Christmas provides a welcome boost for business, but don't overlook the chance to cash in with creative wine pairings. Fiona Sims explains how to make the most of your list
David Varielle has already been getting some practice in. The head sommelier of London's Bar Boulud has been pairing wines with roast meats since it launched its midweek roast offering in the autumn. "You have to think about the meat, yes, but it's more about the sauce and the accompaniments," he says.
Pre-Christmas, a roast saddle of veal served with a parsley and caper sauce is paired with a Pinot Noir from Patagonia made by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta (2011 Chacra, available from Lea & Sandeman).
"Veal is a juicy meat but it's delicate so it needs minerality and acidity. Pinot Noir does both of those things and also gives roundness to the meat," explains Varielle.
And what about the bird itself, of which American head chef Dean Yasharian is well versed, with many a Thanksgiving dinner under his belt?
"As well as all the traditional trimmings, turkey jus can be pretty overpowering - only an aged white with some oxidation can stand up to it. But a better match is something big, red and juicy, such as Californian Zinfandel, which has notes of liquorice and orange rind and a Christmas pudding nose, plus enough alcohol and acidity to pair up," says Varielle.
Failing that, he suggests, look to the Rhône. At the top of his ultimate turkey-pairing list is five-year-old Côte-Rôtie, but if budgets won't allow then consider a Côtes du Rhône Villages, such as Domaine Haut Musiel (Top Selection), he advises.
And you can stay in France for the Christmas pudding, too, he says. "You need a fortified wine, and it has to be red and have lots of sugar, so you're looking for a big fruit bomb - such as Maury or Banyuls."
Kate Thal has other ideas for Christmas lunch. The former sommelier and now co-proprietor of popular East Dulwich café-cum-wine merchant Green and Blue swears by rosé throughout the meal and singles out one from Montalcino, Tuscany - a 2010 Fonterenza Rosato, which she sells in the restaurant for £21.75.
"We often recommend a smart rosé at this time of year. Again, it works well with everything from the fish course through to roast birds or ham, and it's less heavy than a big red," she explains.
Her Christmas canapé wine of choice is an Arbois Pétillant Naturel from Domaine De L'Octavin Le Peteux, which she sells for £18. "It's a delicious, naturally sparkling Chardonnay - fine and minerally, also great with smoked salmon," she advises.
Over in the New Forest, Hotel Terravina's award-winning master sommelier, Laura Rhys, is banging the drum for Madeira at Christmas and reckons restaurants shouldn't neglect this one-time seasonal staple.
"What better match for a mince pie than a glass of Madeira?" she says, recommending one from D'Oliveira (Bovey Wines, £11.42). "It's packed full of raisins, plums and nuts with hints of burnt caramel and candied citrus," adds Rhys.
But what to serve for the Christmas party when glugging is the main agenda? Keep it crisp and dry, avoiding those that have had any lengthy contact with oak, which can become cloying. And while Italian Pinot Grigio still rules on this front, thanks to its fresh character and crisp fruit, consider cranking things up a notch and looking to Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris, as it's also known) from outside Italy, such as Alsace, Oregon or New Zealand.
For party reds the most versatile and best value glugs mainly come from the New World, such as Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and California, but the Languedoc-Roussillon in the south of France also has plenty to choose from - just avoid chewy tannins or wines that are too acidic, or too high in alcohol, and focus on easy-drinking grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
On to Champagne, the party wine of choice. If your budget can't handle big names, look at smaller growers in the region, which often provide as much complexity but without the price tag. And if Champagne is not an option then there's a plethora of well-made sparkling wines from all over the world, from the crémants of the Loire, Burgundy and Alsace, to Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava, with its great value yeasty, appley fruit. And take your pick of New World fizz - from California to New Zealand - not forgetting England, of course, which continues to scoop the trophies and increase its presence on restaurant wine lists.
CATERER WINE CLINIC
Could my wine cellar double up as a private dining room to hold wine dinners? If you have the space, absolutely. There's nothing like being surrounded by posh bottles to help increase the spend. London's Connaught hotel has a beautiful new wine cellar dining room fashioned by craftsmen from Provence, and a menu from the hotel's incumbent two-Michelin-starred chef, Hélène Darroze.
