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How to choose the right wines for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner

by Ian Richards

As Christmas is coming with the inevitability of a credit card bill and there is a whole load of things to worry about. Christmas present buying, a possibly expensive and traumatic period, followed by the Christmas card list, the decorations, the food, all the food and possibly the last on the list, the Christmas drinks. Christmas drinks are possibly the least thought about but are the subtle catalyst that can turn an ordinary Christmas into a great one. Yes, you can go with all your normal standbys but Christmas is special and so are Christmas drinks.

To start with there are many traditional Christmas drinks like Egg Nog and mulled ale, in fact my father used to put his beer into a pewter tankard, heat a couple of pokers in the fire, then plunge them into the tankard. This should only be attempted with metal drinks containers, I have a vague recollection of him trying it with glass and making a mess on the floor when it broke, also I do not think it works with lager or other blond beers, a good bitter, brown ale or porter should be robust enough to take that sort of treatment. Possibly the most traditional of all Christmas drinks is mulled wine, know in Germany and probably around the world as Gluhwein, this is a warm infusion of red wine, lemons, cloves, cinnamon and sugar. This traditional Christmas drink has a whole host of modifications, not only in the different regions of Germany but around the European continent. To the basic ingredients can be added rum, brandy, Calvados even, I have heard Vodka which would add kick, but not much taste. Another popular ingredient is the orange, either as slices or zest but I think you could add any citrus fruit that you prefer. Please do not forget to wash thoroughly and. if possible, get the unwaxed variety of fruits. Another variation worth considering is the addition of juices, orange or apple are best, cordials, elder flower is quite refreshing, or even herbal teas. Any of these will make a different and interesting drink for Christmas that, if you remember to make a note of just what you have made, could become your signature Christmas drink that everybody looks forward to.

Another good starter is of course Champagne, it is a very sophisticated way to kick your party off. Nowadays though there are a lot of sparkling wines that can compete with the original Champagne, in England there are many Champagnes available via the supermarkets that are extremely good at very competitive prices, there are also a number of good English sparkling wines made in the champagne method that are very good as well. In fact, global warming has led to a number of French Champagne producers buying land in the South of England and planting vines. A good idea to make your Champagne go further is to offer a Bucks Fizz which is Champagne and orange juice or why not try a Kir Royale made from Champagne with a dash of Creme de Cassis, a blackberry liqueur

The basic recipe is a bottle of red wine, make sure it has some body to it either a classic, but inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon or another robust Vin du Pays, to which you will add 5 to 20 cloves, depending on your taste, a stick of cinnamon and 2 to 4 tablespoons of sugar, normal or demerara if you want to be bold. Chop a wedge of lemon and stick your cloves into the skin, this will stop them floating about in peoples drink, then slice the rest. Pour the wine and the rest of the ingredients into a saucepan and heat. Do not, I repeat do not allow to boil as this will remove all the alcohol and ruin the taste. This is the basic recipe so you can adjust to suit your taste, it is best served in heat proof glasses, but you can improvise.

When it comes to the Christmas meal there are a whole range of drinks, from the appetizer to the digestive to think about if you want a truly memorable day, but for those on a strict budget, you can adjust to meet your pocket. If you are serving Christmas lunch, a Sherry is a grand way to kick things off but you have to think of your guests palates. A good bottle of fino and oloroso will cater to the dry and sweet taste with excellent examples coming from Domeque or Harveys although there are a wide range of excellent Sherries around if your budget is tight, go for a sweet or medium dry type.

A wine to accompany the main dish is purely a matter of taste, much is talked about the merits of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or chicken but at the end of the day it really ought to be what you prefer, just because the gourmands try to intimidate you with their knowledge, you don't need to buy into that, have a bottle of red and a bottle of white and let your guests decide what they want to drink, it is Christmas after all, not a society luncheon. That said, a little direction will not go amiss when it comes to choosing a wine for a special occasion. Certainly beef, turkey, particularly the dark meat, duck or goose will suit a good red wine. A Bordeaux, perhaps a St Emillion or Fronsac will not break the bank, there are a lot more expensive wines in this region, but if you can afford them you should visit a fine wine shop with knowledgeable staff who will give you very good advice on the wines available. You could also try a Rioja from Spain, a Montepulciano from Italy or any of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Merlot or even, my favourite Malbec that are available from vineyards around the world, particularly Argentina. I must confess that my own particular favourite area is Cahors in France, they produce some big bold wines with lots of body. If you are having a large number of people to dinner, you could buy your wine in a box, it is still very good quality and you don't have to pull all those corks, just serve it in a decanter or a good jug. Serving any red wine this way is better than just pulling the cork out of the bottle an hour or two before serving, if you think it can get to breathe through that tiny neck, try to breathe through a straw and you will get the idea.

For a white wine the standby is a good Chardonnay although you should be aware that some of the heavy oak overtones may be too much for a white meat such as chicken or fish. You may wish to investigate a French wine like a white Burgundy, or if you like very dry wine, a Sancerre from the Loire Valley. Others to consider are Pinot Grigot a grape associated with Italy but is grown around the world or a good German Reisling or Hock, Bordeaux has good white wines like Entre Deux Mers but you should ask your local wine merchant or the wine manager in your local supermarket for ideas. Some people will compromise and go for a Rose wine and there are a number of acceptable wines in this category, Mateus Rose is probably the best known, but Rose D'Anjou from France is very good and there are remarkable rose wines from California, Australia and other parts of the world.

If you are really pushing the boat out, you will want a wine for dessert and for a cheese course. The dessert course is ruled by Sauterne an expensive wine whose king is Chateau d'Yquem at a price that Bill Gates may blink at. There are other Sauternes less expensive but a more economical option could be a Malbec, from the same area, still very acceptable. You may also consider a Muscadet from either France or Spain.

For a cheese course, the classic wine accompaniment is Port, although a red or even certain white wines are acceptable, depending on the cheeses served. Ports come in several different qualities, white should be avoided as this is more an appetizer, but the rest is a matter of taste and budget.

At the end of the day this is going to be an enjoyable time and providing there are not any glaring errors people will enjoy whatever you serve because this is a time of sharing and goodwill to all.

One final tip, a drink that is really hot right now is Perry, it is like Cider but is made from special pears. It is going to be really big in 2007 so get in first, if you can find some.

About the Author

Although I started writing for the English newspaper Frizz I became sidetracked as a photographer, not only for Frizz but for all the major English newspapers. Now I have returned to writing which is my spiritual home.

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