Bars and restaurants across the country have finally been allowed to open their doors to the great British public, allowing us to enjoy Christmas alongside what I imagine will be a record number of Scotch eggs.
It’s essential we all do our bit and support the beleaguered hospitality industry so I implore you to push the boat out on your next visit to a pub, bar or restaurant. The best value wines in any restaurant are typically found in the top third of the list so you would be doing everyone a favour if you get stuck in!
As well as drinking your way through the wine cellar of your local drinking hole, it’s nearly time to celebrate at home in what will be one of the most profound festive seasons many of us will ever experience. Here are my top Christmas wines to help make it extra memorable.
In my house, kitchen wine is our go to red or white wine when you just fancy a glass of something throughout the day. These wines need to be versatile to go with whatever you happen to be picking at, easy drinking and not too expensive so you can pour them to less appreciative guests without panicking. It is our equivalent of a house wine, and is arguably the most important wine to choose at Christmas.
For red, Sangiovese, Cote du Rhône or Rioja are failsafes. All three are renowned for their well balanced acidity and fruit and could be drunk with all manner of foods or appreciated on their own. CVNE Rioja Reserva is from one of the renowned estates of the Rioja Alta. Villa Cafaggio is in the heart of the Chianti Classico district and although is one of the oldest houses in the area (700 years old) it remains modern and forward thinking.
In the Rhône department, it is always a safe bet to choose an entry level from some of the big names as they have access to a lot of good leftover fruit! Look out for Chapoutier, Jaboulet and St Cosme. My money this Christmas though is from the Perrin family who are the proprietors of the world famous Chateau de Beaucastel.
The white is always harder to choose as it has to straddle more uses. It will often be an aperitif, a cooking wine, a wine you drink while cooking, the wine you neck in the kitchen after an inevitable family feud. In all examples, a zesty Sauvignon blanc can work well but there is also lots of room for error there.
Tourraine is a good place to start to avoid the shockers as the Loire valley vignerons are the masters of this grape. Spain has many options from Rioja that can work well and another good route is Chenin Blanc from South Africa. Ken Forester gets my vote here: his FMC blend is considered one of the best Chenin Blancs in the world so it stands to reason that his entry level Chenin is a great kitchen wine.
It’s helpful to have a few less expensive options for when you just want some Christmas bubbles. I find prosecco a bit of a minefield and although there are plenty of great examples, it is a fairly divisive drink these days. It differs from Champagne in its grape varieties as well as its secondary fermentation method; Charmât not Méthode Traditional.
The Charmât method tends to yield a less nuanced finished product with less depth than a good Champagne. Cava on the other hand uses the traditional method and although there are plenty of bad examples, there are also many excellent ones that do not break the bank.
I think Stars by Perelada is a real gem. Made in the Penedès region of Spain in the north east, it regularly wins top awards in Spain and is a brilliant alternative to Champagne. Whilst Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are present in the wine as is traditional in Champagne, Macabeo, Parrelada and Xarel-lo, the most common Cava grapes, make up the majority of the blend and are splendid with their green apple, peach and zesty citrus notes.
There are few days in the year where it feels acceptable to open really special vintage fizz but Christmas day is one of them. I find a lot of prestige Champagnes, whilst delicious, sometimes move away from what the core purpose of the drink is – a dry, refreshing, minerally aperitif. It is for this reason that when I choose those special bottles I tend to veer more towards blanc de blancs. Made from 100% Chardonnay, when chosen from houses with good access to premier cru and grand cru Chardonnay vineyards, the wine is exquisite and works beautifully with canapés before lunch.
One such house is Billecart Salmon. Having acquired some incredible Chardonnay holdings over generations, their vintage blanc de blancs is a masterclass in what a refined champagne can be. A fine mousse developed through gentle ageing in their cellars along with a crisp minerality, brioche nose, creamy mouthfeel and zesty lemon will forever be a perfection to me.
To drink with your starter
A white Burgundy is a perfect accompaniment for seafood, which many opt for as a starter. It is also a brilliant way to transition from Champagne to the main event. Try to find one with a little bit of age: 2017s are drinking well but are still youthful, 2015s are ready and raring to go.
Burgundy is a very complicated appellation to get your head around. The area is made up of many subregions, which themselves are made up of more subregions, which themselves are made up by parcels or vineyards. French napoleonic inheritance law has over decades crippled heirs enforcing the splitting of assets between siblings.
At local vineyard level, wines express much more character than the big négociant blends. It is like comparing Starbucks coffee blend to your small independent roasters around the corner. The status of the land is based on its potential to grow the best wines, grand cru being the finest, followed by premier cru. I would always try to stretch to premier cru areas to get the best experience.
Puligny-Montrachet is an area of Burgundy synonymous with elegance and the only region of the Coôes du Beaune exclusively planted for white wines. It is famous for its four famous grand cru vineyards, Batard-Montrachet, Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bienvenues Batard-Montrachet.
The Grand Cru’s from this area are amongst the most expensive white wines in the world but a top tip is to choose some of the parcels from neighbouring vineyards. Les Enseignères sits just below all of the grand cru vineyards and although it would be wrong to suggest it is comparable, it certainly doesn’t disappoint and is an affordable way to get a taster of what the area can produce. This example from small producer Chavy-Chouet is sure to blow you away without blowing the bank balance.
To drink with turkey
If you enjoy a turkey for your Christmas lunch, then you are going to be looking for either a full bodied white wine, or a light red. If going down the white route, there is no need to look any further than the Rhône valley. Hermitage Blanc or Chateaneuf du Pape blanc with its powerful grape varieties make these wines a superb partner to complement turkey.
I personally veer towards red, however, which will require acidity and low tannins as these will clash with the turkey as well as the zesty cranberry sauce and rich gravy.
Some new world Pinot Noirs are definitely able to play this role, but at Christmas I look to the grape’s homeland in Burgundy. The Cotes du Beaune tends to produce a lighter style of Burgundy and subregion Savigny-Les-Beaune that offers very good value. Savoury in style and able to carry the gamey aspects of the bird, this wine from Joseph Drouhin would by my top choice to toast turkey.
To go with goose
We always go for goose for Christmas, which presents a different wine challenge. The meat is much darker and fattier. One could be quite happy with a white wine for this meat, and in contrast to turkey, I would be looking at a more zesty white to cut through the fat. An off-dry Reisling would work well, especially with a sweet pickled cabbage. That said, nothing says Christmas more than a big red, especially with the weather outside. For this I look more towards the Piedmont region and specifically Barolo. 2016 was a sublime year in the region so they are very drinkable now. Otherwise I would jump back a few years to 2014s and older.
Like in Burgundy, Barolo is made up of different parcels represented by many of the producers in the area, giving more localised flavour profiles. Bussia is one such sub region famed for its amphitheatre-like setting. This wine from Prunotto, one of the great producers of the region is a perfect pairing for Goose – why not buy a magnum for Christmas?
To round off with pudding
Pudding wines at Christmas should really be from the great Sauternes appellation. One of the world’s finest wine producing areas, there are many top vineyards that have become unaffordable for most such as the great Chateau D’Yquem. Much like with the big red Bordeaux houses, most of the estates produce a second wine if you can’t quite stretch to their first wine, but the premier grand cru Chateau Reussac should be just about within reach budget-wise and is worth every penny. If not, their ‘Carmes de Reussac” second wine doesn’t feel much like second best.