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Make Christmas merry with the right wine
2013-11-23
By John H. Isacs

Children around the world may not know the real history of Christmas, but they do know it’s a day of gifts.

When I first came to Asia about three decades ago, there were very few Christmas celebrations and decorations. Now you’re just as likely to run into Santa at a Shanghai department store as you are in the US.

Santa is the endearing symbol of Christmas and gift giving, but as a child I found this character somewhat troubling. To me it never made sense how the world’s most-famous fat man could come down such a narrow chimney. But year after year he did, bringing not only a bounty of gifts but also some of childhood’s most treasured memories.

But Christmas is more than just gifts, it’s also about feasting and in my house that meant feasting with wines.

So don’t even contemplate forgoing good wines with your Christmas feast this year. It’s also a great homage to the birthday that this holiday celebrates. After all, the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine.

Holiday foods

Christmas feasts around the world usually feature a host of different dishes that present significant wine pairing challenges. One good solution is to focus on the main or featured dish that’s commonly a big meat roast or substantial fish. The wine or wines you choose may not pair perfectly with every dish served but they will be synergistic with the gravity of the meal.

Since the mid-17th century, roasted turkey has been a mainstay of Christmas feasts in the UK, US, Canada and other English-speaking nations.

In general, a roasted turkey is a very wine-friendly dish, pairing nicely with fuller body sparkling wines and Champagnes, weighty whites like an oak fermented and aged Chardonnay and Viognier, or even medium body red wines like Rioja Crianza and Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux.

Heavier reds with a bit of zest or spice like California Zinfandels and Southern Rhone Chateauneuf-du-Papes also make good companions, especially if the turkey is served with rich giblet or goose liver stuffing and thick gravy.

Large baked hams are also a Christmas table mainstay in many countries. When glazed with a sweet cover, consider a top German Spatlese or Auslese Riesling and when spiked with aromatic cloves, try an equally scented white wine like Argentinean Torrantes or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

For more lightly spiced hams, a high quality Champagne or Champagne method sparkler like Franciacorta from Italy are very complementary. Reds that feature good acidity or freshness also work well with roasted hams. Try Barbera wines from Piedmont, Italy or Sancerre reds from the Loire Valley in France.

My great-grandparents on my father’s side were from Germany, so roasted goose was always part of our Christmas meals. Once again, top German Rieslings work well as do structured Bordeaux reds from Saint Estephe or Pauillac as the tannins in these wines wonderfully cut through the fattiness and richness of the goose while also embellishing the natural flavor of the meat.

Another big roast staple of Christmas feasts is roast beef or prime rib. Juicy red meats like this beg for ample reds with plenty of tannins. Left Bank Bordeaux, Northern Rhone Syrah and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon red wines are sure to accentuate the savory nature of the beef roast and facilitate digestion.

In the Czech Republic, Austria and some other Central European countries, roasted or fried carp is the star of Christmas meals. This is a substantial and flavorful fish dish that needs an equally significant white wine like a top Cotes de Beaune or Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Full-bodied and fresh Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand and Chile also work well with carp. If you prefer a red, choose a young Pinot Noir or Chianti that has lively acidity and moderate tannins.

Strong cheeses also play a role at the back end of many European holiday meals. Whether it’s Italian Gorgonzola, French Rouquefort or English Stilton, your best partner is a glass of sweet wine, especially vintage Port.

The desserts that grace Christmas tables are as varied as the cultures that celebrate this holiday. The French buche de noel or Yule log, German gingerbread cakes, Norwegian rice pudding, Japanese version strawberry short cake, are but a few of the treasured Christmas sweeties.

French Sauternes or Hungarian Tokai are both elegant and balanced white wines that go well with a host of desserts, but perhaps truest to the real meaning of Christmas is the Italian “holy wine” Vin Santo.

Cocktail fun

Christmas revelry is also the perfect time for elegant cocktails. Kir Royale is best made with non-vintage Champagne or Champagne method wines like CAVA and mixed with the black current liquor called cassis. This lively and festive drink is sure to whet your appetite for the upcoming Christmas spread and its lovely light red color adds to the overall holiday ambiance.

A classic after meal Christmas drink is eggnog with Bourbon whiskey. The weighty sweetness of the eggnog is balanced by the sophisticated sweetness and alcohol of the Bourbon whiskey ensuring the end of your feast is every bit as delicious as the beginning.

Great gifts

Short of Christmas gift ideas? Think wines and wine-related accessories. A wine with special meaning is always a prized gift. If you have friends that have a young child then buy them a bottle of wine from that vintage.

But make sure it’s an age-worthy red wine with solid tannins that will taste good when the child turns 18 or even later when they graduate from university. It’s one of the most thoughtful wine gifts you can give.

Another nice gift is a beautifully shaped crystal decanter. Who doesn’t love a decanter? Even if your friend never uses it, the decanter looks great just sitting there.

Of course, decanters are also quite useful and if your friend is a wine aficionado he or she will appreciate both the aesthetic quality and utility of this gift.

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