As 2020 draws to close, I don’t think it’s going to have the same level of festive cheer as other years. Social gatherings are limited, curfews in place and travel restricted.
However, we can take solace in the form of great seasonal food and wines to enjoy within our social bubbles.
Let’s start with apéritif wine, Champagne, a traditional choice for festive get-togethers but there is no reason why it cannot be enjoyed in groups of six or less. Besides, everyone gets a decent glass! Champagne is notoriously costly, so if you are going to splash out, don’t just get a big brand from the supermarket. Check out your local cavistes for what they offer. I have found that they often have individual grower Champagnes for just a Euro or two more than a brand.
Alternatively try one of the other French regional sparkling wines, which offer better value for money than Champagne. There are numerous crémants from Limoux, Alsace, Bourgogne and the Loire, which also produces sparkling Vouvray.
Smoked salmon is often suggested with Champagne but I think this is a poor match. It is far better with a red Burgundy, in my opinion. The smokiness of the fish goes really well with the oaky notes and the oiliness works better with tannins in red wine than with acidity in white.
Oysters also spring to mind with bubbles but if swallowing a live oyster with a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice makes you grimace, add a Mornay sauce and grill them briefly instead. If oysters are not your thing at all, how about serving the sparkling wine with seafood terrine, rillettes de la mer or duck pâté on toast. Also try it with fresh seasonal fruit.
Those seafood nibbles go equally well with crisp dry white wines. If fizz leaves you underwhelmed, maybe splash out on a good Sancerre (made from Sauvignon blanc), Chablis (made from Chardonnay) or a white Bordeaux (usually Sauvignon blanc and Semillon).
Sweet white wines also make a lovely apéritif. Sauternes, Monbazillac, Coteaux du Layon or one of the southern sweet Muscats are all nice on their own and also with foie gras, if you are that way inclined.
Covid-19 means that a massive turkey roast with trimmings is probably off the menu this Christmas, but whether you go for a smaller turkey, a chapon (capon), pintade (guinea fowl) or a high-quality farm chicken, from basic Label Rouge to the very expensive Bresse, there are plenty of French wines to go with it.
Red and white wine
Those who prefer to eat their roast at lunchtime will probably prefer a lighter red wine or even a rich white. For white wine, I would recommend a good Burgundy. Unfortunately the best of these, like Meursault and Montrachet now cost a lot, but Savigny-lès-Beaunes, Pernand Vergelesses, Chablis or a Mâcon such as Pouilly-Fuissé and Viré- Clessé offer better value. Alternatively there are some fantastic whites from Languedoc-Roussillon at around the €15-20 mark.
Lighter reds would include Loire wines from Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur- Champigny, all of which benefit from a few years in the bottle. Beaujolais is also making a comeback from the years where it was all about quaffing loads of primeur. Choose one of the crus, such as Fleurie or Morgon if you want more character. Red Burgundy would be a real treat but, like the whites, prices for the best are now in the PSG footballer bracket but some AOPs like Pommard, Fixin and Mercurey offer Pinot noir at less lofty prices.
For an evening Christmas meal, I would normally go for a medium-bodied red. Bordeaux and the regions around would be the natural choice but the huge range of Bordeaux wines makes it a bit of a nightmare when it comes to choosing the right one, especially if you haven’t tasted it before. Vintage matters in Bordeaux and of what is available at the moment I would avoid 2017 and 2013. 2016 and 2015 are highly rated vintages but the best wines are still too young to drink. 2014 and 2012, if you can find them, are probably the best of this decade to enjoy now.
There are lots of AOPs in Bordeaux, from the basic level up to the likes of Pomerol, Pauillac and Margaux. There are many “petits chateaux” in Graves, Médoc and Haut Médoc that offer good value for money and a noticeable improvement on run-of-the-mill AOP Bordeaux. “Cru Bourgeois” on the label is usually a sign of quality too.
As an alternative to Bordeaux, without straying too far in taste, I would suggest trying wine from the South West, such as Cahors or Irouléguy. Syrah from the Northern Rhone, such as Saint Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage would also be a good match. For more body and less tannin, Grenache from the Southern Rhone is a good choice. For a step up from Cotes du Rhone, try a wine from one of the named villages like Lirac, Rasteau, Gigondas or Vacqueyras. Languedoc-Roussillon produces some surprisingly elegant wines too but sadly the supermarkets, outside the region, tend only to stock the big brands which aim to be soft and fruity.
Fortified red wines
If you still have room left for Christmas pudding and cake, and the liver-capacity for more wine, perhaps the best choices are the sweet fortified red wines of Rivesaltes, Maury and Banyuls, all made in roughly the same way as Port. They are labelled rimage, which is a young, unoxidised version, Tuilé (slightly oxidised) and Tradition (aged in barrel). I would recommend serving these wines slightly chilled rather than at room temperature.
Stilton, another Christmas favourite, is becoming more popular in France and you often see very good ones for sale at markets and in specialist cheese shops. It goes nicely with these fortified red wines as well as the sweet white wines that I mentioned for an apéritif, assuming there is still some left in the bottle.
Fruity white wine
However, if you are looking for something more refreshing to end the evening, perhaps a fruity white such as Alsace Riesling or Gewürztraminer would be the better choice.
Jonathan Hesford is owner and vigneron of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon; www.domainetreloar.com.