CC Image by Davis
With marathon Christmas meals that can last up to 6 hours, the French truly understand how to celebrate the pleasures of the table. From elegant Parisian attic apartments to grand châteaux surrounded by vineyards, the holidays are when people gather with friends and family to feast and enjoy each other’s company. This is the time of year to blow the budget on fresh seafood and fine cheeses and to pull up some special treasures from the family wine cellar.
But with so much fine vintage Champagne, stunningly sophisticated reds from the Rhône Valley, Burgundy and Bordeaux, and luscious dessert wines like Sauternes, how do the French ever decide what to drink at Christmas? Well, here at the Sommailier we’ve put together a handy guide to pairing French wine with holiday foods to help you drink like a Frenchman (or woman) this festive season.
On the Slopes & Christmas Markets
Although extravagant boozy Christmas parties aren’t as common over in France, people start gearing up for the holidays by meeting with friends over a glass or two of something decadent and delicious. Festive French cocktails include Kir Royale, a gorgeous ruby-hued drink made from Champagne and Crème de Cassis or blackcurrant liqueur, and a classic Sidecar made with citrusy Cointreau and Cognac.
Much like their German neighbors, in the days leading up to Christmas the French also like to warm up at Christmas markets, chic cafes and in cozy Alpine ski lodges with a warm glass of fragrant spiced wine. If you fancy trying Vin chaud at home, don’t worry about tracking down the best French red wine you can find. Copy the French by picking up an inexpensive, everyday bottle of red and start adding your choice of festive spices and Cognac using this recipe as a guide.
Another comforting French Christmas drink to enjoy after a hard day’s skiing, snowboarding or just messing around in the snow is Cidre chaud. A little lighter in alcohol and not as well-known as its vinous cousin, the French version uses deep amber-hued cider from Brittany and Normandy. The joyful, uplifting combination of the rich earthy apple flavors and sweet spices make this an increasingly popular alternative to Vin chaud.
Christmas Eve Traditions
According to ancient tradition, Christmas Eve is the time when French people burn Yule logs made out of cherry wood on their hearths. These days it’s rare to have an open fire, but some living in rural communities still bring a chosen log inside and sprinkle it with a little red wine to scent the house with a festive aroma as it burns. The log is often left burning all night just in case The “Père Noël” (the French Santa) happen to stop by during the night. Children are often encouraged to leave out their shoes by the fireplace so that the mysterious passersby can fill them with sweets and small gifts.
The 6-hour Feast
In France Christmas Eve is also the pinnacle of the Christmas feasting season. This is the night the French celebrate with a beautifully decorated table, a sumptuous Christmas feast and the very best French wines. Known as le réveillon or the “wake-up” dinner, the meal was traditionally enjoyed very late on Christmas Eve after returning from midnight mass at the local church. The festive atmosphere is heightened for many French children by the knowledge that they are finally allowed to open their presents after the family meal.
Today many families celebrate earlier in the evening to allow plenty of time to enjoy the feast with Catholic families choosing to attend church after dinner. It is not uncommon for the French Christmas Eve dinner to include elaborate five or six course menus that can take up to six hours!
CC Image by Kevin Gessner
Families usually kick things off by opening a bottle of fine vintage Champagne from a famous house like Veuve Clicquot, Billecart-Salmon or Moët & Chandon or choose something special from a favorite boutique producer like Pierre Peters, Lahaye, and Geoffroy. Others may choose to begin with a traditional method French Crémant from the Loire, Limoux or Burgundy and bring out the Champagne later in the meal.
Alongside a welcome glass of top quality Champagne to stimulate the appetite, many families serve a selection of canapes. Luxurious options include smoked salmon blinis or a generous platter of fresh, salty oysters from Brittany. Thanks to the complexity and depth of flavor in the smoked salmon and oysters, these appetizers pair perfectly with a robust vintage Champagne. It is best to select a Champagne with a decent acidity balancing freshness to help to cut through the heavy, oily texture of the food, cleanse the palate and leave you ready for the rest of the feast.
