Christmas with a New World slant


Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

Selecting the perfect wine to drink alongside your Christmas feast can seem a daunting prospect. Here, Catriona Felstead MW advocates looking to the New World for effortless choices that will work well whatever’s on the menu.

Christmas: if you are anything like me, you haven’t even thought about it yet. That enormous tick-list of presents to buy, family to invite, food to plan, let alone what wine to drink. The wine often comes as an afterthought, involving a panic purchase online or a last-minute dash to the shops. But wine is such an integral part of the whole Christmas experience that it is a shame to rush the selection. My advice for this year is to think about the wine early; get it off your to-do list and into your cellar (or just under the stairs), where it can spend the next few weeks in peace and quiet, while you rush around like a mad thing upstairs.

So you can’t plan the wine because you haven’t bought the food yet? Not so. Unless you are going particularly off-piste in your cooking this year, Christmas dinners are, let’s face it, reasonably predictable. Yes, there are food and wine matching rules to follow, but wine can actually be very versatile, particularly wines from the New World (ie the Americas, Antipodes and South Africa) where longer sunshine hours result in brighter fruit and softer tannins (for reds). This broader, juicier character, in contrast with the European wines more traditionally associated with Christmas cuisine, can work in your favour if you haven’t quite worked out your menu yet.

Let’s look at a possible line-up for Christmas Day lunch. First of all, there’s the fizz. As New World Buyer, I am clearly slightly biased towards my regions but, hands up, even I admit that you can’t beat a really good Champagne. There are some excellent rivals from England and Australia to be found however, especially if you fancy something different, but the best alternatives still come at Champagne price-points. If you are keeping an eye on the Christmas budget then you would do well to look at our own-label Crémant, my Christmas sparkling of choice. It is broad textured and has lovely flavour, meaning that it will work well on its own or with most canapés.

Fish is often a key component of Christmas entrées. Here, a general rule is that crisp, dry, white wines with good acidity work best. A fresh Chilean or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc would be just the ticket, however, smoked salmon might call for a glass more of that Crémant, as the fuller flavour would be better at balancing out the distinctive smoky taste. If you have a particular penchant for meatier varieties, such as tuna and mackerel, then a fruity, slightly chilled Pinot Noir, from New Zealand for example, can work wonderfully well.

On to the main course: turkey is the obvious candidate here. If you have gone for the New Zealand Pinot Noir for your starter then keep your glass full for the main; the smooth, low tannins and bright fruit work very well with the bird, which does not have the fatty character that you would look for to match with a fuller-bodied red. If you prefer white wine with your white meat, then a delicately oaked Chardonnay would suit. The Adelaide Hills in Australia, the Itata Valley in Chile or Elgin in South Africa are all home to producers making superb, refined styles of Chardonnay that would go well. For the perfect match, just make sure to look for the word ‘elegant’ in the tasting notes as opposed to ‘rich’ or ‘full-bodied’, or ideally ask a Wine Advisor to recommend a bottle.

If you already know that you are avoiding the turkey this year, then a fine Bordeaux blend from Stellenbosch or a rich Malbec from Argentina would have the tannins and weight to cope with beef. If lamb is on the table, then a stylish Syrah or Southern Rhône blend from the Swartland in South Africa would make for an exceptional pairing with the accompanying herb flavours.

And finally, the dessert. Sweet wine is called for but those made from botrytised grapes, such as Alsace and German wines, are so complex that they require more attention when matching with food. If you don’t know what you will be serving yet, then an ice wine from Canada, which is luscious and pure, would be a fantastic and versatile match with many puddings, and even the cheese.

Food for thought? New World wines are by no means the only option for Christmas drinking but they can be very adept at matching a wide array of dishes, even if you haven’t planned your menu yet. Why not take a different tack this year and match the food to the wine, rather than the other way round? But don’t get too hung up on matching everything completely accurately; in my view, the greatest pleasure in good wine is to be found by sharing it with good company and that, in a nutshell, is what Christmas gatherings are all about.

Shop our selection of New World alternatives for Christmas here or, for more classic options, browse our Christmas pages.