A few years ago, as I was interviewing chefs and restaurants owners for a Parisian restaurant guide, I met Enrico Bernardo who owned two Michelin Star restaurants in Paris at the time.
Enrico Bernardo had won the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde title in 2004 (World’s Best Sommelier 2004) aged 27 at the time, he is still the youngest laureate today.
Traditional French Wine
As we were discussing wine and food pairing (in that particular order) he told me something that I remember vividly. People from big wine countries in Europe (the Italians, the Spaniards and the French) tend to have a very narrow knowledge of wine culture, compared to the Belgians or the Brits for example. The later being more open to wines of different regions of the world.
It opened my eyes about how conservative we were in my country when it comes to wine.
Regional French Wine
First, we are often geographically conservative or geographically centred. People from South-West of France will drink Bordeaux wines and will look down at Burgundy wines. And people from Burgundy will do the same: “no Saint-Emilion or Pessac Léognan for us thank you very much, we have the best wines in our region.” And I am not even talking about what they think about most foreign wines…
French Family Traditions
Second, there are family traditions: when a family picks a family produced (or not) Champagne, it’s for life (and sometimes for generations!)
Faux-Pas Free Wine Comfort Zone
Third, in France, we have a deeply rooted fear of making mistakes or looking like an idiot. I believe that comes I think from our education system. At school, there is a large emphasis on what you did wrong as opposed to what you did well. Mistakes are seen as failures.
So, when it comes to wine, one of our national prides, we don’t want to do ANY faux pas and we play it safe (or so we think) even though we often repeat the same mistake again and again (like pairing red Bordeaux and Camembert) because we want to stay in our comfort zone.
And I think this “comfort zone” state of mind is especially relevant when it comes to Christmas.
Classic French Christmas Wines
In my family, the wine list for Christmas dinner or lunch used to be the same for years and years:
Champagne for apéritif (always the same one from a small producer)
Sauternes and Sweet Wine
A sweet white wine from the South-West of France (Sauternes, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, or Loupiac)
An Alsatian White Wine
A white Alsace wine if we had a fish dish or a coulibiac (Riesling or Gewurztraminer)
A red Bordeaux wine for the meat dish and the cheese board (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Émilion, Saint-Julien…), never a Bourgogne, ever!
Champagne again for dessert
Armagnac and Rum
Bas-Armagnac or Armaagnac-style plum brandy Vieille Prune de Soulac with coffee and chocolates (then one of my brothers started a career as a merchant navy officer and regularly crossed the Atlantic to the French West Indies and would bring back aged rum for us).
Nouveau Wine List
But times are changing, and my father, who is still in charge of the wine list, lately tends to be a (little) bit more adventurous. But what if I was in charge of the Christmas family festivities? Well, here are some suggestions.
Crémant & Champagne
I still want to drink bubbles for apéritif. Crémants de Savoie (such as Entre Amis Extra-Brut by Jean-Pierre and Jean-François Quénard) are a nice alternatives to Champagne.
Champagne can actually be an interesting option for food pairing. I think Chassenay d’Arce Brut Rosé would go nicely with seafood such as grilled king shrimps, red snapper or even tuna. Also with poultry and red fruits.
If we have red meat such as duck breast or beef Wellington, I would go for a French Malbec such as Le Sang de ma Terre 2018 by Château de Gaudou). Even though this wine will reach its maturity in 5 years (and can age for up to 25 years) it is already very nice to drink now.
I have to say a Saumur Champigny such as Terroir de Craie Domaine les Perruches, even if more light and mineral would also be a good pick for meats red and white alike and even for venison.
Also, I took a great liking to the wines produced by Vidal-Fleury. Their Condrieu (100% Viognier) is fantastic. Its flavours are so deep…. It could nicely go with seafood, seared scallops or cheeses such as comté, gruyère, cantal.
For dessert I’d be bold and pick the red Château de France Pessac Léognan to pair with chocolate and red fruits. And I love the fact that a Bordeaux wine is called “Château de France”!
Classic Method Sparkling Wines from the Loire
A second option for dessert would be some interesting bubbles from the Loire Valley. I could go for a Charme aux Dames Gris Méthode Traditionnelle demi sec from appellation Coteaux du Vendômois (100 % Pineau d’Aunis) in the Loire Valley at 5€ direct from producer (in France). It’s a steal!