When you’re planning a meal, the food generally comes first, with the drinks as an accompaniment. With canapés, the roles are reversed. At this stage of the meal, when your guests’ palates are at their most acute and receptive, it’s about working up an appetite as much as satisfying one, and no drink is better at that job than sparkling wine. Champagne is the instinctive, glamorous choice – Christmas being the one time of year when many of us can justify the extra expense. But in recent years the formula of mouthwatering acidity and graceful bubbles has been mastered this side of the Channel, too, in a style as clear and reviving as a frosty morning.
The seafood starter
The Chardonnays of Chablis in Burgundy have long been considered the Christmas seafood wine par excellence. The cool climate and calcareous soils combine to make bone-dry whites that are all steely sharpness, minerals and citrus, providing a zesty contrast to oysters or prawns in the same way as a squeeze of lemon. Other contenders for the seafood starter range from nutty Italian Verdicchio to subtly yeasty Muscadet from the Loire estuary. But the new modern classic has to be Albariño, from Rías Baixas in north-western Spain. It combines white peaches and flowers with a salty tang that seems to come straight from the nearby Atlantic.
The main event
The Victorians were the creators of most of our Christmas traditions, from the cracker to the turkey and the decorated Christmas tree (imported from northern Europe). Their taste in drinks has been no less influential, and in many homes claret, the red wine of Bordeaux, is every bit as crucial to the festive meal as it was in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The robust, gutsy, spicy blends of Syrah, Grenache and other grape varieties of the southern Rhone valley are probably more suited to the varied flavours and textures of the bird with all the trimmings and sauces. But for those who want to break away from classic France, the Rhone's recipe works just as well in sun-baked south Australia, South Africa and Lebanon as it does in the Rhone's Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Many of us only get round to drinking sweet wines at Christmas – so it’s no surprise that we tend to look to the tried-and-tested classics when the Christmas pud rolls out. Golden, luscious wines such as Sauternes, from Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary, or the sweet Rieslings of Mosel or Rheingau in Germany would pair just as well with the tiramisu dessert as richer, darker, fortified styles such as molasses-like PX sherry or the fruitcakey Malmsey Madeira. But the New World has its sweet wine traditions, too. Rutherglen Muscat, from Australia, is like liquid Christmas pudding, while the ‘straw wines’ of South Africa, made from grapes left to dry on straw mats in the sun, can be exotically fruited, honeyed delights.
No festive food and wine combination is more deeply ingrained than port and Stilton – a seasonal match first made in the 18th century that still works today. But sweet white wines such as Sauternes or Jurançon, and malty beers such as porters, can be just as good with Stilton’s salty intensity. And port is less successful with creamier or less pungent styles such as goat’s cheese (try Loire Sauvignon Blanc) and non-blue hard cheeses such as mature Cheddar or Comté. Here, a full-flavoured dry white wine such as oaked Chardonnay, or a nutty, dry palo cortado or amontillado sherry would be a much better fit.