One of the most interesting aspects of wine drinking is precisely one that many people don’t bother with: that of matching wines with food. A few of my friends are most knowledgeable about wine, yet they never bother to use their expertise to discover those wines that best fit in with a meal.
Perhaps these friends are not all that interested in food, because to get the most out of the highly entertaining matching game, you must be as keen on gastronomy as you are on wine drinking.The two should go together, like hand and glove on a winter’s day, but that’s not always the case.
The 12 days of Christmas are the best time of the year for those who have yet to discover the delights of trying to match a wine with a dish. It is during the festive season that we are likely to have a few good wines waiting to be uncorked, as well as food in the fridge we don’t eat at other times of the year. That is an ideal combination and an opportunity for a little wine and food pairing.
One of the beauties of trying to match wine with a dish is that you can never make a mistake, never make a fool of yourself. This is one of those games when match point is always yours.
That’s because the matching of wine and food is totally subjective: a wine-food combination that one person enjoys may be a no-no for his best friend or partner. There’s nothing wrong with that because the matching game is all about personal taste, both in wine and food. A person who likes a sweet sherry with an underdone entrecôte cannot be ridiculed because in his opinion that is a good match. We may think it is a bit eccentric, but we should also consider the possibility that he knows more than we do about wine and food matching.
In the above text I have mentioned the pairing of wine and food nine times and on each occasion I have put wine first. That’s because I’m like the French: I decide which wine I’ll be drinking and then I start to think of a dish or an ingredient that will be a good match.
But the vast majority of Britons and Spaniards do the opposite: they first decide on a dish then they think on a matching wine. There’s nothing wrong with putting the dish before the wine, because it’s simply a question of emphasis.
The Frenchman who chooses a wine and then a dish is more interested in the wine and wants to enhance it with food that pairs well.
For the purposes of this article, it’s easier to mention the dish and then go on to a wine that’s a good match…or may be a good match, because it all depends on one’s personal taste. There are no fixed rules in the matching game but a few guidelines will help to steer us in the right direction.
What we must avoid at all costs is the old concept of white wine with fish, red with meat and a rosado when we are in doubt or when someone is having meat and another has ordered fish at the same meal.
Many fish dishes can take a young red — and some robust and highly flavourful fish stews call for a red aged in oak. Sometimes it’s not the main ingredient that matters most, but the way in which it is cooked.
Some foods are notoriously difficult to match with an appropriate wine, and two of them could easily be on the table during one of the 12 days of Christmas: fresh artichokes and asparagus.
It is said that the bitter taste in asparagus and artichokes will fight hard with any wine, but that’s not quite true. Apart from anything else, both vegetables are sometimes far from bitter — it depends on how they are cooked.
Wines to consider with artichokes sautéed in butter include crisp whites made with the riesling grape, or dry Italian whites you especially like. I would also go for a verdejo from Rueda, one of Spain’s best whites — and it comes with a most reasonable price tag.
A sauvignon blanc with artichokes or asparagus in a hollandaise sauce would be rather nice. You could try one from California or Australia, but one from Rueda would also be interesting — and much cheaper. If either vegetable is served with a vinaigrette and the cook has gone easy on the vinegar, then a French muscadet or a Tuscan dry white could be just right.
El Corte Inglés usually has boxes of French oysters at a reasonable price over the Christmas period, although at the time of writing I haven’t seen them. If you have them au natural on the half shell, you should try a zesty dry white. I’d go for one of the Spanish sauvignon blancs, either one from Rueda or the Miguel Torres Fransola from Penedès that is fermented in new American oak and then left on its own lees for six months. This is an interesting wine at any time of the year.
For the past few years a good quality smoked salmon has been one of my Christmas treats…especially if it’s from Scotland. After a most pleasant process of elimination, my favourite wine with this delicious creation is now a gewürztraminer. I prefer a Hugel from Alsace but a Spanish Viñas del Vero is also most acceptable.
Christmas is also the time we splash out on little really good Iberian cured ham. How good depends on how thin the ham is and how thick your wallet is: some can cost as much as €18 for 100 grs. But others, also first rate, have much lower price tags. Get the dearest one you can afford.
Eat it Spanish style, with your fingers, and as a stand-up appetiser as you drink a dry sherry. You could also have a cava of your choice or, for a change, a rosado. A highly recommendable one is the Veritas Roig of the José L. Ferrer bodega in Binissalem.
