You may well have given a fair amount of thought by now to what you’ll be drinking with your turkey or goose and have set treasured bottles of Bordeaux or Burgundy aside for the main Christmas meal. But what about all the other occasions over the festive period which these days tends to stretch a good 10 days into the early New Year?
If your house is anything like mine you will have wildly overcatered and your fridge, storecupboard and cellar will be overflowing with ingredients and bottles that might be required for unexpected guests. You will also, I guess, have many occasions when a snack rather than a meal is required or when you simply can’t face making a pudding on top of all the other cooking you’re doing.
This is when your battery of fortified wines comes into its own, turning a scratch meal into a treat, creating an unusual and tempting cheeseboard or, along with a selection of festive cakes, biscuits, dried fruits or chocolates, keeping the sweet-toothed happy at the end of a meal.
Here is a selection of ideas for seasonal food and fortified wine pairings, some classic, others a little more off-beat.
Fino and Manzanilla sherry
In danger of being overlooked amidst all the bottles of port and sweeter sherries, a fresh fino or manzanilla is exactly what you need as a refreshing Christmas pick-me-up. You can obviously drink it with olives (especially green ones), nuts (I’d suggest Spanish Marcona almonds which are particularly delicious) and tapas such as chorizo, serrano ham and Manchego cheese but this style of sherry is also particularly good with strongly flavoured seafood such as garlic prawns and smoked fish (surprisingly it’s one of the best wine matches I’ve found with smoked salmon). You could also pour a glass with a few crostini or toast spread with those excellent inexpensve fish pats which you can now buy in any supermarket or even drink it with an antipasti plate of mixed salamis and grilled vegetables. A must for every Christmas fridge.
Pale cream sherries/white port/sweeter styles of Sercial
Particularly delicious with fresh fruit-based starter salads such melon and ham or pear and blue cheese or with fresh fruit desserts such as a fruit salad (served well chilled like a dessert wine). An attractive and unusual pairing for milder blue cheeses such as blue Brie, Gorgonzola dolce (Dolcelatte) or with panettone.
Dry amontillado sherry/palo cortado/dry (e.g. verdelho) madeira
A fuller, richer style of sherry or madeira that also goes particularly well with nuts especially almonds, brazil nutsand hazelnuts (try it with the middle eastern spiced nut and seed dip, dukkah) It is also a less conventional, but successful partner for hard cheeses such as cheddar, Manchego and other sheep’s cheeses. It’s great strength though is with the fabulous Spanish jamon iberico and with hot tapas such as mushrooms in sherry and ‘albondigas’ (little meatballs) that make a good snack meal during the holiday period. Serve cool rather than at room temperature or fridge-cold.
Dry oloroso sherry/full-flavoured dry madeira
Producers at sherry dinners often partner this style of sherry with main course game dishes such as partridge or pheasant. It’s always an impressive match but one I think we’re all less linclined to indulge in over Christmas when there are so many good bottles of red wine around.
Leftovers though are another matter. This style of sherry and madeira is the perfect ingredient to jazz up a few tasty morsels of cold pheasant, duck or, best of all, goose or a sandwich made with any of those meats. It’s also the perfect accompaniment for a cold game pie or a rough country pat or terrine. I also tend to reach for this style of sherry with smoked meats such as duck, and venison and with cured meats such as bresaola and it makes a good match with strong hard cheeses such as mature Gouda, Mimolette, Parmigiano Reggiano and Asiago. While you’ve got the bottle open, a dash - heretical though it may sound to suggest it - also does wonders for a gravy or a rich beefy stew.
Sweet oloroso sherry/bual madeira, malaga, sweet moscatel
Sweet oloroso sherries, madeiras and moscatels can taste like Christmas pudding themselves so you may feel it’s overkill serving them wtith a Christmas cake or pudding. I’m not so sure about that. Christmas is a time for overindulgence so on the basis that you can’t have too much of a good thing I’d suggest adding a generous dollop of mascarpone or ice cream to your pud which will show off the puddingy flavours of your wine to perfection. They’ll also go with other Christmas bakery such as Stollen, panforte and similar products such as the delicious Australian Norcia Nutcake (in fact almost anything with dried fruits such as figs, dates or prunes). I once had an old Bual with a prune sabayon and it was a wonderful match.
You could also, if you fancied a break from mince pies, lay out a selection of Spanish nougat (turron), biscuits such as Polvorones and Ines Rosales (sweet olive oil-based biscuits) and dried fruits such as figs, dates and large moscatel raisins and serve them with sweet sherry instead of a dessert as a kind of sweet tapas.
And for another break with tradition why not try sweet sherry or madeira rather than port with your cheeseboard, especially with richly flavoured cheeses such as Mimolette and blue cheeses such as Gorgonzola or Cabrales.
Ultra sweet sherry/Malmsey madeira
Almost too rich to serve with anything else sweet with the possible exception of vanilla ice cream or - a signature dish at London’s much loved restaurant Moro - Malaga raisin ice cream with Pedro Ximenez. The temperature helps cut the sweetness. The sherry ads a real luxury note to the ice cream.
Late bottled vintage and other younger ruby ports/vin doux naturels such as Banyuls and Maury/late harvest Zinfandel
Dark chocolate is the pairing par excellence for these dark, rich brambly wines, especially chocolate desserts that incorporate cherries or other red fruits. Young ports really will cope where other dessert wines falter. Try them lightly chilled with a buche de Noel (French style chocolate ‘log’ or roulade)
They’re also particularly good with blue cheese, most famously stilton (though I do think at Christmas vintage port has the edge as I’ve suggested below). Why not serve an all-blue cheeseboard for a change including a mild blue for those who can’t cope with stronger flavours?
A snack of a warm mince pie, a couple of fine slices of crumbly Stilton and a small glass of Late Bottled Vintage port goes down particularly well when you can’t face anything more substantial to eat. And don’t forget port makes a great addition to any mulled wine.
Probably my favourite Christmas drink because it’s so versatile. You can drink it chilled as an aperitif like an amontillado sherry, serve it as a substitute for dessert wines (especially with any dried fruit or nut-based dessert or bring it out with the cheese (it has a particular affinity with sheeps cheese and membrillo (Spanish quince paste) and with Cheddar)
The best pairings with depend on the age of the wine. The older the tawny the more likely it is to go with raisiny, figgy flavours - 20 year old tawny is an excellent companion for Christmas cake. Younger, 10 year old ports especially modern styles like Otima, are particularly good with any dessert that has a caramel or toffee note - creme brule, apple or banana tatins or sticky toffee pudding for example. They’re excellent with nut-based tarts like walnut or pecan pie, with pumpkin pie (I’m getting hungry, here) or plain, moist, densely-textured cakes like madeira and pound cake. You could also sip a chilled young tawny with panettone as an alternative to Vin Santo. And they’re an indulgent partner for a dried fruit compote.
The bottle you’re most likely to have open at Christmas I would guess. And yes, it probably is the ultimate match for Stilton, in terms of what people expect (although those of you who read our cheese and wine tasting last year may remember that our panel actually preferred Sauternes. Port was the top choice with mature Cheddar ) To assist the match I would suggest you lay on some quality dried fruits such as moscatel raisins or fresh Medjool dates.
Like late bottled vintage port, vintage port is also good with chocolate - a flattering accompaniment to top quality hand-made chocolates and artisanal chocolate bars or (particularly delicious) chocolate covered figs.
This article was first published in the December 2007 issue of Decanter magazine.