Battle of the bottles: do spirits have a place at the Christmas table? Nay


Photograph: Joakim Blockstrom

Photograph: Joakim Blockstrom

Following on from yesterday’s post, Mark Pardoe MW – our Wine Buying Director – steps into the ring, appealing to the head and heart as he claims wine’s worth at Christmas.

It always seems to me that complex spirits – by which I mostly mean Cognac, Armagnac and Scotch whisky – are meditative drinks, savoured either in introspective isolation, or ruminatively with a small circle of friends. And the best are indeed complex; I was educated by a devotee with a deep, if parochial, knowledge of malt whisky during a sailing holiday in the Western Isles, with an extensive blind tasting in a different harbour every night. And I would not discount the joys of gin, especially now that there are so many good ones on the market. A really good gin and tonic is a match for Champagne at the start of the evening; well, almost.

But wine is a much more social animal. A bottle can be quickly finished among a group of friends and the arrival of the next can create the evening’s next chapter. The inclusiveness, the laughter, the friendship in a glass refilled: all these are associated in my mind with wine. And then there is the marriage at the table; oysters and Chablis, salt marsh lamb and Pauillac, poulet de Bresse and Burgundy, the list is almost endless. The miracle of two independent elements combining to enhance and reveal each other’s characters and flavours is a remarkable, almost synaesthetic delight.

And then there is the history. Of course, you can find spirits of a defined age but spirits are distilled, a continuous process. Wine (unless a non-vintage blend) is the product and culmination of one specific agricultural year. Where were you in September 2005? Well, perhaps you are my guest and the wine I have poured you was born in that moment, just as a child. And when the privilege extends further back, then you truly drink history: a Tokay from the reign of Queen Victoria; a gentle Claret from between the wars from the year of my mother’s birth; a noble Vouvray blessed by the blissful summer that marked the end of World War II and the return of the fortunate to their homes. The experiences can sometimes be visceral and genuinely make you stop and think.

So at Christmas, when companionship and reflection link arms with family and jollity, wine is the historic and current accompaniment. It doesn’t have to be fine, expensive or rare, because the pleasure is simply and easily shared.  And I can drink a bit more wine than I can whisky before my eyelids begin to droop.