Christmas tends to be all about family, its presence or absence, and you don’t have to be a psychiatrist’s daughter to view that as complicated – although when the psychiatrist in question is both Australian and Jewish it certainly puts a child out of sync with peers focused on stockings, Santa and snow. These days, my reconfigured household has traditions – and complications – of its own, which, if you discount presents (and how I wish I could), largely revolve around food and drink. From roast monkfish with snails on Christmas Eve to eggnog made with Canadian rye whiskey and the almond galette des rois, with its hidden bean, that marks Twelfth Night in French tradition, we have cobbled together an idiosyncratic but delicious repertoire reflecting our status as a blended family – part English, part Canadian and part Australian, but largely based in Burgundy.
The wines are my department and this year I have decided to concentrate on indigenous varieties: vines rooted in specific places will help celebrate our internationalism. Perverse? Perhaps. If so, my father would surely have approved.
For the bubbles, whose sparkling, upward trajectory does more to lift my mood than any star-topped Christmas tree, I’ve dug out my last bottle of André and Michel Quenard’s Crémant de Savoie, made from dry but flower-scented Jacquère. As I bought this in Savoie, it will have the additional joy of pausing Christmas and transporting me back to the beautiful Quenard vineyards, dramatically backed by the mountains of the Massif des Bauges.
Still whites will include an Assyrtiko, the vibrant volcanic variety from the Greek island of Santorini, and a Hárslevelű from Hungary, spicy and perfumed. Back to France for the reds, with another Savoie grape, by another Quénard – unrelated as far as I know: Jean-François’s luscious, spice-filled Mondeuse, Elisa. And, for the turkey, the juicy cherry flavours and delicate tannins of the prettily named Trousseau grape, from the Jura. Years ago, I sneaked away from a family skiing trip and drove to the tiny village of Montigny-lès-Arsures, where Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot turn Savagnin into superb vin jaune, the region’s yeasty, gorgeous “yellow wine”, but also make Singulier, a superb Trousseau. It isn’t cheap, but Le Beau Vin, a ripe, spiced-plum red, made primarily from the Négrette grape, is, and coming from Château Bouissel in Fronton it has the dusty warmth of high summer, too.
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But why concentrate on France? My indigenous adventure is no exercise in jingoism; there’s room at my inn for all good wines, no matter their provenance. Italy has more native grapes than any other country, from Lagrein, a juicy, tannic red variety that grows in northern Alto Adige (Castelfeder make a very approachable one), or Schioppettino, a heady, raspberryish variety, to the effusive Gaglioppo made by Fattoria San Francesco down on the arch of Italy’s boot.
Here’s a wine that seems imbued with the Christmas spirit of internalised resentment and reluctant compromises: Eruzione 1614 by Planeta, a lovely Carricante, stony and mineral with a touch of Riesling that adds fullness and a breezy tropicality. The vines grow on Etna in Sicily, but because they are above the arbitrary line that demarcates the appellation, Planeta aren’t allowed to say so: the label’s reference to an eruption is only clear if you know the subtext.
And to round out the dozen, here’s a choice: port for the traditionalists, or an amazingly well-priced magnum of Il Cascinone Barbera d’Asti (almost all the wines mentioned here are available from either The Wine Society or Jeroboams). There is nothing more gregarious than a magnum, which requires at least four drinkers, and Christmas is, after all, the most sociable time of the year. It is also the moment when a conflicting desire can become overwhelming: to push aside the plates, ignore the presents, turn down the chatter and indulge in a little peace on Earth. My compromise will be wines that offer both a talking point and a subtle reminder that, in ways both emotional and sensual, there’s no place like home.
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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back