The remains of the festive roast have been carried away and now it is time for what, in my money, can be the best part of any meal – the pudding/cheeses/nuts/fruits kinda stage, which at Christmas takes on a whole new dimension.
Now, the big question here is what comes first: cheese or pudding? When in France, of course, cheese is before pudding, an admirable custom… But, I think certainly with the Christmas meal, the pudding is carried to the table with due, flaming ceremony and cheese should come after – when everyone relaxes and generally enjoys the festive glow, the open fire, the candlelight and the kids breaking their new toys.
But in practice, at many celebration meals, I often put desserts and cheeses all on the table together, so everyone can take it at their own pace and in whatever order they like. But that’s just me and we all have our own household traditions.
So what wines do we now linger over as we relax? While some of us may like to continue with the red or white, this is usually the point when many of us uncork a nice bottle of port or a dessert wine, both of which have the kind of rich, layered flavours that just seem right for these festive foods. And there are so many lovely choices and combinations: vintage port and stilton is an obvious pairing, but the dried and baked fruit flavours are wonderful with Christmas pudding/cake/mince pies/stollen, all of which rely on such an assembly of mixed fruits themselves.
If it’s a trifle or something sweet, then it has to be a proper sticky dessert wine, but some of these work extremely well with blue cheese. And if your favoured cheese is a vintage cheddar, then try a dry sherry. But it’s also interesting to mix and match sometimes…
First then to port: at this time of year, as with champagne, there are always high street discounts on the big names, so why not take advantage of them? Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas (£25.59 down from £31.99 until 2 January, waitrose.com; £26.99 if bought as part of mixed six bottle purchase or normally £31.99 at majestic.co.uk) is a supreme vintage port from a single, prestige Douro vineyard owned by one of the great names in port with three centuries of tradition and expertise: richly textured, layers of baked and dried fruits and a long finish, perfect with both stilton and Christmas pudding. Contrary to some beliefs, port doesn’t keep for much longer than an ordinary red wine, so if you don’t want any to go to waste, try a half bottle, such as the excellent Graham’s Vintage Port 2000 (£44 for 37.5cl davywine.co.uk) with rich, plummy, brambly flavours. My personal port preference is for tawnies, which are normally nuttier and slightly drier on the finish. Try the Barros 10 Year Old Tawny (£19.99 htfwines.co.uk; various independents) or the single vintage half of Niepoort Colheita 2007 (£23.50 tanners-wines.co.uk) with exotic dried fruit and spicy flavours.
Port is generally dry on the finish, but if you want something sweeter and luscious on the palate, which works well with richer desserts, such as trifles, fruit tarts and pavlovas, then a more traditional sweet dessert wine is called for. Yes, we all know about sauternes, but here are three more unusual ones which won’t break the bank and will please your guests: the Pellegrino Pantelleria Passito Liquoroso (50cl £10.99 simplywinesdirect.uk; £16.70 wineman.co.uk; various independents) hails from the small volcanic island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily, where the zibibbo grapes are dried in the sun before fermentation: unctuous, lush apricot and honey flavours, a long finish and utterly beguiling.
Equally out of left field, but much lighter, aromatic and fresher in tone is the Pacherenc Du Vic-Bilh (50cl £10.20 tanners-wines.co.uk) made in Gascony from local grapes such gros manseng, it will appeal to those who find other dessert wines too sweet and sticky. In Gascony, they drink it with foie gras, but you don’t have to. Both these wines need proper chilling, like a white wine, to be enjoyed best. The last of our rarities hails from Australia, where they make great dessert wines in the European tradition, such as the Yalumba Antique Muscat NV (375ml £14.99 virginwines.co.uk) made from muscat grapes. Like port, this is fortified and oak aged, with luscious, rich, concentrated raisiny, caramel, nutty, flavours. It works brilliantly with Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and blue cheeses. One further note about cheeses – if you have a runny, stinky, soft cheese, or a pungent goat’s cheese on your table, it’s probably best to stick to a white wine or even a light chilled red. But that’s for another column...
And so to sherry, which should be the, er, port of call, for those that don’t like sweeter wines, but want something different at the end of a meal. Very dry, nutty, tangy sherries like an amontillado or a palo cortado are incredibly versatile and fabulous with hard and semi hard cheeses like manchego, comte or cheddar, with stilton and less sweet desserts, such as baked quince or an almond tart. Or just with a bowl of nuts.
Try the elegant, lean, Bodegas Hildago La Gitana Napoleon Amontillado (50cl £11.99 jnwine.com; £12.50 ewwines.co.uk; £13.99 virginwines.co.uk) or the even more intensely nutty and complex and perhaps a touch less dry Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado Solera (37.5cl £10.99 waitrose.com; 75cl £16 thewinesociety.com). This is a fabulous little bottle I have recommended before and which is, to put an elaborate process simply, a fino sherry which loses its yeasty “flor” and is aged to give greater intensity of flavour.
Both of these are made from the palomino grape, but a completely different experience is a sherry made from the sundried pedro ximenez grape, which is then aged to give an intense, complex, very sweet, viscous wine. The Delicado Pedro Ximenez PX (50cl £16.49 waitrose.com) has layers of dark fruit flavours and overtones of caramel, tar and spices. It is one of the few dessert wines to match chocolate, so this is ideal with a yule log type desserts or simply poured over vanilla ice cream. It’s a real flavour of Christmas in a glass.