There are more than 8,000 bottles on the 1,000-bin list, presided over by sommelier Hugues Lepin, and he shows diners the inner chamber with the rarest bottles in between courses, clearly visible through a glass wall on one side of the oak-panelled room - a hit with customers.
Meanwhile, Pont de la Tour credits part of its long-running success to its formidable wine collection and busy wine cellar private dining rooms - one situated right next to its wine shop, where diners are encouraged to check out the bottles for sale, and in a walled-off bit of the cellar itself, seating up to 20.
"They can watch a proper working cellar while they eat," says head sommelier Nicholas Clerc.
"They can even touch the bottles if they like - we encourage it," he adds, admitting that the very best bottles are stashed in another, less accessible, corner of the cellar.
SOMMELIER SOAPBOX Languedoc-Roussillon Patrick Cooper, head sommelier, Restaurant Martin Wishart, Edinburgh
I don't think the general public is fully aware of the quality and the diversity of wines found in the world's largest wine-producing region, the Languedoc-Roussillon. This region has many AOCs, from Corbières to Collioure, and styles range from light, crisp whites to rich, fortified reds, yet they are largely forgotten about on UK restaurant wine lists.
Reds are the name of the game here, from Carignan to Syrah, Grenache to Mourvèdre, but whites, too, are equally interesting, from Sauvignon Blanc to Marsanne, Viognier to Chardonnay - and not forgetting Muscat, used predominantly for sweet wines, but also producing some fantastic dry whites.
Try light, sparkling Crémant de Limoux, perfect as a Christmas aperitif, such as Domaine Delmas Cuvée des Sacres (Vinceremos, 0800 107 3086, £13), and Corbières Blanc, such as the Cuvée Classique from Ollieux Romanis (L'Art Du Vin, 01383 873510, £8.50).
If you are looking for a big red then try the small, family-owned Domaine de L'Hortus Pic St Loup (Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 280 2440, £13), or if you want something smart, then look to the Lafite Rothschild of the Languedoc, Le Mas de Daumas Gassac (Exel Wines, 0173 849 3535, £27).
The Languedoc-Roussillon has so much to give but it's overshadowed by the New World. The next time you are thinking about listing Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhône, why not look instead at Faugères, La Clape or Côtes du Roussillon? You'll get more for your money and a pleasant surprise."
Five reds for your list this Christmas
Laytons Wine Merchants
020 7288 8883
2009 Etna Rosso, Cantine Nicosia, Sicily, Italy, £8.27 "Forget Sicilian wine being rich and full bodied, this blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio is fragrant, elegant and peppery, with moderate alcohol and marked minerality. It's perfect with poultry or with a plate of charcuterie."
Portland Wine Company
2010 Mud House Golden Terraces Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand, £12.50 "A luscious Pinot Noir from Central Otago. Elegant, yet full of concentrated flavour, with plenty of red berry fruit on the palate and a lovely long finish. A perfect wine for Christmas - an excellent pairing with roast turkey and all the trimmings."
L'Art du Vin
01383 873 510
2010 La Chapelle, Côtes du Rhône, France, £7.80 "From a small biodynamic estate in the Rhône valley run by brothers Frederic and Bernard Duseigneur. This elegant and velvety red wine makes great drinking throughout the festive period, with its generous backbone of deep red fruit with notes of cherry pie, pepper and just a hint of cinnamon and clove - perfect with hearty winter red meat and light game dishes, and turkey."
Old Chapel Cellars
2009 Main Break Shiraz, Margaret River, Australia £8.66 "There is a sense of fun, underpinned by real quality and value that is really strong in this part of the world. The cooler climate fruit brings finesse to this bold spicy Shiraz and makes it stand out from the crowd. A wine for hearty fare, in particular red meats - great with osso buco."
020 7908 0690
2009, Finca San Martin Crianza 2009, La Rioja Alta, £11.99 "The first release of a crianza from La Rioja Alta's portfolio, this vibrant, rich red from the Rioja Alavesa winery of Torre de OÁ±a is packed with velvety smooth wild fruits with notes of tobacco and cedar. This is real bang-for-your-buck Rioja; juicy enough to slip down solo and bold enough to take on the Christmas turkey."