There’s a certain amount of (self-imposed) pressure to get everything just-so as friends and family gather over the festive period. Whether you’re throwing a party, hosting the main event, or you’ve been invited to share in someone else’s celebrations, you want to make sure the drinks live up to expectations. Which wine should I pour with Christmas pud? What can I offer the designated driver? Do I need to let my red breathe before I serve it and what does that even mean? How can I stop my brother-in-law squirrelling away my expensive bottle and serving me plonk?
We’ve put your thorny wine questions to our panel of experts: Telegraph columnists Susy Atkins and Victoria Moore; and award-winning commentator and trained sommelier Hamish Anderson. They’ve tackled your drink-based conundrums so you can spend more time doing what really matters this Christmas. Like settling a decades-old score with your siblings. Bottoms up.
My husband insists on a white wine with the Christmas turkey but surely you need a red for the pigs in blankets, stuffing, etc. Which one of us is ‘right’?
Victoria says: I’m happy to say that both of you are ‘right’. As you so succinctly say with the use of those inverted commas, there isn’t a right and a wrong in wine but there are norms and some wines rub along better with certain foods than others. As with roast chicken, you can very happily go white or red with turkey.
Of course, wine pairings depend on what else is on the plate, which leads me to your point about the fruity stuffing, cranberry sauce, pigs in blankets and the rest, since these point towards a bigger wine. It’s possible to find red and white options to take this in.
For whites, you could go down the Burgundy route – this would certainly work nicely for anyone ladling creamy, nutmeggy bread sauce onto their plate. White Rhône and Rhône-style (look to South Africa) blends of marsanne, roussanne, viognier, white grenache and clairette are also good at taking on the cacophony of Christmas dinner.
As for reds, grenache-based blends will glide smoothly with all the fruit and pork; Beaujolais or a young pinot noir will meet the pert brightness of cranberries; and a good Bordeaux will keep everyone happy.
Of course it’s not just about the pairing. The most important thing is to go for a wine that hits the right mood. And one you like.
I’ll be opening a special bottle of red for Christmas. How long should I let it breathe before serving and do I need to decant it?
Hamish says: The practice of opening a wine and leaving it to breathe in the bottle does very little, as such a small amount of liquid is in contact with air. To substantially change the flavour quickly, you need to decant. For young wines, which are unlikely to have any sediment, this is as simple as pouring them into a clean vessel wide enough to expose a reasonable surface area to air – a decanter looks the part, but a glass jug works just as well. Older wines require a steady hand, and a light source to highlight sediment as you carefully decant at 45 degrees.
How long you leave them before serving varies from bottle to bottle. If you don’t know a wine, open it a couple of hours beforehand and give it a taste. If it is mute, one-dimensional, or overly tannic then a few hours properly exposed to air will open up the flavours and help it to soften. As a rough guide, many full-bodied, young wines (including some whites) benefit from a good stint exposed to air – three hours is usually my starting point. Richer styles or grape varieties need longer, while lighter styles require less time or none at all. So, while I might leave a young Australian Cabernet on the side for three or four hours to develop, I rarely decant Pinot Noir.
I’m doing the driving on Christmas Day and I can’t face mocktails. What do you suggest instead?
Susy says: Time was when the driver – and all alcohol abstainers – were limited to orange juice or elderflower pressé at special dinners unless someone was whipping up mocktails. These options tend to be sweet, so not really appealing for a long day of eating and drinking. The good news is that today there are myriad ‘grown-up’ soft drinks, including great no-alc beers and booze-free aperitivos and spirits, though the latter are often overpriced.
As for wines, I’m yet to find a no-alcohol red that I would swap for a decent juice, but the whites have definitely improved. Try a no-alc riesling, for example, which has retained its juicy tang. The most sophisticated adult softies I have enjoyed recently are the new breed of sparkling teas from the Copenhagen Tea Company (note that some have low, not no, alcohol). Invented in Denmark by a top sommelier, these have remarkable balance and complexity. Expect fairly dry styles, with subtle nuances of spice, floral notes and light tannins. Chill and serve just like a sparkling wine.
We always take decent wine to my sister’s house for Christmas and my brother-in-law snaffles it and pours us something cheap and horrible. It’s driving us nuts! Any suggestions on how to deal with this?
Victoria says: This is really two questions wrapped into one. The first is: how can I stop my brother-in-law being so unbelievably annoying? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. But you can remove some of the tension points that you find so triggering. So, don’t take any wine this year. Take something else and be clear that it’s a gift to your hosts and not a contribution to the day.
If there is an unspoken agreement that you must take wine, then do. But don’t expect to drink it. Make sure it’s something you would be happy to be served (just in case it does get opened) and spend the amount of money you feel is a reasonable contribution to the day.
Now for the second question: how can you drink something half-decent on Christmas Day? Though I don’t think you are going to get a good glass of wine, you still have options. You could go the hard liquor route: ask for a G&T or a vodka-martini. Say you’ll make it yourself because you’re fussy. Take the ingredients with you and don’t hand them over, but do offer to make a cocktail for others. And look forward to the great glass of wine you’ll have at home on Boxing Day.
