while, sailing along on a bright acidity. Whilst this might sound like a tall order, there are in fact a few options that will fill the role here and Sauvignon Blanc – hear me out – especially Sauvignon Blanc from unexpected places, is one of them. There is a special sort of magic that happens to Sauvignon Blanc that is grown in and around and over the border of Austria and Slovenia, Styria in Austria and Štajerska in Slovenia. The Sauvignon Blanc from here is a smokey, exotic creature, flinty and mineral, tense, yet generous in its flesh of citrus fruit, gooseberries and green mango with a baseline of coriander seed, lemon grass, tarragon and a menthol note of blackcurrant leaf that leans towards eucalyptus. A really nice partner for a marie-rose sauce that doesn’t skimp on the spice and a crème fraiche accompaniment for smoked salmon that’s bolstered by the kick of horseradish and black pepper. For the Chablis lovers, there is an expression of Sauvignon Blanc closer to home as it were , that would also do a grand job at this table. Saint-Bris AOC is an area in the Yonne region of Burgundy, a few kilometres southwest of the Chablis AOC. Here, Sauvignon Blanc grows on Kimmeridgian soils, taking on that wonderful textural characteristic of flesh wrapped around a mineral core, feeling very much like a white Burgundy, but adding herbal notes of mint and wild peas to the familiar profile of citrus and orchard fruits of this genre that we all know and love so well. Stepping away from varietal specifics and focusing more on specific areas as a safe bet, I would say my first port of call would be the wine region of Galicia in north western Spain. As green and as wet as Ireland, Galicia produces wonderful whites that combine minerality and stone fruit with kitchen garden herbs, both in the single varietal expression of Albarino, Godello, Trexiadura and friends but most successfully I feel, in the ensemble performance of wines blended with these varietals. Moreover, they are exceptionally good value for money at any price point, and always very warmly received at the dinner table. Mains As for the main event, I’m about to make my case as to why I think a red wine is the best overall partner for the main course, however, before we depart from the whites, I’ll give a few suggestions of what whites I think are best cut out for the job. Faced with at least two proteins, both of which are either subjected to, or naturally come with a lot of delicious fat, various outrageously delicious side dishes (brussel sprouts, notwithstanding), luscious gravy and the most indulgent incarnation of potatoes, needless to say, we need a white with a bit of presence, to say the least! Lusher white burgundies with a point to prove, from riper, sunnier regions, such as Rully in the Cote Chalonnaise is the best value for money option here, as far as white Burgundy is concerned, however follow me off piste and I’ll show you an area where the whites can do everything that white Burgundy can, and then some. Welcome -surprisingly – to the Douro valley in Portugal, traditionally the home of Port wine production, but thanks to the pioneering work of Dirk Niepoort and his subsequent mentorees, it is now producing some of the most hauntingly beautiful, soulful whites that I have ever tasted. Organic viticulture of old vines planted high up in the steep valley slopes, perfect harvesting and careful vinification and elevage, a la Burgundy in French oak, gives us wines with presence and power, but exuberant also in their freshness and their minerality and savouriness. This savouriness gives the wines an affinity to sage in particular, and so puts me in the mind of turkey stuffing and turkey gravy all year round - obviously Christmas Day is the moment they’ve been waiting for! There is an argument also for voluptuous white blends from the Southern Rhone and even further south to the garrigue-scented hillside vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon, and if anything, I would encourage drinking these whilst still wearing the flannelette pyjamas because to me, they are true comfort wines. As I previously mentioned, I like to ham up (no pun intended) the particular flavours and aromas of Christmas, the anise, sweet spice and orange and I find these aromas more inherently in red wines than white. There is also the matter of the fats and richness on the table, and if you meet this with a red, you get that magic interaction between tannins and fats and protein that turns wine into silk and fat into air. Having said that, we don’t need a big bruiser of a red wine here, (Chateauneuf) nor do we need a lean, highly-strung tannic wine that needs bribing with a bit of fat to be nice to everyone. Again, we go back to the holy grail of Christmas flavours, presence and good manners. We need plushness, generosity of fruit, soft, integrated tannins with a nice acidity and something that is up for playing with the spiced red cabbage. My choices in recent years, have had a strong Spanish and Portuguese bias, but If I were to stay varietal specific, I would say Pinot Noir. However, I don’t want Pinot Noir that I have to take out a loan for (I’m looking at you, Red Burgundy) and I also want Pinot Noir with a bit more plump, jovial openness and so my answer here is Pinot Noir from Germany, (where it is known as Spätburgunder) and more specifically Pinot Noir from Baden, Germany’s southern most and sunniest wine growing region. To go back to my increasingly evident love affair with Spain and Portugal, my choices would again take me to the northwest of Spain to the regions of Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo for different expressions of the native Mencia grape and even more compelling blends of ancient varieties such as Brancello and Ferrol before taking a justified detour to the Gredos mountains around Madrid to experience what the likes of Comando G are doing with old vine Garnacha (and what it thinks of red cabbage). In Portugal there are three names that I would happily spend my Christmas dinner with, letting them reverberate the Christmas flavours around the room and they would be Niepoort and Luis Seabra in the Douro and Antonio Madeira in the Dão. All of these wines have the winning formula – Christmas spice underneath ripe dark fruits and red fruits, cranberries and orange peel, plump flesh with buffed tannins, acidity to help them mingle and enough manners to make sure they do it politely. If, by chance, there is any wine left at the end of the meal, they are the type of wines you could happily retire to the sofa with, whilst the chaos of the day settles like dust around you. Dessert As for dessert? I have to admit, I am partial to a nice Tawny port. Tawny ports are barrel aged, which is why they turn that lovely caramelised colour and also develop caramelised flavours with spice, dried fruits and nuttiness. A nice chilled glass of that (the older the better) with the Christmas pudding and brandy butter would work very well, or even some blue cheese, but if chocolate is on the cards, then my go to is an Italian dessert wine called Recioto della Valpolicella. Part of the Valpolicella/Ripasso/Amarone family, this starts off the same way as Amarone, as fermented dried grapes, full of concentrated sugar and the end result tastes like a black forest gateaux and an espresso martini had a baby. My utmost favourite pairing for Recioto however, is Tiramisu – a truly otherworldly experience and definitely one that is warranted after the efforts of pulling off Christmas! So those are my musings on the best wines to make Christmas Day as magical as ever! I’ll be putting together selections of wine packs based around the wines I’ve talked about here on my partner retailer – SIYPS’s website in the coming days, so make sure to look out for the updates. I hope you enjoy these suggestions as much as I do and I wish you a very Merry Christmas!