Seasonal inspiration

Festive traditions: drinks and food pairings

By Eliza Campbell

22 Oct, 2021

Discover Australia' favourite festive drinks – and the traditions behind them.

Summertime and the Australian festive season intersect in sun-soaked long lunches, seaside aperitifs and picnics in the park. And while most of our food and drink choices revolve around the warm weather, we don’t mind indulging in a few seasonal classics from the northern hemisphere, either. Whether it’s Champagnee on New Year’s Eve or brandy with Christmas pudding, festive beverages have a special place in our collective hearts. Here, we take a closer look at the stories behind them and ask some Australian producers how they celebrate the season at home.

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Sparkling festive traditions and food pairings

Nothing says festivities like a popped cork and bubbles. In fact, Champagne has been synonymous with celebration since the late 1800s. But aside from celebratory symbolism, sparkling wines are perfectly suited to Australia’s summery holiday period, with huge food-pairing potential and the ability to be incorporated into refreshing spritzes and cocktails. The dry flavour profile of sparkling wines, such as blanc de blancs, bruts or brut natures, is a classic match with seafood dishes like fresh shellfish or oysters. They also pair beautifully with poultry, light fish, citrus flavours or mild and earthy cheeses – meaning they’re a must-have at Christmas lunch or an al fresco spread. And don’t ignore home-grown examples in favour of the French stuff – premium Australian sparkling wines can be as crisp, complex, and refined as any Champagne.

Just ask Jennifer Doyle of Jansz Tasmania, one Australia’s premier sparkling producers. “Tasmanian sparkling is among the finest in the world,” she says. “Not only is it utterly delicious on its own, but it also matches perfectly with so many festive foods. Each year, we celebrate by breaking out a magnum.” In addition to Tassie, other cool-climate wine regions such as the Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills produce sparkling in a refreshing style that is ideal as an ocean-side aperitif or with a quality orange juice for next-day brunch mimosas.

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Try prosecco with with soda water and Aperol for a refreshing spritz.

Sparkling wines like cava and prosecco tend to have a slightly sweeter palate and can stand up to more robust flavours. Originating in Italy, prosecco is traditionally served on Cenone di Natale on Christmas Eve, where the menu revolves around seafood, fresh pasta and mixed antipasti in preparation for a meat-heavy Christmas Day. Prosecco’s light and fruity characters are ideal for Australia’s seafood and picnic-centric festive season, working well with oily fish like salmon or tuna, spicy Asian dishes, roast vegetable salads and the intense flavours of goat’s cheese and gorgonzola. You can even pair it with spiced, fruit-forward desserts – think Christmas pudding, panettone or a lemon tart.

“At Christmas time at Casa Dal Zotto, we like to keep things simple and enjoy the time with family,” says Christian Dal Zotto of Victoria's Dal Zotto Wines. “Prosecco is the perfect festive drink because it’s light, fresh and fun. Unlike other bubbles, there are no rules – mix it, don’t mix it… who cares!” Try an Aperol spritz for a crowd-pleasing and classic summer cocktail. Combine one-part prosecco with one-part Aperol and finish with a splash of soda water and a slice of fresh orange.

Cava is a traditional-method Spanish sparkling wine that features some of those delicious, toasty brioche notes also found in Champagne. But unlike France’s famous sparkling, cava has a distinct minerality and fruit-forward palate that particularly suits salty snacks. Pack it for a summer picnic and enjoy with tapas-style foods like marinated olives, aged cheeses or even potato chips. For a festive twist, cava is a great addition to a fruity Christmas punch. Combine with fresh fruit, plenty of ice and mixers of your choice.

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Festive spirits and food pairings

Dark, sticky, aromatic desserts are the hallmark of a Christmas feast. The combined flavours of cinnamon, ginger, molasses and dried fruits instantly conjure a festive feeling and translate deliciously to spirits such as whisky, gin and brandy. Brandy is a distilled spirit made from wine, traditionally used as the alcoholic component of eggnog and to flambé Christmas pudding. Though its origins as a festive ingredient run deep, it was originally enjoyed as an after-dinner digestif, and modern distilleries around the country are producing elevated examples designed to be enjoyed neat.

