It can be tough preparing the perfect Christmas dinner and finding the dream drinks to go with it. Helen McGinn takes the stress out of the day by doing the hard work for you
Think of this as the warm-up. We want something to match a range of flavours, whether it’s nuts and nibbles or the full-on quails’ eggs/devils on horseback/blinis (if you do all three, I’m gate-crashing). To save both time and effort, avoid drinks that require mixing or gratuitous garnishes. Prosecco is perfect. Its soft, citrus flavours limber up the taste buds rather than tiring them out, and the bubbles whet the appetite. For something a little perkier, a tangy fino sherry with a salty appetiser will get everyone talking.
The smoked salmon
Matching food and wine is a balancing act. With the classic Christmas starter, for example, we’re dealing with an oily fish that needs something to cut through that richness. The flavours of smoked salmon are distinctive but relatively delicate, so a big, shouty wine will leave it floundering. However, a crisp, dry white with a bit of bite works brilliantly – think of a mouth-puckering Sancerre (made from Sauvignon Blanc) or a fresh Chablis (usually an un-oaked Chardonnay).
A great alternative to Sancerre is a Sauvignon Blanc from the New World, especially New Zealand’s Marlborough region or Chile’s cooler Casablanca Valley.
The thing about turkey is that, on its own, it works with almost anything – red, white, rosé, sparkling, beer – but once you put it with all the other flavours on the plate, things get complicated. And if you’re as greedy as me, you’ll have sausages with bacon, sprouts and pancetta, all the sauces, and lots more. The crisp, dry white that went so well with the salmon will struggle to get noticed here. Time for something with a bit more heft. A bigger, rounder Chardonnay, with a bit of oak, comes into its own, along with grapes like Viognier or Semillon. Those moving from second helpings of turkey to cheese will want a red, too. Again, there are lots of options, but a good Pinot Noir is one of the most magical – and memorable.
The Christmas pud
For a slab of Christmas pudding with brandy butter or a sherry-soaked serving of trifle (or hopefully both), a small glass of something deliciously sweet makes all the flavours pop just that little bit more. A favourite pairing for full-on Christmas pudding is the classic sticky from Bordeaux, Sauternes. The grapes are left to hang on the vine and, if conditions are right (warm and humid), visited by a friendly fungus known as noble rot. This shrivels the grapes and concentrates the natural sugars, giving the wine its rich, honeyed, citrus fruit flavours, but incredibly, given the sweetness, rendering it still crisp. Hungary’s most famous wine is also sweet, pre-dates Sauternes, and is usually more modestly priced, too. Called Tokaji Aszú, it’s also affected by noble rot,
yielding powerful, honeyed whites with apricot and orange-peel flavours.
Given that there’s likely to be a huge piece of Stilton on the cheeseboard along with a hunk of strong Cheddar (or similar), save some of the Tokaji for the blue and grab the last of the Chardonnay for the Cheddar. Otherwise, Port is a classic match – of the vintage variety or, my favourite, aged tawny – for the Stilton. It doesn’t have to be wine though – and by this time you may want a break from the grape. Consider moving to a classic ale, then, which can make a great match for chalky cheeses, especially Cheddar. If, on the other hand, you have a mild, creamy cheese that seems to be making a run for it, pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne. It’s the most heavenly pairing, will help to perk you up after such an indulgent feast – and, well, it is Christmas, after all.