What Spain is drinking this festive season

Christmas in Spain is a month-long affair, comprising several small celebrations each with their own traditions. Unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries, the 25th of December itself is a relatively laid-back day, with the main Christmas feast taking place on Christmas Eve or Nochebuena, and the exchange of gifts on the Epiphany or Día de los Reyes Magos on 6 January. The traditions also vary widely by region, with seafood understandably being more popular in coastal areas than in Madrid. In this post, we will take a quick look at some of the mainstays of the Spanish Christmas dinner table, and some of the wines that go best with them.

The Nochebuena dinner typically begins with a high-quality jamón and some cheeses. In fact, many Spanish organisations reward their employees each Christmas with a juicy ham to serve at the family table. The elevated salt and fat content of the cured meat calls for an acidic, tannic red; but preferably a fruity, light-bodied one with a hint of sweetness to avoid overpowering the subtle flavours of the ham. Sommelier Massimo Leonori recommends a young pinot noir, while jamón aficionado Oriol Balgaguer acknowledges that many reservas can also hold their own, the flavours of both delicacies elevating each other for a rich tasting experience.

Other traditional options include oysters (see previous post for pairings) and angulas, baby European eels that are very popular in Spain but highly scarce, a supply/demand ratio that has earned them a price tag of a whopping €1,000 per kilo: that’s more than a kilo of truffles and a kilo of caviar put together! Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve never actually tasted an angula, nor could I find a single site that would recommend a wine worthy of them; the best I could do was Maridaje y Vino‘s list of wines tagged ‘angulas‘, which consists of two 100% albariños from Rias Baixas: this one from Pepa A Loba, with sharp, citrusy notes underpinned by a mineral hint of seafoam, and this other one from Paco y Lola, which has a more savoury, herbaceous character with pear and apple aromas. Both of these are very affordable (€9-€12 RRP in Spain), which is just as well since you’ll just have emptied your bank account for the angulas themselves!

The course where Spain truly stands out, though, is in its desserts, the most classic of which is no doubt turrón. This mixture of almonds, honey and egg whites is similar to nougat, and Spain produces two versions: the smooth, chewy variety that originated in Jijona/Xixona, and its crunchier counterpart from Alicante. Both towns are located in the province of Alicante in the Comunitat Valenciana, a major almond-growing region. And while both turrones tend to be enjoyed alongside either cava or brandy, Cata del Vino suggests a unique alternative: fondillón, a sweet red wine produced exclusively in Alicante from mouvèdre grapes, or as they are known locally, monastrell. The grapes are left on the vine until over-ripe, then dried in the sun to concentrate the sugars and madeirised in oak casks exposed to sunlight to accelerate oxidation. Comer Sin Milongas is less enthusiastic about the pairing, saying it is inferior to the sum of its parts; but if you subscribe to the old sommelier motto, “If it grows together, it goes together”, you’ll have no choice but to pair turrón with fondillón and see for yourself!

ICYMI, I posted last week about wine pairings for a French Christmas dinner; and I’ll be back soon with a similar post focusing on Italy. ¡Hasta entonces!


What France is drinking this festive season

As plans for the Christmas season are being finalised, the question on the world’s collective lips begins to form: what’s for dinner? What delights will be awaiting us on our plates and in our glasses? I know that this question is forming because I see it crop up in my blog feeds and newsletters from France, Spain and Italy, so I thought it would be interesting to take a comparative look at what our neighbours are eating and drinking this Christmas. Let’s start with France, where the traditional feast or reveillon is served on Christmas Eve: rich, indulgent appetisers like foie gras, caviar or oysters, usually followed by a game bird, then a multitude of desserts.

If serving pan-fried foie gras as a starter, Sauternes is considered a classic harmonious pairing, but beware of overindulging the palate with too sweet a bottle. On the other hand, Le Figaro sommelier Enrico Bernardo recommends contrasting the richness of the foie gras with a crisp late-harvest riesling from Alsace. As for caviar, Champagne is a sound favourite: its bubbles go wonderfully with the texture of the fish eggs, and its crisp, mineral character complements the oily, iodine-rich caviar. If opting for raw oysters, however, a bright, crisp muscadet will complement the mollusc much as lemon juice does, with a minerality that will elevate the brininess of the oysters.

The classic main course at a French reveillon is capon, a fatty game bird that can be paired with either red or white. Bernardo recommends a fruity and peppery Alsatian pinot noir, or else a punchy, apricot-heavy white from Châteauneuf du Pape. Alternatively, roast goose may be served, calling for a bold, youthful and preferably tannic red to hold its own against the powerful gamey flavours and unctuous texture of the bird. My Englishlanguage sources recommended pairing goose with Bordeaux, barolo or aged Rioja, or even a crisp riesling or gewürztraminer if serving with an apple stuffing; on the other hand, Bernardo recommends a tannat or a malbec for the chestnut-stuffed French version.

The penultimate course of the epic French Christmas dinner is Les Treize Desserts: the thirteen desserts. Originating in Provence, this generous spread of sweets represents Christ and the twelve apostles. Among its best-known components is the calisson d’Aix, a soft almond paste scented with candied melon which, according to Enrico Bernardo, pairs best with a muscat: occupying the space between dry and sweet, it neither overpowers nor is dominated by the sweet treat.

And so we arrive at the cheese plate, the signal that the feast is drawing to a close. The fruity, fatty richness of the cheese can pose a challenge for pairing, so use caution and plan carefully. Overly tannic and full-bodied reds are out of the question, as they will distort the flavour of the cheeses, accentuating their bitter notes: rather, fruity and floral gamays and pinot noirs are safer bets in the red camp. If you do opt for a white, it should be rich and fruit-forward on the nose: a nice chardonnay, perhaps.

Can you imagine surviving such an onslaught of food and drink? I feel ready to slip into a food-induced slumber just writing about it. Once I’ve recovered, I’ll be back next time with some more insight into what the world is eating and drinking at this special time of year.

Thanks to California sommelier Gian Pablo Nelson for his help in composing this post. Links to all other sources are included in the text.