Christmas is upon us! And amid all the usual festive concerns, the presents, the travel, the parties and so on, there’s one task in particular that stands out above all others for making or breaking your holiday season: I speak, of course, of Christmas dinner.
Our meals during the holidays form the centrepieces of our celebrations, what we as families and friends gather round, the culmination of the whole year. And so, what food we choose to eat, what traditions we honour, on which day we feast and with what, these are all crucial choices – and, for many of us, what wine to bring out (for special occasions require special bottles!) is as important a part as any.
Well, we at Vineria all’Amarone naturally have our own views on this! The range of wines by producers in the Valpolicella has the capacity to match up to a dizzying variety of dishes. And so what better way for us to usher in the periodo di Natale than to go around the world, having a look at just a few of the huge numbers of traditional Christmas recipes that exist, and to see if we can find a way to fit a wine of Valpolicella into the mix.
Starters and Lighter Dishes
Christmas isn’t all about the big stuff! There’s a lot of food to get through and it’s important to pace yourself, so you don’t want every dish to be a showstopper. Here are three different suggests from three different cultures to get your dinner off to the perfect start – and our wine suggestions to go with them!
Venice – capeeti in brodo (& cappone lesso)
So we’re cheating a little to start off, but as it’s our home we think it’s justified! Venice’s Christmas traditions are many and various, many (as is the case in the rest of Italy) based around seafood on Christmas Eve, or Vigilia di Natale. Another classic however, much beloved around Italy as well, is the Venetian version of cappelletti in brodo (capełeti in the Venetian language). This delicious dish usually comprises part of the Christmas Day meal, meat-filled pasta parcels in soupy chicken broth. The trick with the dish is that the broth is made by boiling a chicken – traditionally a capon – which then forms the basis of the secondo, in a fine example of the Italian genius for doing so much with as few ingredients as possible.
Wine: Valpolicella classico. A dish like this can be tricky to match up. Its rich, full of umami from the meaty ragù and the chicken broth, but is also so unctuous as to demand a certain level of freshness and acidity from the wine to cut through. A young, fresh Valpolicella classico, therefore, with the vibrant and exciting fruit and acidity inherent to the corvina grape, would be the best fit, such as this offering from Speri. And it would go beautifully with the cappone too!
Aquitaine – Chestnut soup
Crossing the border now, and heading to Aquitaine in France for a dish beloved around l’Hexagone, but particularly associated with western region due to the abundance of chestnut trees there, where the terroir is particularly suited to producing wonderfully sweet chestnuts. A long-cooked, rustic, hearty, earthy soup (with the obligatory healthy dollops of crème fraîche), this is a true winter warmer and a welcome addition to any repas de Noël.
Wine: Valpolicella Superiore. Chestnuts are an extremely versatile pairing candidate, especially depending on the preparation, but they do tend to want some sort of substance – structure, richness, even sugar can provide the necessary counterbalance. For us, then, the fruit and force of a Valpolicella Superiore has just the right balance of heft and subtlety to bring out some of the lovely roastiness of the chestnuts – and this, from Bertani, would be a classic example of that.
Valpolicella Superiore Wines
Hungary – halászlé
As mentioned previously, Italy associates Christmas Eve in particular with fish dishes, and they’re far from alone in this. From Norway to the Philippines to Portugal seafood dominates celebrations on the 24th in many parts of the world. What might be more surprising is that Hungary too, a landlocked country, also celebrates with a wonderful fish dish, a kind of stew made from freshwater carp and peppers called halászlé – a particularly delicious and unusual way to celebrate Christmas Eve a traditional way.
Wine: bianco veronese. Although the vast majority of the region’s production is red wine focused, small amounts of white are also made here and there under the ‘Bianco Veronese IGT’ label. These wines vary greatly in style, there rarely being a lot of regulations under the ‘IGT’ style of wine designation, but seeing as we need something with enough weight but also delicacy to match both the pepper and white fish respectively, we here couldn’t look further than the ultra-intriguing ‘From Black to White’ by Zymé made from rondinella bianca, a fascinating natural mutation of the rondinella grape that goes into red Valpolicella.
Bigger Mains and Seconds
OK, so we said it wasn’t just about the mains earlier but…it’s important isn’t it? The main course on Christmas Day is, in many countries, the absolute culmination of the festive season, and the most important part of the meal – even of the day. So with that said, here are three whopping ideas for how to really crown your festive repast, along with a few wines to make things perfect.
USA – Turkey (and other birds)
Well, talk about classic! Derived from the mediaeval tradition in England (and elsewhere) of roasting a fowl for Christmas dinner reached its most famous form with the introduction of the turkey following the Columbian Exchange. But turkey is far from the only available bird – indeed, many alternatives are not only available but considered regionally typical, from the goose so popular back in England to ducks, pheasants and guinea fowl. But whichever you prefer, there’s no doubting the popularity of this iconic Yuletide custom.
Wine: rosso veronese. So there are an inordinate number of possibilities here. Conventional approaches have demanded anything from buttery chardonnays (à la Meursault) to austere cabernets and even sprightly Beaujolais nouveau, once upon a time a Thanksgiving meal fixture due to the coincidence of its release date. For our purposes however, although many wine styles might do the trick from the Valpolicella region, it is the opinion of this writer that certain wines of the Rosso Veronese IGT are the best bet. Now, even more so than with the Bianco equivalent one must tread carefully here, as the range permitted under the appellation label is very wide indeed, but anything somewhat less aged or focussing on autochthonous grapes is likely to have the crunch and freshness needed to stand up here – and for my money, you won’t get more perfect a pairing than Zymé’s Verona IGT made from only the oseleta grape.