Next up is the typical Christmas entree which often consists of foie gras served on a slice of bread with a glass of chilled sweet wine like Sauternes, Barsac or Monbazillac or a semi-sweet Côteaux du Layon. These luscious golden wines are gorgeous to look at and also offer the perfect mix of richness and fresh acidity to combine harmoniously with the foie gras. This course can also be served with off-dry French white wines like Riesling from Alsace or even an intense, buttery Chardonnay if you prefer to avoid overwhelming your palate such a sugary wine at the start of the meal.
CC Image by Bonum Vinum
Other classic entree options include classic herby escargot or snails paired with a crisp Chablis from Burgundy where these little guys are especially popular, or hearty pork rillons made from confit pork belly. These meaty treats are a speciality from the town of Tours in the Loire Valley and make a great match for local Cabernet Franc from Chinon or Bourgueil.
The main course or plat principal comes next. The centerpiece is usually a large bird like roast turkey, Guinea fowl or pheasant which are usually stuffed with chestnuts, while in the Alsace region roast goose is more typical. Most families will also serve lobster, crab, duck or seasonal game like venison or boar. With a smorgasbord of flavors on the table, most families keep their main course drinks simple and classic. This is the ideal moment to bring out a Grand Cru Bordeaux or top Burgundy that’s been ageing in the cellar or a fine Chateauneuf du Pape.
Cheese & Dessert
No French feast would be complete without a cheese course which usually comes between the main course and dessert. Most French go to their trusted cheese vendors at their local market or fromagerie to ensure their choices are ripe and ready to be enjoyed. Start easy with a creamy cow’s milk Vacherin, Brie de Meaux or Camembert before progressing to harder Comté or Cantal cheeses. Complete your cheese board with a tangy goat’s milk Tomme de Chèvre and a piquant blue like Roquefort or Bleu d’Auvergne. Here the choice of wine all comes down to personal preference. Pick a Beaujolais cru or Languedoc red to go with the hard cheeses, a decadent Champagne for the creamier cheeses, or try the classic sweet-salty combo of Sauternes and blue cheese.
After that button-popping meal, most French people like to enjoy a lighter dessert. A popular option is bûche de Noël which is a chocolate sponge cake shaped and decorated to look like an actual Yule log. This sweet treat should be paired with a wine that is even sweeter, so great choices are a glass of Banyuls which a fortified wine from the rugged Languedoc-Roussillon, a demi-sec Champagne or even a chilled Cointreau on the rocks.
In Provence, the end of the Christmas feast is marked by the custom of Les Treize or the 13 desserts which are meant to represent Jesus and the 12 disciples. Although it may seem impossible after all that eating, every person has to taste each of the desserts to guarantee good luck for the coming year! Fortunately, these sweets usually include dried figs, walnuts, and candied fruits which don’t require much space.
If you’re still alive by this point, it is customary to close the meal with a digestif. Try a small serve of appley Calvados, Armagnac, Cognac or something a little more unusual like the herbal liqueur Génépy which is made in the Alps.
The Day After the Night Before
Some families choose to hold their feast on Christmas Day instead, but for those who celebrated the night before Christmas Day is a chance to relax and perhaps share a lighter, less formal lunch with friends and family. Some may travel to spend time with another branch of their family and there are always plenty of delicious leftovers and more wine to enjoy! Most people take a few days to travel or relax with their family before the next big celebration in the calendar, New Year’s Eve, which usually features another decadent family feast similar to that enjoyed on Christmas Eve.
From the team at Sommailier we’d like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a wonderful start to the New Year! Want to learn more about French wine? We’re here to help! Why not check out our French wine club. Every three months we send direct to your door three or six bottles of boutique French wines which have been carefully selected by wine experts in France along with detailed information about each wine and food pairing ideas to help you really discover French wine. And as if that wasn’t enough, we also have a wine club gift option for that special wine lover in your life!