From the dried-fruit flavours of Port to the honeyed notes of Sauternes, Christmas is the perfect occasion for sweet wines. In our short collection of stories and advice, Alexandra Gray de Walden reminisces on fond memories; Clara Bouffard imparts her top food-matching tips; and Stewart Turner shares a recipe for chestnut choux buns with clementine sauce.
For Alexandra Gray de Walden, Christmas means snuggling up in front of a roaring fire, with a golden glass of Sauternes in hand.
Christmas pudding, chocolate coins, cranberry sauce oozing over turkey breast; sweetness runs through Christmas like carols and mince pies. From exuberant and energetic demi-sec Champagne to moreish and complex after-dinner Port, there’s a sweet wine to accompany every Christmas occasion.
Yuletide festivities are awash with decadence, indulgence and richness – and sweet wines fit the bill perfectly. Take a golden, luscious glass of Sauternes: full of honeyed citrus peel and orange blossom, it’s a perfect physical representation of Christmas, with its opulent colours, aromas and seasonal sparkle.
Sweet white pudding wines such as Sauternes and Barsac are a perfect match for your after-dinner cheese board, particularly the rich and pungent Epoisses and Roquefort – the combination of sugar and salt is as harmonious a match as sweet and sour. For those of us with a sweeter tooth, let’s not forget the treacle-like viscosity of a Pedro Ximénez Sherry, drizzled liberally over vanilla ice cream – a Spanish twist on a British classic.
But the true joy of any wine comes from the event, the sense of occasion and the company in which it is shared. My happiest memories of sweet wines at Christmas are snuggling with the family dog on a well-worn sofa, savouring a honeyed glass of Sauternes in front of a roaring log fire. It’s about true quality time spent with special people – and special wine.
The sweet wines of Bordeaux are all too often overlooked, but Clara Bouffard believes there’s no better occasion to enjoy them than at Christmas. Having grown up in the region, she takes a closer look at the magical – and painstaking – process involved in bringing a bottle of Sauternes to life.
At a Bordeaux château, Christmas doesn’t only mark the end of the year – it also marks the conclusion of the sweet wine fermentation cycle and the start of maturation. Producers enjoy some time off with their family before the winter cycle begins, with work such as pruning. But during the rest of the year, the process of making Sauternes requires great passion and dedication.
In Inside Bordeaux, Jane Anson says that Sauternes is “made by masochists, drunk by hedonists”. Take it from a sweet-winemaker’s daughter: this couldn’t be more accurate. Every time I drink Sauternes, I can’t help but feel grateful to taste such a noble product. Winemakers face nothing short of a battle to produce a bottle of Sauternes – from having the right climatic conditions to the challenge of harvest (botritysed grapes don’t all ripen at once, so picking happens in several stages).
If you’ve ever visited Sauternes during harvest, you’re lucky. You’ll have experienced the mystical atmosphere and unique climate that nature brings about at that time of the year. If you haven’t, allow me to paint a picture for you: at night, the cold waters of the Ciron river meet the warmer waters of the Garonne. Until midday, a deep fog settles on the land and the vines. This fog brings with it the ideal conditions for Botrytis Cinerea – the so-called “noble rot” – to settle on the grapes, making micro-perforations to the skin. In the afternoon, wind and sun cause the water in the grapes to evaporate, concentrating both the sugars and aromatics within.
The soil also plays an important part in the process: most typically in Sauternes, you’ll find a blend of sand and gravel. The former allows great drainage through the soil, keeping the roots cool; this is important for acidity. The latter absorbs the sun’s heat, helping to warm the vineyard up after those humid mornings.
It’s fascinating how all these natural phenomena come together, in such a small and specific area, to produce such a magical wine. Sweet Bordeaux is both undervalued and underpriced, offering some of the best value for money in the whole region.
It’s the ultimate Christmas wine in Bordeaux – the perfect reason to hold onto a wonderful bottle during the year. It’s well worth the wait for this most special of occasions, to be savoured in the presence of family. I can’t think of a better moment to enjoy a bottle of sweet Bordeaux.
From Vintage Port to honeyed Sauternes, Christmas gives us the perfect opportunity to indulge in the richness of sweet wines. But how you serve them is an important consideration. Henrietta Gullifer outlines the key things to bear in mind when pouring sweet wines throughout the season.
Whether you love a delicate off-dry Riesling, a honey-soused Sauternes or a sticky Vintage Port, there tends to be a sweet wine for everyone. Personally, I’m a big fan of a sweet Tokaji – even more intense than a Sauternes but with a fantastic, refreshing acidity. It’s a truly special treat.
When considering a sweet wine, the first question is: when do you serve it? You have several options, the most obvious being with dessert. For instance, a Pedro Ximénez Sherry alongside Christmas pudding makes a beautiful match, with those dried-fruit flavours complementing each other. But increasingly, there’s a greater awareness that sweet wine is not just for dessert. Whether you're pairing Port or Sauternes with cheese, or a sweet Riesling with a seafood starter, sweet wines can be served at various point in a meal.