I usually have leg of lamb on Christmas Eve and with it I open a cabernet sauvignon. But mature reds from any country would also be a nice match. The good thing about doing a roast leg of lamb for one of the meals of the 12 days of Christmas is that it’s an easy dish that doesn’t need any special preparation. You can just pop it into the hot oven and it looks after itself — apart, perhaps, from a little basting.
The most popular main course at Christmas is turkey, meat that will happily accept whites, rosados, reds or cava. It is often the stuffing and the trimmings that decide what you should drink with turkey.
If the stuffing is meaty and well spiked with herbs, the sausages on the spicy side and the parsnips have soaked up some rich gravy, a cabernet sauvignon or a merlot would be a good choice. Several people I know would serve a chardonnay aged in wood — and that would also be a good choice.
A friend has a good way of playing the matching game over Christmas — and I mean the 12 days of Christmas, not just the 25th. He splashes out and buys a varied selection of cheeses, mainly French non-pasteurised made with goat’s or ewe’s milk, but also some of the finest hard Spanish cheeses.
He doesn’t give much thought to matching the wines and cheeses before buying them: he simply has tasting sessions during which he selects two cheeses and two wines. He has these tastings after lunch with a few friends and serves the cheeses instead of dessert.
The highlight of this festival of festive wine-cheese tastings is on January 6 when he serves only stilton and three ports. Port and stilton are the perfect match for him and he wouldn’t want to even consider any other drink for this English blue cheese.
The favourite shellfish in Mallorcan homes at Christmas is boiled langostinos and the traditional wine is a manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barrameda. One of the dry sherries that you’ll find in every supermarket is also good choice, as are the whites from the Ferrer bodega in Binissalem or Macià Batle in Santa María.
If you’re having plain boiled lobster you should try any of the Spanish sauvignon blancs or chardonnays at prices within your budget. If the lobster is grilled and served with a sauce, go for the full-bodied chardonnays that have been aged in oak.
If you’ve been waiting in the queue at the charcuterie counter in El Corte Inglés, you may have been surprised at the huge amounts of sliced meats Spaniards have been buying. That’s because in many Spanish homes a platter of cold cuts is an essential part of the Christmas table.
If you are having a selection of sliced stuffed chicken, salamis, mortadella, cooked ham, chorizo, salchichón and other goodies from the charcuterie counter, you should try any of the young Spanish reds, which are better than those being made in any other country — including France.
A few of my friends have foie gras only at Christmas because it is too expensive to be included in the budget at other times of the year. By foie gras I mean the fresh liver of the fattened duck or goose that is cooked in seconds on a hot dry frying pan, making it a simple but luxurious starter for any festive meal.
Ideally, we’d all drink a sauterne, but this French sweet wine comes with a price that is far too high for most of us. But that isn’t a problem because you’ll find half a dozen sweet Spanish whites that fit the bill very nicely…and you needn’t look any further than the Veritas Dolç of the José L. Ferrer bodega in Binissalem, which is as good as the finest white sweet wines from the mainland.
If you’re trying to be different by having venison on one of the 12 days of Christmas, you’ll find it at El Corte Inglés. A Rioja Alta crianza would make a nice match and so would full-bodied reds from other parts of Spain.
Several people I know have stuffed roast duck on one of the festive season days and a French pinot noir would be ideal. You could also try one of the Spanish pinot noirs.
This is the time of year when some people have game such as pheasant or partridge, both of which are available at El Corte Inglés. If the partridge or pheasant are young ones, they are best plain roasted and the flavour of meats will be enhanced with a pinot noir such as the Viñas del Vero. If they are older birds that have been braised or casseroled with green cabbage and red wine, then one of the Spanish cabernet sauvignons will pair nicely.
In days of yore roast beef was a popular choice for an English Christmas Day lunch because people couldn’t afford it at other times of the year. One of my best ever Christmas Day meals for the family was a standing rib roast from Galicia which I did at 210C for a short time — and it was of a beautiful pink hue from top to bottom.
The best match for roast beef is a full-bodied red and especially good are Rioja reservas, but also the Ferrer Reserva which is made with 80 per cent of the local mantonegro grape, 10 per cent tempranillo (Rioja’s main red wine grape) and 10 per cent cabernet sauvignon. It is aged for 20 months in oak and has at least another 18 months in the bottle before being released… a wine that deserves the finest of the roasted or grilled red meats.