Seek Out A Spanish Wine For Your Christmas Dinner
The holiday season is undoubtedly a time of joy and celebration. While many people spend countless hours preparing meals for these events, much less thought is given to the wine selection. With just a few guidelines however, and some enticing examples of Spanish wines matched with Christmas dishes from around the world, you’ll see how easy the task becomes.
Food and wine pairing basic rules
First and foremost, it’s important to note that the basic tastes in food have a much greater impact on our wine than the reverse. How many times have you taken a bite of something only to return to your wine and be disappointed? You likely blamed it on the wine.
The culprits in food include bitterness, sweetness, umami, or spicy heat. Salt on the other hand is our savior. Salt is of course a flavor enhancer, so it’s no surprise that its presence in food improves our perception of a wine’s texture and flavors. Acidity can also be positive for wine. When found in food (think vinegar, lemon juice, tomato sauce, etc.) it decreases the perception a wine’s tartness, which in turn increases the perception of its fruit and therefore “sweetness”. This is a force for good as long as our wine has enough acidity to begin with.
With this in mind, let’s see what’s cooking for Christmas.
Beginning in Nordic Europe, countries such as Sweden and Finland often start their holiday meal with cold fish plates, chief among which is pickled herring. The sour nature of the dish coming from the vinegar will dramatically decrease the wine’s perceived acidity. Therefore, we’ll want to match it with a wine whose bright flavors and crisp texture won’t turn flabby, such as the elegant Albariños of DO Rías Baixas, especially from the Val do Salnés subregion where the highest levels of acidity are to be found.
Christmas side dishes
Side dishes often receive little attention regarding food and wine pairing. Yet they can offer the biggest challenges. We only need to look to the UK or Germany to find brussel sprouts or sauerkraut respectively accompanying the main Christmas roasts.
Brussel sprouts are notoriously difficult to pair, as the sulfur compounds they contain generate unpleasant reductive flavors in wine. Given that these same flavors can appear separately in wine due to a lack of oxygen during alcoholic fermentation, and that oxidation is the opposite of reduction, oxidative wine styles such as Amontillado, Oloroso or Palo Cortado make the best match. Driven by tertiary notes of leather, nuttiness, tobacco and autumn leaves, these wines more easily harmonize with the earthy flavors of brussel sprouts.
As for sauerkraut, the lacto-fermentation used to produce it creates both a pungent acidic tang – thus decreasing the perception of a wine’s acidity – and an umami savoriness, which will make a wine taste dryer, more bitter and less fruity. The best wine should therefore have higher levels of acid and a pronounced flavor intensity. An interesting pairing here are the late-harvest styles made in the Basque Txakolina subregions. These white wines have riper fruit flavors and clear residual sugar, yet they’re not sweet enough to pair with most desserts, and the piercing acidity of the Hondarrabi Zuri grape balances the wine’s perceived sweetness.
Christmas main courses
Roasted meat as a main course is a strong tradition in many countries, be it the roasted turkey in the UK and US, roasted lamb in Greece and Iceland, or roasted goose in Germany. Whether it’s the fattiness of the meat itself or the gravy served along with it, a bolder-flavored wine is needed with enough acidity to cut through the fat, cleansing and preparing your palate for the next bite.
Many Spanish Tempranillo-driven reds offer both characteristics, thanks to a balanced combination of a warmer climate that produces more intense flavors, and higher altitude vineyards that help retain refreshing acidity. Stronger-flavored dishes will benefit from the riper fruit and more powerful structure of Ribera del Duero’s reds, while the delicacy offered by Rioja’s more classic styles would be a better fit for more subtly flavored meats.
It is dessert however that most stands out in our minds when planning Christmas meals. Italy’s panettone, Austria’s Apfelstrudel, France’s bûche de noël sponge cake, Spain’s turrón, Christmas pudding in the UK, or the countless variations on cookies in the US. What they all share in common is a high level of sugar, one of wine’s worst enemies.
Sugar in food is a torpedo for dry wines, as it decreases the perception of a wine’s fruitiness and sweetness yet increases the perception of its bitterness and acidity. To triumph, your wine must be at least as sweet as your dessert. Not knowing this, many people shy away from sweet wines because they taste them in isolation and find them to be cloying, forgetting that the accompanying dessert will actually decrease the wine’s perceived sweetness and bring it into balance.
Here is where Cream sherries fit the bill perfectly. The more ambitious artisan examples – the VORS category especially – are a blend of roughly 75% dry Oloroso sweetened with 25% Pedro Ximénez. The 30-year old average age of these wines allows the sweetness to fully integrate, creating a harmonious fusion of flavors that include nougat and caramel, leather and chocolate, raisins and dates.
The final basic rule is that in the end, personal preferences should still take precedence when matching wine and food. Given the above tips however, and the large diversity of wine styles within Spain, you’re that much closer to finding the perfect Spanish wine for your table this Christmas.
Text: Nygil Murrell