We like red châteauneuf-du-pape on Christmas Day but in recent years we’ve found it disappointing. Can you suggest alternatives?
Victoria says: As I’m sure you know, châteauneuf-du-pape is an appellation in the southern rhône. Red châteauneuf is very expressive, bold in flavour and high in alcohol. It’s also a blend. Eighteen different varieties are permitted in red châteauneuf and king of them all is grenache, with contributions from mourvèdre and syrah.
You don’t have to look far to find something similar; there are other appellations in the southern Rhône making red wines with a similar scent of sweetly ripe red berries and garrigue herbs. Try examples from gigondas, cairanne, vinsobres or rasteau. You could also try a côtes du rhône. Or a lirac, which comes from similar soils on the other side of the Rhône river, though is often more dark-fruited than châteauneuf.
But you needn’t stick to the Rhône. You could try a GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvèdre) from elsewhere. There are some excellent versions in the Languedoc, or look to South Africa or Australia,. These wines are great with Christmas dinner because they have enough oomph for all the fruity, porky flavours in the stuffings and the sauces.
I love port but don’t want to drink it after a huge Christmas meal. What else could I pair it with?
Susy says: Happily, there are lots of moments over the festive season that call for a glass of port. Ruby ports, which are generally easy-going with juicy red cherries and a twist of pepper, are delicious with mince pies and Christmas cake, or try them with stollen or gingerbread. These are the ports to splash into mulled wine or to add to a beef or venison casserole for extra depth of flavour.
Late bottled vintage (LBVs) and vintage ports are my choice with a festive cheesevboard, which can serve as a meal in itself, perhap on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. Decant the ports to open them up and allow you to discard any sediment, add some crackers and fresh and dried fruits and be sure to include Stilton in the lineup.
But my favourite pairing of all is tawny port and chocolate. We usually have a bottle in the fridge over Christmas and bring it out with a box of dark chocs but also with chocolate desserts, and nutty and toffee puddings. The mellow, creamy, caramel and orange peel style of tawny is also divine with creamy puds like profiteroles.
We end up with so many open bottles at Christmas. How can we make them last through Boxing Day and beyond? And what about fizz?’
Hamish says: The act of opening and then pouring wine starts the process of decline as oxygen is introduced to the liquid. Wine left open too long will firstly taste less fruity and exuberant – not undrinkable, but certainly not as good as fresh. Keep it longer and you will start to notice oxidative flavours: in white, a nutty character not unlike some sherries; in red, fresh fruit flavours become dried in character, like prunes or raisins.
While there are plenty of preservation systems out there, they cannot undo what has already happened – at best they buy you an extra day or two by stopping more contact with air. If you have a vacuum pump, a device that sucks air out of an open bottle via a plastic stopper, use it. Failing that, close the bottle with its original seal.
If you have had a party and are left with multiple open bottles of the same wine, decant them into each other so you end up with full bottles, reducing the amount of wine in contact with air. Aim to use them up within a couple of days. Light-bodied or older wines don’t last as long as young or full-bodied ones so drink those first. Port will keep in good condition for around five days, since the extra sugar and alcohol act as preservatives.
It is worth investing in inexpensive sparkling wine stoppers to use on open bottles of fizz. They won’t stop the wine oxidising but will help to maintain bubbles for a few days, longer if the bottle is nearly full. A teaspoon inserted into the neck of an open bottle, silver or not, does nothing. Two systems I would recommend are Coravin (from £129.99), which ingeniously extracts wine from a bottle without letting air in and will preserve the contents for weeks, months or even years. The other is Eto (from £129), an elegant decanter that does a fine job of stopping further contact with air and should help your wine to last for about a week; use it as soon as you open a bottle for best effect.
I love Christmas pudding but not everyone does so we usually have chocolate Yule log and a clementine trifle. Is there one dessert wine that matches all three?
Susy says: It’s a tall order for one wine to be the perfect match for three desserts which are so very different in flavours and textures. The clementine trifle would, ideally, be paired with a tangy, golden dessert wine such as Bordeaux’s sauternes, while the Christmas pudding and Yule log can take a richer, more sticky wine like tawny port, Australian liqueur muscat or Hungary’s sublime tokaji.
But you are looking for a more versatile sweet wine and I’ve got two styles to suggest. First, the vins doux naturels made from muscat in southern France, such as those from Rivesaltes or Beaumes-de-Venise. These are lightly fortified so although they taste fresh, they can have deliciously concentrated flavours of apricot and crystallised citrus fruit that match a range of sweet treats. Chill them lightly and pour 75 millilitres into white wine glasses.
My other suggestion is Sicily’s marsala, a lovely fortified wine made from local grapes and aged for up to ten years. It pairs well with with mince pies and Christmas pudding as well as chocolate desserts. It can take on a trifle too and I love it with a slice of fruit-studded panettone.