I drink like a sophisticate for about 360 days of the year. At the bar I’ll be ordering dirty gin martinis and at home I’ll reach for a bottle of tried-and-tested reserva rioja or easy-drinking New Zealand sauvignon. But when it comes to Christmas, anything goes.
As soon as those festive lights switch on, the seasonal spirit officially takes hold and it suddenly feels perfectly legitimate to drink juicy-fruit buck’s fizz every morning and finish every evening with a syrupy amaretto glugged over ice or to indulge in my guilty pleasure: the beauty that is a proper Eighties snowball – advocaat and lemonade or, more accurately, liquid cupcake in a glass.
Like the rampant desire to work my way through family-sized tubs of chocolate and selection boxes of biscuits that creeps up on me every December, Christmas makes me hungry for all drinks sweet and decadent. Unsurprising really, considering it’s the season of spiced mince pies and iced Christmas cake, where you can easily eat your own bodyweight in novelty-shaped chocolates, gingerbread houses and yule log.
Finding drinks that can stand up to all that sugar might seem unlikely – who hasn’t made the mistake of swigging that last mouthful of wine after finishing dessert and been left with a bitter taste in their mouth? Luckily for me, there was an entire lesson at sommelier school on pairing those notoriously tricky sweet things and, even luckier, I learned you can drink wine with pudding – it just has to be the right stuff.
According to the sommelier’s handbook, the perfect pairing is: “When the wine aroma combined with the flavours of the food creates a new sensation that should be equal to, or greater than, the individual taste of the wine and food.”
Sommeliers pair on the basis of concordance or opposition, which breaks down the taste and tactile sensations of the food and wine to find their match. Sommeliers mostly pair using opposition – a juicy steak with a tannin-rich red to balance the succulence with dryness, or a citrusy sparkling wine with fish and chips so the bubbles can sweep your palate clean.
With desserts, however, it’s all about concordance – finding a drink with enough sugar to match the sweetness of the pudding. When it comes to fruit, always use the colour to dictate your choice of digestif. Berry fruits match surprisingly well with sweet, fizzy red wine – try a blueberry pie with Italian sparkling brachetto: life changing. Peach or apricots pair with golden, candy-peel wine like tokaji from Hungary or an intensely fruity vin santo, which literally means holy wine, from Tuscany. The richness comes from dried grapes, which are left to shrivel in the sun, upping their sugar content.
If you find dessert wines just that bit too sweet, look for the word ‘appassimento’ on bottles of red instead. It means the grapes have been left to dry on the vine, making the wine rich and concentrated in flavour, while still retaining the berry strength of a proper red wine. Our Appassimento Rosso Puglia Rocco Pagliara is ballsy enough to match up to both meat dishes and chocolate.
One of the best things you can match with pudding is fortified wine
like port or sherry. Both of these traditional tipples start life the same way as fermented grapes, with the addition of the magic ingredient: brandy. For sherry in Jerez, it’s added after fermentation before the sherry is moved into solera (a barrel aging system) for maturation.
In the upper Douro Valley of Portugal, the juice from trodden grapes is drained into a vat containing brandy before port is aged in large wooden tanks for basic ruby port, or small barrels and then bottles for vintage port. Our rich cream sherry is packed with raisin and walnut flavours, so it’s a no-brainer with a classic Christmas cake, while our Kopke Colheita vintage tawny port is made for a dark, rich Christmas pudding with plenty of fruit and spice, or chocolate mousse.
If, like me, you can’t resist those creamy Christmas liqueurs, it just doesn’t get better than this year’s bespoke festive drink: mince-pie cream liqueur. Yep, that’s all the joy of a mince pie in liquid form. Pour it over ice or straight onto a mince pie hot from the oven, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try one of our special recipes here. Cheers!
Photographer: Jonathan Gregson