Wine: Raise a glass to festive cheer

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Last Christmas was spent visiting "the rellies" in Oz. It was second time round but still a surreal experience to find kangaroos sharing the Nativity scene with the baby Jesus and overdressed Santas obviously in need of a cooling drink before plunging down the chimney. Aussie drinking priorities are determined as much by the hot weather as the al fresco surroundings, which as often as not means firing up the barbie, chucking on some crayfish and washing them down with a chilled chardonnay. No such heresy for us. My parents-in-law like their Christmas "traditional", a routine of morning church, followed by bubbles, and then a proper sit-down do with turkey and all the trimmings, and my mother-in-law's Christmas pudding. At least my father-in-law lets me into the sanctuary of the purpose-built cellar to ransack the rack for a chest hair-growing shiraz.

If you're a stranger to Christmas down under, you have to pinch yourself to believe it. So in some ways it's a relief to be back in the cold and dark again, anticipating, if not a white one any more, at least a day in which present-opening for the children and bottle-opening for the grown-ups are the main diversions. It's a day, of course, on which heartwarming wines and Christmas cheer are synonymous. If you're opening the presents in the morning before lunch en famille, there's nothing as satisfying as warm mince pies and a glass of champagne to wash them down. A non-vintage brut can be nice and sharp with a sweet mince pie, so try one of the excellent fuller supermarket vintage fizzes or even a luxurious grande marque to get you in the mood. It's even a time to let demi-sec champagne play its part.

A little preparation is key to a successful day. A satisfied presence in the kitchen is essential to the smooth running of things, so it pays to ensure the cook is kept happy with all the moral and liquid support she, or he, needs by way of a suitably chilled white in the fridge. The bottle-opener-in-chief (funny how there are always so many willing acolytes to hand) should gauge the numbers and varying ages, tastes and demands of family and friends, while keeping a weather eye on the budget. For the fortunate few with a cellar in the house, it's time to bring out the fancy stuff: a brace of special burgundies, clarets or rhônes (or their New World counterparts) to accompany the festive bird should be plenty for six. Best not confuse the issue with a gaggle of different wines if you're throwing open the doors to larger numbers, and you'll avoid any tears by sticking to a main red with the meat or white with the fish. But have an alternative up your sleeve.

Christmas lunch starters are mostly lightish dishes such as smoked salmon, prawns, oysters or, in our case, a variety of nibbles. If you haven't blown the champagne budget, keep some back for oysters, pink fizz for smoked salmon and prawns, or, if that's way too extravagant, an unoaked chardonnay such as chablis, a pinot blanc or dry riesling for that extra lemon-squeeze of fresh acidity. Some like foie gras, for which sweet sauternes is the classic match, but who can eat a main course and Xmas pud on top of that? Since the roast takes centre stage, the wine should be powerful enough to handle all manner of trimmings from statutory sprouts to bread sauce and jelly, not to mention good enough for everyone, wine nerd or novice, to feel they're being indulged.

Even wine nuts eat Christmas pudding. I know I do because I'm brandy-butter-maker-in-chief and I like a bit of pud with my brandy butter. The debate over what to drink with the pudding is ongoing. Some prefer nothing at all but if you can't resist, the pudding wine should be sweet but not cloying, and no stigma is attached to a refreshingly grapey, chilled-down asti spumante or moscato d'asti. Alternatively, go for a sweet oloroso, a sticky Australian liqueur muscat or muscat de rivesaltes or beaumes de venise. If an overdose of sweetness is too much of a good thing, keep the sweet wine or port for the cheese. Port and stilton is the classic. If it's vintage, crusted or traditional LBV, stand it up the day before and decant a few hours before the meal. A sweet riesling, sauternes, Loire or New World white makes a lighter, more refreshing alternative, and by this stage, you may be in need of that pick-me-up.

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