Festive questions answered

Mulled wine Hannah Pemberton

Some common questions from FT readers about wines to serve for Thanksgiving and Christmas. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Thanksgiving wine strategies.

In your 34 years of writing columns for the FT, it seems you have never written about mulled wine. Why not?

Because there aren't a thousand words to say about it. You heat it up with some spices and maybe half an orange with some cloves. Use a fairly full-bodied wine and not an expensive one. That's it. But I’m not totally opposed to mulled wine, provided it’s not too sweet and sticky and the wine’s genuinely hot. I’ll have a glass maybe once a year – it’s a bit like Beaujolais Nouveau or Pimm's in that respect, a signifier of the season.

Is there a wine you’d recommend to someone who dislikes it mulled, but wants to drink something with a similarly festive flavour profile?

I looked through our tasting notes database to see when I'd use the word 'Christmassy' or 'tastes like Christmas cake' and it was dominated by 10- and 20-year-old tawny ports and some sweeter Madeiras. They often have that spicy, sweet aroma that you would associate with mulled wine although they're a bit stronger – closer to 20% than the 12–13% range of mulled wine, which has had some of the alcohol boiled off.

Is there any point using champagne for buck’s fizz?

It would be a waste to use a really good champagne. The only important thing is to choose a sparkling wine that's not too sweet because the orange juice itself is sweet. So a dry fizz, maybe a Crémant de Limoux or something like that, would be perfectly fine. But in my household we tend to mainline the real stuff. A bit of champagne with thinly sliced brown bread and smoked salmon, that’s the herald of Christmas dinner for us.

How bad an idea is serving wine in paper or plastic glasses? What are the alternatives for a big party?

I don't think paper works very well because it's got a taste. Govino sell thin plastic wine glasses that are the right shape for appreciating wine, although they don't have a stem. They cost around £20/$25 for four. I wouldn't recommend plastic copies of champagne flutes for the same reason as I don’t recommend glass flutes; they’re too narrow to allow you to savour the wine. Rental is also a good idea. In the UK, Majestic offer free glass hire when you buy wine through them.

What does a wine writer serve people who don’t drink alcohol?

This happened last Sunday. We had a whole load of friends round to help me with my champagne leftovers (poor me...), and one of them didn't drink. I got in some of the Belvoir Farm Sparkling Cucumber and Mint ready mix, and elderflower cordial.

Which country’s festive wine tradition would you like to import?

I think we’ve got enough wine traditions here in the UK.

Is there a tradition that you’d like to challenge?

I'm not sure red bordeaux is ideal for turkey. You're usually serving sweet things of some sort and bordeaux’s signature is quite a lot of tannins, which doesn't necessarily chime. Unfortunately, burgundy, which is the classic pairing, has become very, very expensive. In my Christmas recommendation columns (which begin next week) I've tried to find some well-priced Pinots. They tend to be quite accessible and easy to appreciate.

Is Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner a good time to drink very special bottles?

It depends on how many people are at your dinner and who they are. Are they quite rowdy gatherings dominated by little children? In those circumstances, I serve good wine – probably better than what I would have at a normal weekend family gathering – but not great wine. But during lockdown, when we had a Christmas dinner that was just the two of us, I opened a Chambertin 1989 from Rousseau, which was very special and certainly one of the most valuable bottles in our cellar. It really transformed the occasion from something miserable into something memorable.

Do you have any advice for people who are about to open their most prized bottle and find it disappointing, or even corked?

It’s always wise to have a backup. I can't tell you the number of times that I’ve opened something really special or valuable and it's off. It’s usually TCA that’s the problem, and it's so disappointing. I do have a party trick for when that happens. I crumple up some cling film and ram it into the bottle and stopper it up again then swish it around a bit so that the wine gets fully in contact with the cling film. It doesn’t make it absolutely perfect, but it really does reduce the TCA taint. And it’s quite fun to do if people have never seen it done before.

What do you drink on Christmas Eve?

Traditionally we've not stayed up particularly late on Christmas Eve, which means it’s a good time to drink fortified wine because you're not going to sip it for hours and hours and you’ve got a long sleep to get rid of the high alcohol. So that would be a time for me to drink Madeira, perhaps, or port. I also remember from when we had children as opposed to grandchildren that a little taste of something strong is also a nice thing to leave out for Father Christmas.

Where can I find English sparkling wine in a double-magnum format?

As far as I know only Nyetimber can offer that size.

What’s a low-intervention wine that younger and older generations can enjoy together?

I have three recommendations. Firstly, Camille Braun, Lune Rousse Gewurztraminer 2022 from Alsace. It’s absolutely gorgeous although it’s around the £40 mark. Also Dominio de Urogallo, Pesico 2018 from Asturias, a fresh red which is around £24, and Familie Mantler, MAMA Skin Contact Grüner Veltliner 2022 from Austria, which is around £25. But nowadays there are so many fine wines that are low-intervention but don’t sell themselves on that basis. I was almost tempted to answer Château Latour, despite it being ridiculously expensive.

Why do so many people drink sweet wines only during the festive period?

It’s a time of indulgence and we think of sweet wines as being self-indulgent. We also tend to eat a lot of sweet things then and sweet wines go well with sweet foods, plus we tend not to economise then. But mainly it’s just habit.

Do you have any advice on what to drink when you’ve eaten too much?

A fino or manzanilla sherry comes into its own when we desperately need to revive our appetite. There’s nothing like a manzanilla to make me feel hungry again, so I always have a bottle in the fridge in December. 

And what about when you’ve drunk too much?

Champagne is a great reviver. It perks up the palate. Maybe a blanc de blancs, which tends to be a bit zippier than a full-bodied champagne, or an extra brut, which revels in being bone dry. But I can’t help more than that as, fortunately, it’s my job never to get tired of wine. 

Photo credit: Hannah Pemberton via Unsplash.