It's party time and with any luck you'll be indulging in more than your fair share of luxury foods. But what to drink with them? The easy answer for most is champagne and that often works because it's as much a mood match as a food one. But if you're not content with the obvious so I've also come up with a few intriguing and stimulating alternatives:
If you have lavish quantitites of caviar and are eating it pure and unadulterated threre's only one perfect match in my book and that is champagne. No other drink, even vodka, preserves the delicate texture of the eggs quite as well.
Which champagne is up to you. My own preference for a crisp, clean, unoxidised style such as Dom Perignon, or more inexpensively, Laurent Perrier or Taittinger or a bone dry non-dosage champagne such as Drappier Nature. If you're combining it with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon a blanc de blancs would be good.
Because of its cost though, caviar is often combined with other ingredients such as oysters, smoked salmon or - most commonly - blinis, sour cream, chopped egg and raw onion which militate against a top champagne and also bring other wines into play. A crisp Sauvignon Blanc, for example, with some lemon peel character such as you'd find in the Casablanca Valley in Chile or the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia would work well as would the intriguing new Spanish white Godello.
There's also caviar and 'caviar' - caviare lookalikes like Onuga which are fine for parties and perfectly good with less expensive sparkling wines. At wine merchant House of Glunz in Chicago recently I was was offered some great canapés made from white fish caviar flavoured with chillies and Absolut Peppar ( (available in the US from www.collinscaviar.com) which were paired very successfully with a Blanquette de Limoux
Just bear in mind - whichever wine you choose - that the saltiness of caviar (and oysters below) will make white and sparkling wines with a significant level of residual sugar taste uncomfortably sweet.
With foie gras becoming increasingly controversial (see my own reasons for no longer eating it here) it's turning into an indulgence to share with consenting adults only - most probably Frenchmen (or women) or ardent Francophiles. The classic match, of course is Sauternes but there are many other sweet wines which work equally well such as Jurançon, vendange tardive Gewurztraminer or a Tokaji.
Not everyone wants to start a meal with a sweet wine though and it's not always necessary to do so. I can remember enjoying a top-of-the-range barrel-fermented chardonnay from Domaine de Tariquet with a foie gras terrine at Club Gascon, the Michelin-starred London restaurant that probably has more experience than any other in matching foie gras. They also pair oaked white Bordeaux - an M de Malle - with another preparation of smoked foie gras with pine needles. 'You don't want too sweet a wine with foie gras because it is already quite heavy? says the restaurant's sommelier Stephanie Delmotte.
Personally I've found that sweet wines such as Sauternes or Monbazillac work better with cold foie gras dishes (whether goose or duck) than with seared ones where you need a more powerful contrast to the richness of the dish particularly if there is accompanying fruit on the plate. A lightly chilled Banyuls for example can be good with a foie gras dish that includes some kind of red fruit or compote. Club Gascon even turns to sparkling cider with a dish of foie gras and apples.
Foie gras is also of course served as part of main course meat dishes such as Tournedos Rossini or other steak and game dishes. At La Petite Maison in Mayfair they pair their signature dish of roast Blackleg chicken with foie gras with a glass of Savigny-les-Beaune for example. Personally I'd go for something a bit more serious - something like a Chambolle-Musigny or Vosne-Romanée or other top quality pinot noir with a bit of bottle age, a Côte-Rotie or other high quality Syrah, or even - if the meat was rich enough - a mature red Bordeaux or Meritage blend. (What you don't want with something as delicate as foie gras is obtrusive tannins so avoid blockbuster young reds.)
Oysters are a traditional part of the French Christmas and 'reveillon' (New Year) celebrations, usually served 'au nature' without any accompaniments. Personally I think that's the best way to appreciate their clean, marine flavour and velvety texture, using the wine itself as a seasoning.
The wines that work best for me are the classics - young, unoaked Chablis being probably more suitable for festive drinking than the lesser (though equally successful) Muscadet and Picpoul de Pinet. A genuinely dry, fresh, mineral champagne (see caviare above) also hits the spot. Ruinart Sommelier of the Year, Nicolas Clerc of the Milestone Hotel in Kensington, recommends Champagne Vouette et Sorbée "Blanc d'Argile", Brut Non-Dosé
If you want to drink a slightly fuller champagne or white burgundy I've found that serving your oysters with a small squeeze of lemon creates a more harmonious pairing. These wines also work better with dishes that include cooked oysters such as deep-fried oysters.
If you're celebrating in the southern hemisphere of course you may well be accompanying your oysters with more punchy flavourings such as citrus and coriander and even chillies which lead more in the direction of a zesty white than a minerally one in which case I'd be going for something like a Verdelho, top quality Pinot Grigio or a crisp, unoaked cool climate Sauvignon Blanc
Possibly the most wine-friendly of all luxury ingredients, truffles are the ideal accompaniment to a fine wine - white, red or sparkling. White truffles, with their exotically scented aromas and flavours always strike me as the perfect accompaniment to vintage champagne, aged white burgundy or other top quality chardonnays which love umami-rich foods.
