At this time of year I regularly purchase a packet of humbugs and close my ears to the Christmas songs being played in just about every store on the High Street. But there’s always one Christmas record I enjoy, and always have done ever since I bought the 7″ in one of my first ever picture sleeves, as a child: I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day, by Wizzard.
The other thing I have tended to close my senses to around this time are the innumerable articles in every magazine and newspaper telling us what to drink at Christmas. The worst thing about them is that they are all practically identical. Christmas “fizz” dominates, of course. You get a few recommendations for Cavas and Proseccos, the usual Champagnes ranging from supermarket own labels to well known Grands Marques (hopefully discounted), and if you are very lucky a few suggestions for something different. This year that’s invariably a couple of English sparklers, as they’ve been getting a lot of press lately.
Next you get the usual array of fortified wines – it is after all the time of year when the press are most likely to drag some advertising out of the major Port Houses. Likewise dessert wines, although Sauternes Estates are probably so unprofitable that they appear rarely to have the funds to splurge like the big Champagne Houses who, in the national press, at least give us something different to look at than the dozens of perfume adverts we see at this time of year (is it just me, or are the TV ads for scent especially bad this year?).
But if I’m honest, I’ve started to lay off the humbug. It would be easy to question why I should drink any differently at Christmas to any other time of year. But there is no doubt that for those of us lucky enough to have a holiday of several days, or more, over the festive period, as drinkers we have two things going for us. First, we have the time to plan what we want to drink a bit more than usual. We don’t come home at Seven and realise we need to grab something from the cellar that doesn’t need chilling, decanting, or standing upright for forty-eight hours before drinking. Secondly, we are often blessed with a few lazy days where we don’t have to do much, certainly not drive.
I’m sure we all buy wines and wonder when we’ll have the opportunity to drink them, yet at Christmas and New Year we also feel able to drink wine at times of the day we might otherwise think beyond the pale at other times of year, despite those cold, nine-o-clock starts tasting in freezing cellars. A shared bottle as an aperitif before lunch lifts the spirits, and when the afternoon can be spent half dozing in front of The Great Escape or It’s a Wonderful Life, it engenders a rare feeling of relaxation to be able to sip something which warms the insides (at least in latitudes like ours – apologies to Southern Hemisphere readers).
But except on occasions like our Oddities lunches, where we always look forward to a few interesting fortifieds, almost the only Ports and Madeiras I drink are during the festive season, aside of course from my beloved Equipo Navazos Sherries – though even here, it’s by a long way the biologically aged styles I drink far more of throughout the rest of the year (Finos and Manzanillas).
So what sort of things will I be drinking over Christmas and New Year? It’s certainly a time of year we get through a good bit of fizz. For some reason we seem to have drunk fewer bottles of sparkling wine during 2015 than ever before, especially having cut back on the temptation to guzzle a bottle on a Friday night as a nice start to the weekend. So hopefully we are reasonably well stocked. The usual selection of Bérèche will be opened (as popular in our house as those EN Sherries), along with some Vilmart Grand Cellier d’Or 02/04 and some Paul Bara Special Club 2002, which I’ve yet to broach and may be nice when guests come. There’s also some Billecart Salmon pink, and perhaps a Taittinger Comtes 2005, which the experts tell me is drinking beautifully.
It’s also a nice time to drink sparklers from other regions. For Loire, this means Huet, for Spain this means Colet-Navazos, and for Germany, Grünhauser Sekt. I have a nice selection of Crémants du Jura, but they will be saved for fellow geeks.
But of the wines I don’t drink often, the festive holiday is a great opportunity to savour some Olorosos and Amontillados from Equipo Navazos and elsewhere. It has become something of a tradition in our home to look forward to a supper of leftovers, nibbled whenever we are a tiny bit hungry after a large sit-down lunch. A cold roast potato with relish or chutney, stuffing, with Stilton and Comté, and a sprinkling of cashews or pistachios filling the available space. Something brown and fortified, yet dry, is perfect sipped over the course of an hour on the sofa listening to the wind blowing down the chimney (First World problems!).
Dessert wines sit in a half bottle rack for most of the year chez nous. Occasionally a few see sunlight in the summer, or make it out to a wider audience at a wine dinner, but most of the year they spend in hibernation. Pairing a dessert wine with a traditional Christmas Plum Pudding is really difficult. Most of them just don’t work at all, although I’ve found Banyuls does. Nevertheless, it’s a nice way to finish a meal. I have a small but well formed selection of Krachers, and I’m sure one will get opened. In fact, Austria has pride of place in the stickies rack, and I have been eyeing up some Heidi Schröck Ruster Ausbruch, and some Gelber-Muskateller from Knöll. It means I may not get to open some Vin Jaune, but I’m trying to avoid drinking bottles of this too early, and as they now push €50/bottle, they are strictly rationed (which means brought out to share with like minded Jura-philes).
Another style which I think goes really well with a lot of the festive fare is orange wine. Wines made from white grapes with texture and structure imposed by skin contact, and sometimes with the earthy tang of amphora ageing, offer a good match to both fowl and the vegetarian dishes my family enjoy. They are, to my mind, extremely versatile. In fact, at some point a nut roast will be made and I’m contemplating such a match. Not that I need the holiday season to drink orange wines, but still…
When a lot of alcohol is being consumed it’s quite nice to have a few lower alcohol reds around. This is counter intuitive for many. There’s no doubt that winter is the traditional time for bigger reds, and I certainly still have some of these – Australians and wines from the Northern Rhône, and odd bottles of Beaucastel, a few modern Iberians, or beefy South African Syrah (such as some of Chris Mullineux’s earlier efforts at TMV).
Likewise, I’m no different to any other wine lover who, despite drinking an awful lot less of it than I used to, still thinks of Red Bordeaux at Christmas and New Year. But as age makes us all more susceptible to the effects of alcohol, a nice light red at lunch time can be a very welcome filling to a fizz and fortified sandwich. For those who think Beaujolais is a summer wine, I can tell you that Crus like Fleurie and Morgon usually see the light of day, and Carignan is, in its lower alcohol manifestations, a really refreshing thirst quenching red. I also have a near endless supply of Jura reds, some of which will be sure to be opened. At least when I do open something heavier in alcohol there’s the opportunity to save half the bottle for later…a nice chance to savour a wine after a little more air, so long as it has life left in it to start with.
Finally, there’s Burgundy. I probably drink less White Burgundy than many around this time of year. Although Christmas is a time for Chablis for some people I know, I tend to gravitate more to a complex dry Riesling: German, Austrian (Wachau), Alsace or Aussie. But perhaps one of Christmas’ greatest pleasures is the contemplation, over a good hour or so, of a really nice Burgundian Pinot, where, with bottle age, the nose provides at the very least fifty percent of the pleasure. I can do this whether listening to Wizzard on the Christmas “Top of the Pops” show, or slumped in a chair with a copy of Noble Rot (probably lacking the strength at this stage to hold up a copy of World of Fine Wine). Though I can’t bring myself to say “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day”. My liver just wouldn’t agree to it.
And to all my wine writing friends, yes, do keep those articles about what to drink at Christmas coming, though the ones I will enjoy most will be those which think a bit further, rather than trotting out the same as everyone else. I hate to admit it, but I shall read them with pleasure.
“And let the bells ring out for Christmas”