It’s almost Christmas and the food and wine press is brimming, as always, with “how to” columns to help you make the perfect roast turkey and Christmas pudding, recommendations for what to drink, what to do with leftovers, exercise regimes to deal with the aftermath, suggested table settings reaching new heights of tastlessness, and so forth. (Red champagne flutes? Just say no). It is one of the many times of the year when I wonder why they bother when it’s really all just reinventing the wheel. Hasn’t someone yet come up with the perfect way to roast a turkey such that we don’t need to be told how to by the Times as if it’s something new? After several hundred years of making them, is there not a definitive recipe for Christmas pudding yet? And if we want to know it, can’t we just Google it? It’s a bit like the news footage they use for other banal and non-newsworthy annual occasions: A-level results day (school leavers in states of joy and dejection in equal measure with some half hearted commentary about whether exams are easier these days), Remembrance Day (a parade of some sort, someone laying a wreath to the tune of the Last Post), and of course New Year’s Eve (comparison of fireworks displays in the world’s major cities) and so on.
In similar vein, for as long as I can remember Australian wine journalist Huon Hooke has used the occasion to weigh in on the virtues of Australian sparkling red as an accompaniment to turkey, ham and so on. But like most trends that the wine press have been trying to get us into (how many years now has it been that Riesling will be the next big thing?) his suggestion has fallen on deaf ears, so he can I think be forgiven for the repetition.
Plus, it has always sounded like a rather interesting suggestion, but one I had never got around to trying until last year. American friends of mine had invited me to Thanksgiving dinner and charged me with the task of bringing the wine. And I am the sort of person who takes such responsibility very seriously so it was no time to be relying on my own judgment – it was time to trust the professionals. In the end it was very successful so I decided to repeat the exercise this year. Thanksgiving is behind us, but Christmas is ahead, so I hope this will be a timely reprise of Hooke’s suggestion.
There are about four reasons why sparkling red goes so well with seasonal dishes like turkey and ham with all the trimmings: (1) it is sufficiently weighty to go with a heavy meal like Christmas lunch; (2) it has enough acid to cut through the richness of fatty meats; (3) most importantly, and what makes it superior to dry red table wines in this situation, it has an element of sweetness that makes it appropriate to go with those trimmings, like cranberry sauce or spiced pumpkin mash, that would render a dry wine quite sour; (4) it has bubbles, which give it great freshness (and which we also associate with celebration). Should you have reason to drink it at other times of year, it’s also an excellent match for any other meal with sweet/sour elements, like Peking duck or glazed ribs.
One of the problems, though, is finding the stuff. You won’t find it at your local offy (if you can, I’m living in the wrong area). So I couldn’t really suggest nipping out for a case of what in my opinion is the best cuvee – Primo Estate Joseph Sparkling Red. It’s made in very small quantities and I don’t believe is imported into the UK, although you can get it by mail order from Australia. I can’t offer a recent tasting note but a quick search of the interwebs shows it was reviewed in November 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald (a month before Christmas, Huon Hooke of course). From memory it really is excellent and I also recall some story about how it was first made as a bit of a joke but turned out to be delicious (or was that Rockford Black Shiraz?) Anyway, if you do get the opportunity to try it, you should take it.
We are, however, lucky enough to have at least one of Australia’s great sparkling reds imported into the UK – Fox Creek Vixen – and that is the one I managed to get my hands on last year, and once again this year. It’s a blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (there really are no rules in Australia) and it tastes exactly how you expect it might – like chilled red wine put through a soda stream. Seriously though, it’s got an alarmingly vibrant red purple colour (like Vimto, I’m told) and a luxurious mouthfeel – intense blackberry and blackcurrant flavours, creamy effervescence and understated drying tannins.
It’s not something I would want to drink every day (once a year is enough, I think), but I think it’s a far better choice than classed growth claret or other “special” wines that are wheeled out for Christmas lunch. Such wines are normally wasted on such occasions. They just don’t go with the food typically served. Kingsley Amis puts the case in strident terms “…pricey red wine is often drunk with the classier British dishes – extraordinary when you come to think of it. Why wash down roast beef served in the English style – which means accompanied by Yorkshire pudding, horseradish, mustard – with a good Burgundy, or waste a vintage claret on roast lamb with mint sauce and redcurrant jelly? A pint of real ale is a much better idea” (Everyday Drinking p. 113). I take his point on the alleged food and wine matches that he mentions if you are going to introduce difficult ingredients like mustard and redcurrant jelly, and also that wine is perhaps unfairly preferenced as a food-matching beverage at times. But I don’t think there’s any case for abandoning wine with English roasts altogether – just leave off the mustard and your Burgundy’s going to go perfectly with roast beef. And for your Christmas turkey with cranberry sauce, sparkling shiraz so say I.
Vixen is available from Tilley’s Wines (no relation). At the very least, if you don’t like it you will certainly find someone in the family who does since it’s fizzy and sweetish and these are often the best cards to play for people who think they don’t like wine.