Christmas classical music and drink pairings

What music should you be playing to accompany the finest tipples? Oz Clarke and the BBC Music Magazine team offer you their expert advice

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‘On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…’ goes the familiar festive song. Lovely, but there are only so many times you can serve partridge and pear casserole for dinner. And have you ever tried wrapping eight milk maids?

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When it comes to gift ideas, we’d suggest looking elsewhere. Such as, say, good music and wine. These old-timers of the gift list are always there for a reason – offering huge variety, they can be relied upon to raise a smile.

And there’s all sorts of fun to be had when you start pairing the two together. What should you be uncorking to, say, Beethoven’s Fifth? Or to where in your record collection should you turn when you want to enjoy a silky Châteauneuf-du-Pape in style? As Christmas approaches, finding perfect harmony between ears and taste buds is something we at BBC Music Magazine have been turning our attention to with due seriousness.

We, though, like to look beyond just the wine section of the drinks cabinet – all manner of drinks deserve consideration. And who better to lead our research than Oz Clarke: TV wine expert, former Canterbury Cathedral chorister and Monteverdi Choir member? We asked Oz to recommend a drink for each of the 12 days of Christmas, complete with tasting notes.

Then, equipped with bottles, glasses, our CD library and a sense of adventure, editor Oliver Condy, deputy editor Jeremy Pound and reviews editor Rebecca Franks spent an afternoon sampling his recommendations and working out ideal musical accompaniments. Our research was as meticulous as our debates were increasingly enthusiastic. Here’s what we came up with…

Christmas Day

Sparkling wine

Oz recommends: Camel Valley Classic Cuvée 2014 (M&S)

Wave the flag with British bubbles on Christmas Day. We Brits don’t go in for quite so much chest-thumping about Vintages of the Century as our friends over the Channel, but 2014 was a stunner here. This Cornish delight mixes the soft, nutty flavours of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with the much more English hawthorn hedgerow and apple core bite of Seyval blanc grapes. English sparkling wine has never been better.

Rebecca suggests: Stylish, sparkling, festive? This all cries out for the jubilant Christmas Oratorio. After all, Bach wrote Part One of his six-part seasonal masterpiece for Christmas Day itself in 1734. So, as you pop the cork and get the festivities underway, make sure to have ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ turned up, the zingy opening chorus gilded by trumpets and drums.

Boxing Day

Ale

Oz recommends: Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour ale (Oddbins)

Where do they get these ideas from? This can’t work, but it does. These inspired oddballs from Liverpool have brewed a sour beer in a lemony Berliner style, and then double-soured it with Greek yoghurt, chopped up cucumber and mint leaves soaked in Ouzo. I had no idea the Germans and Greeks were getting on so well! Mayhem inside a glass, this is about the whackiest but most refreshing beer on the planet for this Christmas.

Oliver suggests: Oz is quite right – there’s an unmistakeable Greekness to this cloudy ale. A fresh, zingy salad in a glass, you could say, with a bit of German kick. So we’ve gone for the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Boris Papandopulo, a 20th-century German-born composer of Greek-Slavic heritage. The music is fizzy and exotic, its eastern influences very much in evidence in the work’s bucolic third movement where a distinct Romantic style flirts with Macedonian and Bulgarian folk songs.

27 December

Red wine

Oz recommends: Waitrose Douro Valley Reserva Quinta da Rosa 2016 (Waitrose)

People often feel the necessity to have European classic reds on the table at Christmas – usually something from France, Italy or Spain. Well, here’s the new classic: Douro red wine from Portugal. The Douro Valley produces sweet Port, but this dauntingly beautiful area also makes reds as serious as any in Europe, yet much more easy to love – scented with violets and lily sap, streaked with scintillating cranberry brilliance and bursting with the chewy richness of raspberries and red cherries.

Jeremy suggests: Just as we were lining up the clichés about weighty opera to go with a full-bodied red, Oz takes us by surprise with a wine that is really rather perky. As you’ll gather from the description, there’s a lot going on here, so the multi-faceted charms of Grieg’s Sechs Lieder for voice and piano should prove a suitable companion, from the lively opening ‘Gruss’ to the open-air freshness of ‘Lauf der Welt’ and the introspection of ‘Zur Rosenheit’.