Ironically though in Piedmont, land of white truffles, they predominantly pair red wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco with them which works incredibly well with their egg-rich pasta. Mature red burgundy and other top quality pinot noir is also a strong contender particularly if there's chicken or guineafowl in the dish.
Black truffles, which are more commonly combined with meat or game, are one of the best ingredients to match with top Bordeaux (especially Cabernet-dominated blends) and top Rhone reds such as Côte Rôtie or their new world equivalents. if you're bringing out one of your best reds for the festive season find some way to incorporate truffles - or at the very least - mushrooms in the dish.
Ham never used to be thought of as a luxury ingredient but the wider availability of top quality ham from Spain and Italy has changed all that. And with its ease of preparation it makes an ideal dish for entertaining. The first really striking match I discovered with both Pata Negra, the famous Spanish acorn-fed ham and Culatello, the top artisanal ham from the Parma region of Italy was Dom Pérignon whose winemaker Richard Geoffroy is a genius at creating headline-grabbing pairings. It works brilliantly well at cutting through the sweet fat of the meat but I'm not sure I don't prefer the more authentic pairing of an old dry amontillado or palo cortado sherry. You can also accompany it very enjoyably with a Rioja gran reserva or an old white Rioja - the perfect snack between all those festive blow-outs.
Salmon has become so ubiquitous I'm not sure it strictly qualifies as a luxury any more. Or not if it's farmed, at least. However if you're serving it at a party that might well be the kind you go for. It might also - like caviar - have some quite robust accompaniments that might lead you in the direction of a zesty Sauvignon Blanc or a dry riesling rather than the more obvious pairing of champagne or champagne lookalikes. (Additions that will make sparkling wine work better are canapé bases like croutons or choux puffs and creamy fillings or toppings.)
Wild salmon (the best, I've found, comes from Ireland rather than Scotland) deserves rather more respect. If you want an entirely different taste sensation I suggest you serve it, like pata negra ham, pure and unadorned with either chilled manzanilla sherry from a freshly opened bottle or, if you have wine geek friends to impress, Xavier Rousset of Texture recommends the sherry-like Vernaccia di Oristano from Sardinia. I also have a weakness, on the 'match the terroir' principle, for a dram of a top quality malt whisky such as Springbank.
Hand-made chocolates/artisan chocolate bars
Chocolate desserts are a notorious minefield for wine but artisanal chocolates and chocolate bars, which tend to be less sweet and eaten cold rather than molten, are a different matter, as I discovered from attending Roberto Bava's fascinating presentation at a Decanter Fine Wine Encounter last year. There the ultimate match was a bitter-sweet Barolo Chinato.
A useful rule of thumb in pairing wine with chocolate is that if the wine contains a flavour that works as a chocolate filling then the wine will match too (which accounts for the lack of success one tends to have with lemon or grape-flavoured dessert wines). Sweet red wines - or liqueurs for that matter - with dark plum or cherry flavours (such as a vintage port or black muscat) or orange-flavoured ones (such as Passito di Pantelleria) work particularly well as do wines with treacle toffee, fig or rasin flavours such as ultra sweet, Pedro-Ximenez-based sherries and Australian liqueur muscats.
Happily there seem to be more red dessert wines around than used to be the case such as the Abbazia di Novacella Moscato Rosa 'Praepositus' from the Alto Adige I tasted recently. Even Hardy's produces a very chocolate-friendly wine - the Nottage Hill Dessert Shiraz.
Vacherin Mont D'Or
Forget stilton (or rather, don't forget it but stick to the port) there is no better seasonal treat than a Vacherin Mont d'Or. And - with the possible exception of an overripe Epoisses, Langres or Maroilles - no harder cheese to match. If there is a red that works I've yet to come across it.
Top London cheesemonger, Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie, recommends
a vin jaune or Côtes du Jura (a blend of Chardonnay and Savignin) which is certainly the classic, on-the-spot pairing but these wines are hard to find and not to everyone's taste. Vintage champagne is also an option but not always what one is looking for with cheese which leaves one with aromatic whites.
'A perfectly ripe Vacherin Mont d'Or, oozing with funky fruit aromas, is an extraordinary thing to eat with a 15- to 20-year-old auslese, which by then has developed a singular smoky aroma reminiscent of kerosene? Eric Asimov of the New York Times suggested a few weeks ago. I also very much enjoyed a Vacherin recently with Laurent Miquel's Verité, a top quality viognier from the Languedoc.
Award-winning sommelier Nicolas Clerc suggests serving the cheese with toasted hazelnut bread and adding a julienne of raw cepes 'to reach another dimension of pleasure? Well, I'm sure we're all up for that!
This article was first published in the January 2008 edition of Decanter magazine