Christmas Tips with Will Lyons

Myself and Michel Roux Jr.

The Christmas gastronomic marathon is upon us and although understandably this year will be very different we still need a glass or two for the big day. I recently caught up with one of Britain’s best loved chefs Michel Roux Jr at his renowned restaurant in Mayfair, Le Gavroche and over a glass of the club’s Didier Chopin Brut Champagne we discussed and shared our top food and wine tips for Christmas. For subscribers of The Sunday Times you can view the discussion here.

If you can’t view it, don’t worry! I have shared the answers to some of the most frequent wine questions I get asked at this time of year.

What wine goes with Christmas pudding?

Can I let you into a little secret? Although I love the theatre of serving Christmas pudding, turning off the lights, drenching it in a generous glass of warm brandy before striking a match and engulfing the pudding in a flickering swirl of blue flame, I’m not entirely sure I like Christmas pudding that much. But Christmas day is the one day of the year where you can justifiably serve a sweet wine. There are a few options. A chilled glass of tawny port can pair well and then you can keep it in your glass for the cheese afterwards. Bordeaux’s luscious sweet wine Sauternes is a classic if, like me, you’ll opt for a glass of pudding wine instead of pudding. But it’s hard to look beyond the tangy, honeyed character of Royal Tokaji which has the sweetness and acidity to revitalise jaded palates. Remember the wine should always be sweeter than the pudding.

What wine goes with roast turkey and all of the trimmings?

A classic Christmas lunch with all of the trimmings can be an absolute melee of competing flavours. As I discussed with Michel Roux jr recently for our Times event ‘Festive Feasting’ I think you have three options. You can either go classic; which is old school red Bordeaux like the club’s 2018 Barons de Rothschild Lafite Réserve Spéciale from Bordeaux in France. Or opt for the bold, ripe flavours of the Southern hemisphere such as an upfront Shiraz like the club’s 2018 Don’t Tell Gary Shiraz by McPherson Wines in Victoria, Australia. A third option, which I tend to favour, is a super smart Beaujolias, something like a Fleurie with all its silky, texture and red fruit. The Fleurie goes well with the white meat of the turkey and doesn’t overwhelm palates which are enduring quite a day of feasting.

Should I decant my wine?

At Christmas, I love the attractive, shimmering aesthetic of a cut glass decanter standing proud on the dining room table. Most wines benefit from a little air and certainly full bodied reds including red Bordeaux, wines from the Rhône, Rioja in Spain or heavy grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah will improve in the decanter. Why? The act of pouring a bottle of wine into another container will aerate the wine releasing its myriad of fruit aromas and will gently soften the texture. For a young wine, give it a vigorous decant lifting the bottle high as you pour, for an old wine, go easy, gently pouring it into the neck of the decanter.

What temperature should I serve my wine?

It may surprise some of you to learn that I recommend chilling both red and white wine, not to the same temperature obviously! It’s worth remembering that a normal domestic fridge will chill down a bottle of wine to around 5C in a few hours. For me that is too cold for wine at Christmas. Most light white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling should be served at between 5 and 9C, same for Champagne and sparkling wine. If they instinctively feel too cold and need warming up, don’t worry. Just cup your hand around the bowl of the glass and it will soon raise the temperature a few degrees. With red wine is where it gets interesting. These days most of us living in centrally heated houses and apartments and it is easy to forget that the traditional advice of serving your wine at room temperature probably meant somewhere around 12C. I would say young fruity reds such as Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and Valpolicella are best served around 11C to 15C while heavier red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and red Bordeaux, Burgundy and Shiraz around 14C to 18C. Put the back of your hand on the bottle, it should feel cool to touch. That’s the right temperature. Christmas is busy in the fridge so I tend to pop mine outside for around 20 minutes before serving.

What wine is the best for mulled wine?

Don’t waste your best bottles on mulled wine, but don’t think you can get away with pouring any old cheap plonk in the pan either. If you are using a lot of nutmeg, which I like to do, I feel the wines which work the best are fruity, smooth red wines. I’m thinking something like a Zinfandel from California or a juicy Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre blend from the Southern Rhône in France.

Is English wine better than Champagne?

What we can say with confidence is that we are now entering the third phase of the great English wine boom of the 21st century. The first stage was a recognition that winemakers in England could actually make wine on these shores that is drinkable and not just a novelty. The second phase was a realisation that a handful of England’s sparkling wines, including Harrow & Hope, are competing at the very highest level. The third phase is that we are now producing still table wines made from grape varieties such as Bacchus and Pinot Noir that are beginning to get noticed internationally. It’s a hugely exciting time for the industry.

Does all wine improve with age?

In a word no. Around 90% of wine sold in Britain is made to be opened and enjoyed as soon as the screwcap has been twisted or the cork pulled. Only a very small percentage, let us for sake of clarity, define that as anything more than £15 a bottle what we might refer to as ‘fine wine,’ benefits from ageing in the bottle. It’s unwise to generalise but fine whites such as Burgundy and Riesling can age in the bottle up to 5 to 10 years or more. Good red Bordeaux, Rioja, Burgundy and Barolo, depending on the growing season, can age for between 5 and 30 years, sometimes more.

Do I have to serve my best bottle at Christmas?

I’m slightly torn on this issue. Christmas can be a stressful time, there is a lot to do, relatives to entertain, excited children scampering around and that is before you have sat down for the feast itself. Is it the perfect time to bring out that that expensive bottle you bought recently or the wine you have carefully nurtured in the cellar for many years? Some might say no, probably not. Far better to leave it there and serve it at an appropriate occasion when it can command your full attention. Relax and enjoy the day. Only, when is that occasion? I do agree with Michel Roux Jr who says if you can’t serve your special bottle on Christmas day then when can you? It is an occasion after all and I do feel this is particularly apposite this year when we all need cheering up! So perhaps, yes serve your best bottle.

What is the best wine to go with Roast Chicken?

Depends on the time of year. Roast chicken is such a comforting, easy going, crowd pleasing Sunday lunch that when it comes to the wine it’s a very amiable companion. This Sunday I paired it with an aged Barolo from Piedmont, the earthy flavour of the wine worked as a contrast to the soft texture of the meat. In the Summer I would opt for an oaky Chardonnay, it is a really hot day something like a taut Chenin Blanc from South Africa. We like to serve with mash and salad in the warmer months. For a Summer red Chianti works well. In the winter when we naturally crave a red wine I would look to a supple Merlot, a ripe red Bordeaux. For something lighter Pinot Noir, a red lighter style Burgundy such as Chambolle-Musigny but even Côtes-du-Rhône works well. It really is a bit of a free for all.

What is the best wine to go with cheese?

At Christmas, I’m a huge fan of serving tawny port with cheese. Slightly chill the tawny to around 10C and it will pair well with a variety of cheeses. There are of course some classic combinations. A sweet wine such as Sauternes or Tokaji is heavenly with blue cheese and can go well with all sorts of softer cheese and of course you have the double benefit of being able to serve them with Christmas pudding. Speaking in broad brush generalisations red wine tends to go better with harder cheese but white wine is often much more suitable as an accompaniment to cheese. A glass of chilled Sancerre with a handful of creamy goat’s cheese or event a zesty, tangy Sauvignon Blanc. My one tip is to narrow your options, don’t go for too many cheeses. One or two and road test them before the big day, you’ll have great fun too!

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

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