28 December

Cider

Oz recommends: Kentish Discovery Apple Cider (M&S)

Usually I’m a bit of a purist, demanding that cider be made from cider apples – and probably in the West Country. But I used to scrump apples off this farm when I was a kid! So even if Discovery is actually an eating apple, I’ve got to love this cider. Luckily it’s a delicious, orchard-scented drink – dry, but with the fabulous juiciness of a good Kent eating apple, yet the cheesecloth savoury bite of something from much further west.

Oliver suggests: One sip of this wonderful drink throws up an array of flavours, as Oz suggests. And given that cider is about as English a drink as you can get, the complexities of Elgar’s Enigma Variations seem to fit the bill, from the effervescence of the 14th variation (a portrait of the composer himself) to the charming autumnal glow of the first variation, an affectionate nod to Alice, Elgar’s wife. And our cider’s cheesecloth flavour? A lovely enigma all of its own…

29 December

Port

Oz recommends: Taste the Difference Vintage Port (Sainsbury)

If Christmas is the only time that you drink Port (and that seems to be the case for most of us, though with winter swirling round our knees for months on end I can’t see why we don’t crack open a bottle of this bone-heater more often), make sure it’s a good one. This is a smasher, made by the Symington family who produce labels like Warre and Graham, that is overflowing with rich, dense, dark fruit and headstrong perfume.

Oliver suggests: The days between Christmas and New Year call for a few moments of reflection, and if ever there was a post-prandial composer to go with Oz’s choice of port, it’s Chopin. The piano nocturnes, particularly our choice of the C-sharp minor Op. Posth, are packed with port-y luscious harmonies and operatic melodies – this Nocturne has a touch of melancholy, too, as we leave behind the festivities and prepare to bid farewell to 2017. Perfect for a piece that’s often referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

30 December

White wine

Oz recommends: Stellenrust Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016 (Sainsbury)

I was searching for a Chardonnay that wasn’t too Chardonnay-ish and wasn’t too oaky, but was a good, satisfying mouthfiller for winter feasts. And I fell on this – the perfect ‘not quite Chardonnay’ white. South Africa has been growing the Chenin Blanc grape forever, but has only recently started taking it seriously. About time. The flavours are wonderfully original – mouth-watering white peach and nectarine, squeezed with lemon, rubbed with hazelnut and smeared with cream.

Rebecca suggests: Just as this wine is ‘not quite chardonnay’, so I’ve chosen something that’s ‘not quite Bach’. Biber’s G minor Passacaglia probably influenced Bach’s mighty D minor Chaconne, but somehow this magisterial ten-minute meditation for solo violin still falls into its shadows. The Passacaglia is a brilliantly individual and intense piece yet, like the wine, has a deliciously sharp edge to it, too.

New Year’s Eve

Lager

Oz recommends: Lost and Grounded Running with Sceptres lager (Oddbins)

This isn’t one of your lazing by the hazy lagoon-type lagers. This is lager with oomph. Lager that you can barely see through. Lager that actually tastes of something. It’s brewed in Bristol by a couple whose beer passion hurls Czech pilsner, Belgian virtually anything and Western Australian pale ale into the vat – and out comes this feisty, foaming, resinous and riotous glass of hoppy burpacious joy.

Jeremy suggests: Launching the New Year’s Eve celebrations in the company of this lager sounds fun. Music with a touch of whizz-bang is evidently needed here, but Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks seems too staid and galumphy for such a characterful beverage. Instead, go for Stravinsky’s Fireworks. A brief but brilliant burst of orchestral colour, it fizzes here, there and everywhere, punctuated by the occasional crash. Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day

Fruit juice (plus extras…)

Oz recommends: Alvalle Original Gazpacho (Sainsbury and Waitrose)

So how are you feeling? I know, gazpacho’s a soup, not fruit juice. But actually, this is tomato juice on steroids. The tomato came from South America to south-west Spain. That’s still where the ripest, sweetest tomatoes grow, and that’s where gazpacho comes from. This gorgeous mishmash of tomato, cucumber, peppers, onion, garlic and olive oil makes for a thick but thrilling drink. Now, south-west Spain is also where dry sherry comes from. Splash some in, plus a wallop of vodka, some tabasco and Worcestershire sauce – and you have a heavenly Bloody Mary.

