Matthew Jukes - Wine Notes

CHRISTMAS FOOD & WINE MATCHING TIPS

APÉRITIF WINE STYLES

Pre-dinner nibbles like dry roasted almonds, bruschetta, cashews, canapés, crostini, crudités, olives and gougères (those heavenly cheese puffs served by the plateful in Burgundy and Chablis) are designed to give your palate a jump-start and get your juices flowing before a feast. At this stage of the proceedings, it is essential not to overload your taste buds with big, weighty, robust wines. Save these bottles for later and zero in on refreshing, taste-bud-awakening styles that set the scene rather than hog the limelight: Champagne is, not surprisingly, the perfect wine if you’re feeling loaded, but if not, sparkling wines from the Loire (Saumur), the south of France (Limoux) or Crémant de Bourgogne (Burgundy) would do the job nicely. Italy offers superb, dry, palate-enlivening fizz in Prosecco from Veneto or some more serious sparklers from Franciacorta, Trentino or Alto Adige. I never really drink the Spanish fizz Cava unless I’m in Barcelona because there are only a few worthy versions to be found in the UK. The best, authentic Champagne-taste-alikes these days come from England – there are loads of estates with world-class wines, and you will see many recommendations in my various columns, but mainly in my monthly Vineyard Magazine piece. You can read these for free as a Friend of matthewjukes.com. New World sparklers are usually outstanding value, too (around half the price of Champs) – New Zealand, Australia (particularly Tasmania), and California are places to find fantastic quality. Fino and manzanilla style sherries are wonderful palate cleansers, particularly with salty dishes, despite being thought of as perpetually ‘out of fashion’. The least expensive option (often safest, particularly if you are eating out) is a zesty, uplifting, palate-sprucing dry white. Even a moderately expensive number is often half the price of a bottle of Champs, and there are thousands of these around, so go for it. There are also loads of first-class examples on this website. Stay with unoaked styles and keep the price under control, and then step up the pace with the next bottle when the food hits the table. If the choice is poor (a short restaurant wine list or a poorly stocked off-licence), then grab a neutral, dry, inexpensive white wine (Loire perhaps) and pep it up with a dash or two of Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur). Spend upon the cassis, as it will go a long way, and make a Kir. Use the same liqueur to turn a dry, inexpensive, sparkling wine into a glitzy Kir Royale.

MAIN COURSES

Chicken Chicken is very accommodating – it loves both whites and reds. But be careful because it is a touch fussy regarding the precise grape varieties you want to set it up with. Chardonnay is chicken’s favourite white grape, with Riesling coming in a close second. Pinot Noir is the bird’s favourite red (it’s every bird’s favourite red, be honest!), with Gamay, perhaps surprisingly, claiming the runner-up spot. This means that a well-educated, classy chicken loves every village in my beloved Burgundy region, and who can blame it? Lighter dishes such as cold chicken or turkey are relatively versatile, so look to my al fresco-style wines in the ‘Picnics’ section.  Cold chicken and ham pie work well with lighter, fragrant reds and deeper coloured, sturdy rosés from the southern Rhône, Beaujolais and Australia. If you are feeling adventurous, try chilling down a bottle of Beaujolais-Villages to white wine temperature – it’s a super if unusual, match.  Poached chicken can handle the same wines but with a little more flesh – Old and New World Pinot Noir work here. White wine companions include lighter New World Chardonnay or French Country Viognier and Marsanne/Roussanne blends. Possibly my favourite dish of all time, roast chicken, follows this theme once again but takes it a stage further. Finer (by that, I mean more expensive) red and white Burgundy, elegant, cooler climate New Zealand, Australian or Californian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and top-flight Beaujolais (again) are all great matches.  Coq au vin also works well with red Burgundy, but you can scale the wine down to a Chalonnaise version, Hautes-Côtes or Bourgogne rouge (from one of the reputable producers, of course).  Chicken casserole or pot pie ups the ante even further and enjoys a broader wine brief. Medium-weight Rhône reds and New World Grenache-based wines, as well as mildly oaky Chardonnays, are all in with a shout.  Chicken and mushroom piefricassee and other chicken dishes with creamy sauces call out to Chardonnay and beyond – dry Riesling from Germany, Alsace (France), or Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Frankland or Tasmania (Australia), Alsatian Pinot Gris and funky Rhône whites. New World Pinot Noir (from California, New Zealand and Tassie and Victoria in Oz) is the only red variety to feel genuinely at home here. OK, things have been reasonably straightforward, but I will now throw a few obstacles in front of our feathered friend as chicken Kyiv changes the rules completely. Full, rich and even part-oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc or Sauvignon/Semillon blends are needed to take on the buttery/garlic onslaught – white Graves (Bordeaux) and California do this well with their Fumé Blancs, as does Margaret River in Western Australia, but watch this space as this style is starting to be made all over the world. Not content with this hurdle, coronation chicken, depending on who is making it (I like a lot of spicy naughtiness in my sauce), can also have a bit of a kick, so dry Riesling from New Zealand or Clare Valley/Eden Valley in South Australia would be worth unscrewing. Lastly, barbecued chicken wings can be nuclear-hot (my brother Si Jukesy is a veritable Tardis when it comes to slotting these), and, in my experience, beer is usually the best bet. If, for some reason, you would like to try this dish with a bottle of wine (are you mad?), then a clean, inexpensive New World Chardonnay with a hint of oak won’t let itself down.