UK – Roast beef
It may surprise some to learn, however, that the idea of Christmas turkey (or goose, for those who’ve read the book) as expressed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is far from the only major holiday season dinner tradition in the UK. Indeed, in many parts of the country, the old way was always to have that most English of culinary delights roast beef as the Christmas Day main course. In Italy roast beef is best known as a cold cut, but for feasts in Britain it is always served as a hot roast. It doesn’t come much richer and full of festivity than this.
Wine: Amarone della Valpolicella (riserva). That richness in the food demands similar richness in the wine, and so it’s here that we introduce the star of our show. Really, Amarone della Valpolicella is a wine that overwhelms a lot of food, and is best saved for the accompaniment of dishes of such weight and substance that really leave no alternative! Really here there are so many options to choose from, but two in particular that spring to mind here are the Monte Caro Amarone 2017 and the Zardini ‘Leone Zardini’ Amarone Riserva 2016 (for heavier-duty palates), on account of a particular peppery quality that matches beautifully with the iron flavours in roast beef. Big wines for a big meal!
Amarone della Valpolicella Wines
Goa, India – Pork vindaloo
Christianity has always been one of the smaller religions in India. Nevertheless it has always had its strongholds, one of which is the state of Goa, where its blending with local culinary customs has produced some remarkable dishes, many of which have pork at their heart. You see, near-uniquely in the country, Christians have included pork meat as part of their customarily-permitted diets, leading to its taking on great importance in many holiday meals. This, the world famous vindaloo, is a perfect example, a dish not actually as fiery as its international versions, but much more focused on sour and fatty flavours. A remarkably rich and flavourful dish, with a proud and distinct history behind it.
Wine: Valpolicella ripasso. Subcontinental cuisine can be notoriously difficult to pair with wine on account of the way it combines various flavours normally associated with different wine pairings. In this case case, the question might seem what is to prioritised – the spice? The pork? The sour elements? The answer, of course, is to try and match its effects as a whole, which for this writer necessitates a wine of the body to stand up to the rich flavours, the fruit to match the sourness, and the freshness to stay with the fattiness of the pork. Valpolicella ripasso, with its plumped-out structure and weight, is perfect for this job, especially the particularly easy-going, friendly edition from Musella.
What’s Christmas without dessert? Honestly, I think we can all agree the sweets are what really round out the seasonal meal. From mince pies to Lebkuchen, Bûche de Noël to turrón, it’s just not Christmas without a wonderful dolce to finish things off. For this entry we’ll do things a little differently, as we need only make one suggestion for a wine pairing and will save it, like at the meal itself, for last – but we promise, it’s a doozy.
Germany – Stollen
Kicking off with perhaps the paradigmatic Christmas bread, the thick, rich, spicy, intense German fruit-packed Stollen! Also known as Weihnachtstollen or Christstollen, there are as many varieties as there are households to this most iconic of seasonal bakes, and plenty of regional variations of which the most well-known is the one from Dresden, heavier and more moist than the others tend to be. Every year the city holds a festival in the Striezelmarkt (named for the Stollen’s original regional name) where a gigantic Stollen is presented and cut with a special ceremonial knife (Stollen is a big deal in Dresden – only 110 bakers are authorised to sell the official Dresdner Stollen!). Whichever variation you choose, this gorgeous, candied-fruit extravaganza is a perfect way to make the holiday that bit more special.
Brazil & Portugal – Rabanadas
Also popular in Portugal, rabanadas are an extra-sweet version of French toast typically made with powdered sugar or honey rather than the traditional North American maple syrup (though that is also done sometimes these days). For many lusófonos on either side of the Atlantic, Natal just isn’t Natal without rabanadas, which rather than a breakfast concoction are considered very much a dessert or afternoon affair – and if we tell you that they’re commonly accompanied by a glass of Port wine, that might be considered a clue for what we’re about to recommend! But first, we have one more dolce di Natale to discuss…
Italy – Panettone
How could we not finish with panettone? This now world-famous Italian Yuletide staple, originally from Milan but now a Boot-wide ubiquity, is like the Stollen available in various versions, particularly the pandoro of Veronese fame, and is somewhat notorious among bakers for the difficulty of its making, from its unusual dough to the length of resting time required to make it just perfect. It’s for this reason you would only make a panettone for special occasions, and it’s quite a luxury bread indeed to finish off a Christmas meal. The only thing to make it more perfect is something to drink it with, preferably something else of Veronese origin.
Wine: Recioto della Valpolicella. What else? The sweet dessert wine, the jewel of Valpolicella, the original raisin wine, recioto is a dream pairing with any of these three puddings and many more! The richness of the Stollen? No problem. The luxury of the rabanadas? Recioto has the freshness for that. And as for the panettone, well, you wouldn’t expect any less perfect a pairing from two virtual neighbours would you? And you’d want a true classic of the genre to do the trick properly – the Nicolis 2017, for example.
These really are only a few options, of course – Christmas being such a beloved time of year, so rich in traditions and customs, it’s only natural that the sheer number of dishes and recipes associated with it be practically innumerable. We only hope that we’ve opened up a few possibilities for you, and that you like us can see the benefits of celebrating Natale alla Valpolicella.
So, from us at Vineria all’Amarone, Buon Natale and merry Christmas!