Wine: A white Christmas

We usually think of Christmas and New Year as winter feasts most suited to hearty reds. But are we right to do so?

December 11, 2014
© Mike Willis
© Mike Willis

Feasts need wine, and seasonal feasts need seasonal wines. We usually think of Christmas and New Year as winter feasts most suited to hearty reds. But are we right to do so?

The mistake that some people make is serving a cherished, trophy red at Christmas. After all, it is a special occasion. But the range of flavours in a festive meal may overpower, or at least subdue, some of the subtle flavours of an aged Bordeaux or Barolo. As a rule of thumb, the more complex the wine, the simpler the food should be, and vice versa. Paul Pontallier, the chief wine maker at Chateau Margaux, once expressed surprise at a dinner organised by Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, when vintages of Chateau Margaux were served in reverse order, oldest to youngest. But he readily agreed that this was the right decision, for as the dishes got progressively heartier, they would have overpowered the delicate flavours of the beautifully aged wines, while the younger, more vigorous vintages were fine.

Similarly, it may be time to re-think the choice of a bottle of sturdy red with a rich festive meal. What you need most of all is refreshment—and, if you are pacing yourself, a wine lower in alcohol. So consider a varietal like Riesling, which make clean, refreshing wines with a razor-sharp acidity. Not only are Rieslings made in colder northern climates, they also come in a variety of styles that can be drunk with each course of the meal. On the banks of the Rhine, they make sparking Riesling, or Sekt, which would serve for the aperitif. This can be followed by a young, still Kabinett or, for something special, one could choose a decently-aged Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese from Joh Jos Prüm, who make wines that with age take on high, almost menthol notes, lending them lightness.

Now comes the main course. Here it is hard to prise people away from reds, and yet this may be the moment to try the unusual Riesling Spätlese made by Anselmann. These are wines made from sweet, late-picked grapes but which are vinified to produce a dry wine, giving the liquid a rich, golden colour and a satisfying weight in the mouth. These are not just wines of considerable interest, they are also good matches with many foods. Entertain the snowy bright image of a German Christmas scene and I hope you will come round to the idea of whites at your winter feast. But if you really cannot do without a glass of red, try staying with cool climate reds like a Spätburgunder made from Pinot Noir, or a Blauer Zwiegelt, with its aromas of rosehip and white pepper.

And to finish? Here, the choice is easy: a Trockenbeerenauslese. These are wines made with precious, late-picked grapes that have been shrivelled by the cold and ravaged by botrytis (noble rot). After months more on the vine, these tiny grapes turn into dry, intensely sweet, raisin-like berries. The compound German name means dried, specially-selected berries from a favoured harvest. The almost-perished fruit produces heavenly wines of great complexity with huge ageing potential. Put some in your cellar and it will just get better and better. In the glass, these provide ideal foils to salty blue cheeses. For dessert try an Eiswein, or “ice wine.” In years where the grapes are rapidly frozen, locking in ripeness and acidity, this creates an intensely sweet wine balanced by a fruit-tart edge. A glass of one of these Rieslings is a dessert in itself.

If you want a white Christmas, the Riesling family offers plenty to choose from. A fine white wine will ensure that you end the season well—and wake to the new one with a lighter head.