Goose The best wines for roast goose lie between those suited to flighted game and those for chicken. In short, this means lighter red Burgundies, smooth, cherry-scented New World Pinot Noir in the red camp, and big, rich, sultry Chardonnays, Viogniers and Marsannes and also top-flight Rieslings in the white. If you can afford it, step up to Alsatian Grand Cru Riesling; this would be heaven.

Turkey The thing to watch out for with roast turkey is the cranberry sauce factor. A fresh, young Crianza Rioja or juicy New World Pinot Noir complements this outlandish red-fruit flavour. At Christmas, Aussie Grenache or Rioja is again a winner as mountains of cocktail sausages, bacon, sprouts, and the rest take the flavour spotlight away from the turkey. If you are feeling courageous, totally ahead of your time, or just a little barking, sparkling Shiraz from Australia (you can get a superb example for as little as £7) would be fantastic, celebratory and original. Otherwise, see ‘Chicken’ (above), which means you can involve whites, too!

Vegetables Vegetables (served on their own or as an accompaniment) taste, on the whole, relatively neutral. But, depending on how they are cooked, they can require a moment or two’s thought on the wine front. Any gratin (baked with cheese) or dauphinoise (thinly sliced potato baked with cream and garlic) dish needs light reds or firm, self-confident whites.  Beetroot is tricky, but Alsatian whites generally have the texture and flavour to make it through.  Cabbage, leeks, spinach, parsnips, cauliflower, sprouts, courgettes, carrots, peas and potatoes are usually innocent, so don’t worry about them, but gnocchi (plain or flavoured with spinach) needs juicy, fruit-driven wines with perky acidity to cut through their weird texture and lubricate the palate.  Marinated vegetables and polenta love Italian whites – Pinot Grigio, Soave, Verdicchio etc.  Lentils often dry the palate out, and rustic, earthy reds are essential. Look to French Country wines for an endless supply of candidates or Chile and Argentina for Malbec or Syrah/Shiraz. Corn on the cob is a dead ringer for New World Sauvignon Blanc. Open a bottle, and, with some wines, you may detect a canned sweetcorn aroma!  Celeriac is a stunning accompaniment to a dish, and it has a pretty strong aroma and flavour, so make sure your wine is up to it.

PUDDING

Christmas pudding During the festive period, it is helpful to have a wine that lasts well once opened – you’ve got to make it from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day, after all. Top-quality tawny port and liqueur Muscat or Tokay/Topaque from Australia, as well as heady Malmsey Madeira, all fit the bill. You can squeeze twelve glasses out of a bottle without short-changing anyone. Not bad, hey, and these are not expensive wines by any stretch of the imagination. 

Mince pies I generally follow the Christmas pud/Christmas cake lead of rich, sweet Madeira, youthful tawny port and blindingly brilliant Australian liqueur Muscats. It will save you another trip to the shops, and all of these brews are big enough to wrestle with four-star brandy butter.

CHEESE

The old ‘red-wine-with-cheese’ adage is downright wrong. When pondering which wine to drink with your chosen cheese, keep an open mind as, surprisingly, almost anything goes – white, red, sweet, dry and fortified. Try to keep your cheeseboard simple to limit the number of flavours and, therefore, wines needed – and watch out for chutney as its pungent flavour tends to trip wines up. I have listed the main categories of cheese and mentioned, within each, some of my favourite examples.

Fresh cheese (Cream cheese, feta, ricotta and mozzarella) These usually pop up in salads or simple cooking, and their flavours are not dominant, so drink what you fancy. Whites would be best and make sure they have some cleansing acidity on board.