Often, we tend to serve sweet wine too warm. Ideally, it should be served at 8-10°C, but straight from the fridge will also work perfectly. This prevents the wine from tasting too cloying. The exception to this is Port: serving it too cold would exacerbate the tannins and dull the fruit, yet I still wouldn’t serve Port too warm.
Sweet wine is often associated with dessert, but the truth is that these wines are incredibly versatile, pairing beautifully with everything from oysters to blue cheese. Clara Bouffard shares some helpful tips for food-matching the sweet wines of Bordeaux.
Traditionally, sweet-wine pairings with food have been limited to foie gras or dessert. But Sauternes actually has incredible gastronomic versatility, with a delicate balance between sweetness and acidity, earning these wines a place at the dinner table.
I adore sweet wine throughout the year – but I believe Christmas food is perfectly suited to the rich, indulgent flavours of a Sauternes, Cérons or Loupiac. In France, they’re rarely consumed as dessert wines; one can opt to enjoy a glass with a starter, such as foie gras, salmon or oysters. The sweet and savoury combination is just right for a perfectly balanced mise-en-bouche.
Yet the versatility of sweet wines goes beyond the apéritif. They would be a superb match for meats such as turkey, guineafowl or roasted pork, as well as sautéed Grenaille potatoes or truffled mashed potatoes. I would also seriously recommend pairing them with a blue cheese, or a Comté aged for at least 30 months.
The key is contrast and balance. And the beauty is that, once opened, a bottle will easily keep for three weeks in the fridge. With desserts, best practice is to avoid pairing wines with anything too rich or too sweet. Fruit-dominant desserts, such as a lemon meringue tart, will perfectly balance the sweetness and acidity.
Serving Sauternes on ice with a slice of orange, or as part of a cocktail, is a more contemporary approach – a local favourite becoming widely adopted in Sauternes, where hospitality and wine tourism are growing.
Michelin-trained chef Stewart Turner shares one of his favourite recipes to enjoy with sweet wines: chestnut choux buns with clementine sauce. It’s perfect as a lighter alternative to the classic Christmas pudding.
Dessert wines might not be one of the most fashionable styles, but I can’t think of a better way to finish a meal than with a lusciously sweet nectar – it just rounds it off perfectly. When it comes to dessert at Christmas, it’s hard to look past the classic pudding or bûche de Noël. I’m a big fan of Christmas pudding, but always feel it’s a bit too heavy after a full-on Christmas lunch. In fact, I often save it for Boxing Day.
So, this is my go-to for a slightly lighter alternative Christmas Day pud. Although it may look complicated, all the elements can be prepared in advance – even the choux buns can be piped and frozen, then cooked when needed. It’s also worth remembering that sweet wines are the perfect match for blue cheese.
The recipe: Chestnut choux buns with clementine sauce
100g strong plain flour or bread flour
3 eggs, beaten
Craquelin (see below for the recipe)
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the butter in a saucepan with the water. Heat gently until the butter melts, then bring to a rolling boil. Lower the heat, add the flour and allow to cook for around 30 seconds, beating continuously until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan.
Allow to cool for a few minutes, then add the eggs one at a time, beating in each egg thoroughly before adding the next.
Remove the craquelin from the freezer. Let it stand for a few minutes, then cut out 8 x 5cm discs. Return to the freezer.
Pipe the choux buns into 5cm mounds onto a parchment-lined baking tray. Make sure you leave space for each bun to rise, then top each with a craquelin disc.
Bake for 20 minutes, until the buns are well-risen and golden. Crack open the oven door and leave for a further five minutes to allow the buns to set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
75g butter, softened
75g demerara sugar
75g plain flour, all-purpose
Beat together all the ingredients to form a soft dough.
Place the dough between two sheets of parchment paper and roll out until it’s 3 millimetres thick. Slide onto a tray and freeze.
200g chestnut puree
30g maple syrup
15ml The King’s Ginger
200g double cream
½ vanilla pod, split and seeds removed
250ml clementine juice and grated zest of clementine
100g icing sugar
80g candied chestnut pieces (optional)
Place the clementine juice, zest and 70g of the icing sugar in a small pan and bring to the boil. Simmer the mixture and reduce by half. Lower the heat and whisk in the butter, a little at a time, before setting aside at room temperature.
Place the chestnut puree in a bowl and beat in the maple syrup and The King’s Ginger. Whip the double cream to soft peaks with the remaining icing sugar and vanilla seeds.
When ready to serve, split the choux buns and spoon or pipe in the chestnut puree. Top with the candied chestnut pieces, finish with the whipped cream and place on the top half of the bun.
Spoon the clementine sauce into the centre of your plates and place the choux bun in the centre. Enjoy.
Our top recommendation
Which is the best sweet wine to enjoy this Christmas? One of our favourites is this special cuvée from Château Suduiraut. In select vintages, the Château produced wines with even greater concentrations of fruit, and 1989 was one of those special years. It has enticing notes of satsumas, honeysuckle and beeswax, making it a perfect match for the indulgent flavours of Christmas.