It’s that time of year again, when wine communicators try to work out which bottles to recommend for the special festive meals which are now only weeks away. Newspapers and magazines, TV and radio programmes are stuffed with suggestions – sometimes so complex that wine drinkers on the receiving end take fright.
In fact the Thanksgiving and Christmas wine dilemma can be easily solved with a very simple piece of advice. Remember the Rhône. Few other regions anywhere produce so many wines whose flavours harmonise perfectly with the traditional dishes that remain so popular for family celebrations. Besides, whether red, white, rosé or sweet, Rhône wines have an easy charm that makes them as appealing to novice drinkers as to dedicated wine buffs.
Let’s focus first on turkey, the favourite Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner centrepiece. While austere wines will make the bird’s flesh seem unpleasantly dry, Rhône styles sidestep this problem with their smooth texture and ripe fruit. Whether you splash out on a splendid Vacqueyras or settle for a more accessible Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, you’ll find that the supple reds of the Southern Rhône partner turkey particularly well. Full-bodied rosés like Tavel are also wonderfully turkey-friendly – as are many of the region’s opulent whites.
If, instead of turkey, you favour goose, duck or beef, their richer flavours open the door to an even wider range of options including the Syrah-based reds of the Northern Rhône – Côte-Rôtie, perhaps, for lavish treat; Crozes-Hermitage for a slightly less extravagant one; or a well-priced Vinsobres from far enough north in the Southern Rhône to have extra Syrah for firmness and depth.
Apart from turkey (or its fleshier substitute), the main course is sure to feature accompaniments whose diverse flavours present special challenges for wine – the tanginess of cranberry relish, for example; the sweetness of butternut squash, yams or glazed carrots; the spiciness of clove-studded ham; the smokiness of bacon; the slight bitterness of Brussels sprouts. Luckily, Rhône wines are plump and round enough in style to cope brilliantly with the most intensive flavour bombardments.
What about other courses? For those who like to begin a festive meal with seafood, luxurious Rhône whites like Condrieu are especially delicious with lobster, crab and scallops; but many blends based around the same grape, Viognier, and others like Marsanne or Roussanne have the weight and richness to suit sweet-fleshed shellfish. If your first course is a salad – perhaps including some fruit – then a fruity young Côtes du Rhône will be just the thing.
To finish, whether it’s referred to as pudding or dessert there’s no doubt that something gloriously sweet will feature. Here, the most exciting wine partnerships call for precision – and probably advance shopping since sweet wines are often made in limited quantities. The Rhône offers several great possibilities.
Best-known is Muscat de Beaumes de Venise whose candied peel notes marry happily with mince pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding (especially the lighter kind). Excellent with pecan pie and super-rich traditional Christmas pudding is Rasteau doré, the golden version of this appellation’s famous fortified wine. As for yule log and other decadent chocolate desserts, sweet red Rasteau is a match made in heaven.