Natural rind cheese (Goats’ cheese – Ticklemore, Sinodun Hill, Golden Cross, Brightwell Ash, Crottin de Chavignol, Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Saint-Marcellin and Selles-sur-Cher) Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France is the benchmark with goats’ cheese. The stunning wines from Sancerre are the pick of the crop (Chavignol is one of the finest wine villages in Sancerre and the home of the famous Crottin de Chavignol cheeses). If you’re caught short, any dry, fresh, unoaked white would be fine. If you like drinking red, Loire Cabernet Franc, Gamay, or Beaujolais work perfectly well.

Soft white cheese (TunworthSharphamCamembert, Brie de Meaux, Pavé d’Affinois, Chaource, Bonchester, Pencarreg, Explorateur, Boursault, Gratte-Paille and Brillat-Savarin) Once again, Sauvignon Blanc works terrifically well here. Although, if you want more palate ‘oomph’, head to Marlborough in New Zealand, Elim in South Africa or Adelaide Hills in Australia. Remember that the richer the cheese, the bigger the white, so Chardonnay can be considered, too. For reds, try Pinot Noir (either red Sancerre or lighter red Burgundies), fresh young Syrah/Shiraz from the Rhône or McLaren Vale in Oz, and rosé Champagne.  Gratte-Paille and Brillat-Savarin traditionally go well with youthful, inexpensive red Bordeaux.

Washed rind cheese Milder examples like ChaumesRollrightWigmoreOgleshieldPort Salut and Milleens need nothing more than dry, fruity reds – light Loire examples or inexpensive red Bordeaux or New World Merlots. Smellier cheeses, including Epoisses, Chambertin and Langres, enjoy white Burgundy (from Chablis in the north all of the way down to Mâcon in the south), Alsace Riesling or Pinot Gris, and other controlled (i.e. not too oaky) Chardonnays from further afield.  Munster loves Alsatian Gewürztraminer and WaterlooBaron Bigod and Vacherin Mont d’Or love red Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter red Rhônes.

Semi-soft cheese This covers a vast selection of cheese. Try the following combinations: Livarot – Alsatian Pinot Gris; Maroilles – Roussanne or Marsanne from the Rhône; Pont-l’Evêque – Viognier, also from the Rhône; Raclette – (assuming you are reading this halfway up a mountain in the Alps, you lucky thing) anything from the Savoie region, red or white; Gubbeen – Pinot Blanc or Sylvaner from Alsace; Edam – whatever, it’s not fussy (light whites and reds); Morbier – Rhône whites; Fontina – light, Alpine Gamay or Valpolicella; Reblochon – this outstanding cheese likes much richer Gamay (smart Cru Beaujolais) and also red Burgundy; Saint-Nectaire – another heroic cheese, particularly the wild, farmhouse version, enjoys the same again, plus meaty red Côtes-du-Rhônes; Tomme de Savoie and Tomme de Montagne – Rhône whites or lighter reds; Bel Paese and Taleggio – Lombardy whites such as Lugana and reds like Dolcetto, Barbera and Franciacorta.

Semi-Hard to Hard cheese The largest category of all, ranging from mild, via medium and strong, to extra-strong cheeses. As a starting point, get an idea of the strength and age of your chosen cheese (a small taste in the shop is recommended), which will help your wine selection. Cheeses in this group are, among others – Cheddar, Appleby Cheshire, Wensleydale, Gruyère, Lincolnshire Poacher, Cheshire, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, Cornish Yarg, Double Gloucester, Lancashire, Caerphilly, Gouda, Beaufort, Manchego, Cantal, Etorki, Comté, Emmenthal, Jarlsberg and Mimolette. From wines for mild cheese to wines for the extra strong: whites – Alsace Pinot Blanc, Chablis, Jurançon Sec, white Burgundy, white Rhônes, New World Semillons and, lastly, New World Chardonnays; reds – Loire reds, Chilean Merlot, Côtes-du-Rhône, spicy Italian reds like Primitivo, Old World Cabernet from Bordeaux or Margaret River (Australia), Shiraz from Frankland, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley (Australia), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Chianti (Italy), and Zinfandel (California); fortified – port (tawny, LBV and vintage), Madeira, Banyuls and Maury (both from France), and old oloroso sherries.

Blue cheese For Stilton, Stichelton, Bath Blue and Crozier, look no further than rich, nutty Madeira, tawny port, LBV or vintage port; Roquefort and Fourme d’Ambert, in contrast, prefer sweet Sauternes, Monbazillac or Saussignac; Dolcelatte is a bit of a lightweight and, because of its unusual sweet flavour and texture, I leave it alone (can you tell I can’t bear it?); Gorgonzola likes Amarone Della Valpolicella; Cashel Blue needs sweet whites; and Beenleigh Blue, on account of its birth nation, needs a pint of authentic, hazy scrumpy cider (drunk in Oxford overlooking the Cherwell!).

FIN