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Reading Between the Wines: what to drink with Xmas dinner

Ah, that eternal, annual question:  what to drink with Christmas dinner?

Well, I tend to argue that matching wine to food is mostly in the eye (as well as nose and tongue) of the beholder.

That said, some matches work better than others, so it doesn't hurt said beholder to have a jumping-off point to start from. This is especially difficult when matching foodstuffs we don't eat too often so, unless you regularly sit and think over the best wine matches for turkey and sprouts, you'd best read on... (as an aside, this piece will focus on the main course of a Christmas dinner - if you want to know what to have prior, I recently did a guide to fizz and, as for afters, I covered  port last week)

The big character to tackle on the December 25 plate is the turkey. This gargantuan, Noel-fearing bird is surprisingly hard to match once it has been integrated into a Christmas dinner.

This is because of two main factors. Firstly, it has a dryness and lack of natural oiliness as compared to other, smaller birds like chicken. Secondly, a wide range of sauces, sides and garnishes are often employed to liven things up, complicating the flavour profiles.

So you'll be looking for something that caters for the extremities of this flavour range, with the zingy tartness of cranberry sauce on one end and, on the other, the mini heart attacks that are pigs in blankets. However, it doesn't end there - you also need to be sure not to drown out the more neutral flavours like turkey meat, sprouts, carrots, spuds, and so on. Nightmare.

Personally, I'd opt for red wine with Christmas dinner as a rule, so my recommendations will reflect that. However, if you simply must go for a white wine, I'd advise a white rhône or a half-decent, well-oaked burgundy.

As for reds, the trick is to keep the wine intensely juicy in its fruit while also keeping it dry, and to avoid a wine that is too dense and tannic. If you don't know what tannic means, it refers to tannin - a molecular constituent of wines derived largely from skin, root and bark of grapes and vines. This is a massive simplification (look it up for further explanation) but in terms of mouthfeel, tannin contributes mostly to bitterness and astringency.

To avoid this, you'll be looking for clean, fresh and succulent wines. The grapes Pinot Noir, Gamay and Zinfandel are good starting points (but not a guarantor) in pursuit of these qualities. Equally, you would do well to look to southern Burgundy, Beaujolais and California for examples of these grapes at their optimum.

Good Californian wine is hard to come by in the UK. The Americans have a bit of a reputation for keeping much of the best wine for themselves, and I am inclined to believe it. You need to search cautiously through the imports to sort the good stuff from synthetic mass-market nasties (avoiding all cheap, Californian rosé marked 'white zinfandel' is a good start).

McManis Zinnfandel 2010 (£10.25, Oddbins) is nice and ripe, showing just the balance of vibrant red fruit and delicate body you need for Chrimbo diner. It's eminently enjoyable and quenching, but not intrusively luscious.

Slightly more traditional (read: French) is Francois Martenot Red Burgundy (£9.49, Waitrose). A funny one this; being one of those rare red Burgundies made from Gamay, it mixes the styles of Beaujolais and Burgundy. It's a bit more bodied and intense than most Beaujolais, but with a much zippier acidity, and a cleaner, fruit-led finish. It's firmly on the 'light side' of Burgundy, but still has loads of character.

For the coup-de-gras, however (and my own choice) go for a sparkling red. Even wines as dense as Shiraz from Australia's Barossa valley are beautifully softened when re-fermented to the point of fizzing.

Peter Lehmann Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz 2008 (£18.99, Oddbins, limited availability) is - for lack of a better way to put it - a belter. If you can't source this wine, have a hunt for any sparkling Shiraz of some kind for your turkey. It's change-your-life territory!

There's your Christmas crackers right there!

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