Tasmania’s Sullivans Cove is one such producer, with a recent win at the 2021 World Brandy Awards for their XO Single Cask Brandy. “Premium, aged brandy is something that can be savoured anytime, but it does have a natural affinity with festivity,” says Sullivans Cove’s Jerome Lebel-Jones. “Brandy-coffee cocktails in the afternoon keep everyone jolly during our family gatherings – and tasting one of our Huon Valley pinot noir or chardonnay single-cask brandies and our Double Cask Brandy side by side is always a Christmas hit.”

Festive flavour-infused gins and whiskies are another great option for a modern take on Christmas. Gin infused with citrus or cinnamon is delicious neat or mixed with ginger ale or soda. For whisky lovers, there are plenty of barrel-aged options with a delicious festive twist. Cult favourite Tasmanian distiller Lark has released its limited-edition Christmas Cask, a whisky reminiscent of liquid plum pudding with notes of raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg and orange peel. “We designed Christmas Cask to be the ultimate sharing whisky,” says Lark’s head distiller, Chris Thomson. “We are seeing people increasingly embrace whisky year round. Whether you’re a fanatic or new to whisky, Christmas Cask is guaranteed to be a hit with smoked hams, plum puddings and fresh seafood.”

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Chilled reds and festive food pairings

Australian Christmas may fall in the height of summer, but that doesn’t mean leaving red wines out of the festive line-up. Sparkling shiraz combines the festivity of bubbles with the food-pairing potential of a good red – and it is absolutely delicious. For the diehard red wine drinkers at the table, sparkling shiraz is a match made in heaven for Christmas ham, turkey, roast meats or anything with a robust flavour profile. It’s even great with bacon and eggs or anything off the barbecue.

Adelaide Hills winery Ashton Hills is responsible for our 2022 Sparkling Shiraz of the year – a mix of savoury aromas, juicy berry flavours, integrated tannins and fine mousse. “We celebrate with an aged sparkling shiraz with the roast turkey,” says Ashton Hills winemaker Liam Van Pelt. “For as long as I can remember, there has been a bottle on our family’s table on Christmas Day. It’s a unique wine style that appeals to almost all drinkers – aged examples pair extremely well with the roast, and younger, fresher ones go with a bacon and egg sandwich on Boxing Day.

If sparkling shiraz isn’t your thing, there are endless options in the form of chilled, lighter-style reds. The key to identifying a wine that will be delicious chilled is selecting those with a moderate to low alcohol percentage – pinot noir, gamay, grenache and nero d’Avola are excellent candidates. McLaren Vale winery Ochota Barrels makes a few styles designed specifically for chilling, though they’re delicious at any temperature. “Chilled reds are the perfect festive drinks as they sit happily with the other drinks in the Esky or ice bucket. It’s not the kind of wine you need to overthink or analyse,” says Amber Ochota. “Over the summer holidays, Taras and I used to go to our local water hole, stick a couple of bottles of red in the water to keep them cool, and spend the afternoon swimming and lazing around.”

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Fortified wines and festive food pairings

Like brandy, sherry is often relegated to ingredient-only status when it comes to the festive menu. But this fortified wine comes in a variety of styles with the complexity to stand up to a wide array of dishes. Originating in the Jerez region of Spain, sherry is made in a range of dryness, from fino to cream or pedro ximenez – the latter being the ultra-sweet versions most often associated with Christmas dishes. Fino sherries are sophisticated, dry and savoury, with nutty, bready flavours that pair beautifully with oysters, fresh shellfish or roast vegetable salads. Reach for amontillados alongside roast turkey or Christmas ham, or try oloroso with more hearty proteins such as lamb or beef. Save sweet pedro ximenez and cream sherry for dessert, enjoyed with Christmas pudding or poured over ice cream.

In lieu of sweet Spanish sherries, Aussie fortified wines are a Christmas staple in most households for their similarly decadent flavours. The Victorian region of Rutherglen is famed for its production of muscat and topaque; fortified wines made from the grape varieties of muscat and muscadelle respectively. With a rich, treacly consistency and dried fruit flavours, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect pairing than Australian fortified served up with Christmas cake.

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