Oliver suggests: Full and favoursome, but not overpowering – that’s how we like our New Year’s Days. And as the magic of Oz’s gazpachified Bloody Mary works on your hangover, the rich simplicity of Arvo Pärt’s gently hypnotic Spiegel im Spiegel will help you gear yourself, mentally and physically, for the year ahead. Ten minutes of classy serenity – a music-drink match made in heaven.

2 January

Mulled wine

Oz recommends: Oz ’s own mulled wine recipe

OK. You could buy a ready-made mulled wine… but, really, where’s your party pride? Make your own! 

Oz’s mulled wine:
1 bottle of decent red (M&S Vinola Tavola at £5 will do fine)
1/2 bottle of ruby port Muscovado sugar Cointreau
Creme de Cassis (or Ribena)
Chopped red chilli (or powder if you must)
Ginger wine
The usual spices, oranges and lemons
2 pints of water

Heat up, but don’t boil. Then drink. Repeat. It’ll blow your head off in the most delicious way.

Jeremy suggests: Making and then drinking Oz’s mulled wine (left) requires two pieces of music. For the preparation, something with a certain joie-de-vivre is a must – as port, Cointreau, chillis and all head into the mix, Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto adds to my good mood. For the consumption, I’m after something heady and luxurious and, given that chilli, with a bit of bite to it, too. After a glass or two or three, I settle on the orchestral enchantment of La tragédie de Salomé by the late-Romantic French composer Florent Schmitt.

3 January

Gin

Oz recommends: Taste the Difference Blackfriars London Dry Gin (Sainsbury)

There’s a bit of a rule at supermarkets: never buy the cheapest spirit, but the one at a couple of quid more can be exquisite. That’s definitely the case with gin. You get far more aroma, flavour – and in this case, at 43%, alcohol too. London Dry is a wonderfully appetising gin style, rooted in juniper’s fascinating personality. This has a soaring scent and mouth-filling flavours and texture, and it is truly dry, as it should be.

Rebecca suggests: For soaring melodies and bags of personality, look no further than Mozart’s exquisite comedy Marriage of Figaro. Even if librettist Da Ponte’s wit is not as dry as the gin, Figaro is packed with humour. Plus, where would gin be without tonic? If I can push the metaphor a little further, it’s when the voices blend in Mozart’s ensemble numbers at the ends of Acts II and IV that the magic really happens.

4 January

Sherry

Oz recommends: Very Rare Dry Oloroso (M&S)

Is sherry finally making a comeback? Is this amazing, challenging, paradoxical beauty beginning to find some appreciation again? Could I even start to call sherry ever so slightly ‘hip’? Well, dry sherry, yes. This Oloroso is richer than a cream sherry, and much fuller of the dark, sultry flavours of raisins and moist brown sugar and spice-laden Christmas cake. Yet it’s gloriously, wilfully dry.

Rebecca suggests: It sometimes pays to go for the obvious. Pairing sherry with music by one of Spain’s greatest composers is a case in point. Albéniz’s solo piano Iberia is packed with influences from his home country, and its impressionist language is spiced with rhythms of the fandango, jota and flamenco. Oloroso comes from Andalusia, the capital of which is Seville. So why not savour your sherry with the third piece from Iberia, ‘Fête-dieu a Seville’?

Twelfth Night

Whisky

Oz recommends: Fine Single Malt English Whisky (M&S)

I’m not sure you’ll be finding too much of this whisky north of the Border, because it’s English! The Scots can just about accept Irish Whiskey, but surely the Auld Enemy cannae make whisky? Yes he can, and it’s stunning stuff, easily as good as a Scotch at this price and better than many. It comes from the mild countryside of East Anglia, where some of Britain’s best barley is grown. And it’s austere and proud as a Highlander, mildly peaty, and with a tremendous waxy malt warmth.

Jeremy suggests: Twelfth Night makes me think of Shakespeare, and it’s to a Bard-inspired work that I’m turning to for the final instalment of our festive guide: setting words from The Merchant of Venice, Vaughan Williams’s serene Serenade to Music matches the warm embrace of our whisky. Whether you choose the choral original or VW’s later version for orchestra, this wonderful wallow of a work is music to swill around your aural tastebuds as you sit back and ponder life, the universe and everything.

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This article first appeared in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine.