In north Norfolk in late September, it is only just getting dark, and you might have been able to enjoy your apéritif outside with one of those bright, big-sky sunsets. After an autumn salad with nuts and a glass of Meursault, a perfect partridge, simply roasted – delicate, subtle and all too easy to overpower with the wrong wine – will sing like a Mozart aria with a red Burgundy; if you can afford it, the best Chambolle Musigny, Vosne Romanée or Morey Saint Denis you can find. If you don’t love your guests that much, maybe a Givry or Mercurey. In my imagination it needs the quite youthful scent of a seven-to-ten-year old wine with fresh acidity, structural delicacy and dryness, so I’m afraid most New World Pinots won’t quite do it.
November, and it’s properly dark outside. Pink-tinged breast and confit leg of roast pheasant with game chips, bread sauce, fried breadcrumbs, perhaps cabbage steamed so that it still just squeaks on your teeth, crunchy roast potatoes and savoury gravy. Around it glinting silver and glassware, candlelight, a fire giving a welcome warmth after a day outside. Go with any good wine from the Médoc, which seems to have the right pitch of fruit flavour and just enough generosity to match the slight dryness and subtle gaminess of pheasant. But there’s no question Burgundy is just as good an answer, maybe one of the fuller ones, a Gevrey or a Pommard. But if an Argentine Malbec is your thing, why not? Médoc is my ‘Bach’ answer, the one with an absolute ‘rightness’ in my imagination. But other clarets and Cabernets from Italy or the New World might be more adventurous, Burgundy possibly more lyrically romantic, and the Malbec a bit more rock ‘n’ roll.
December school holidays and time for a boys’ shoot. They’re not getting the Lynch Bages at lunch, but you can stretch to a decent Chianti with the game and mushroom casserole – the lift and definition of the slightly dry fruit will be a good match with richness.
With Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman
On Boxing Day there’s a casual shoot in the village and at lunch, despite the morning outside, there are a few looking a bit jaded after the Christmas day blow-out, the cook’s gone on strike and it’s pâtés and cold cuts, baked potatoes, chutneys – beetroot and other salads. I want juiciness. I want red wine, but I don’t want anything too serious. The classic here is Beaujolais, and not a particularly grand or old one, lively, supple, slippery as silk, and it will remain unfazed by the chutneys and salads. If you really want to wake them all up, you could try a Lambrusco, frothy, glass-staining, dry and full of youthful purple exuberance.
By January, the cold is beginning to gnaw at the fingertips. I don’t know quite why it works so well – maybe it’s the same reason we enjoy duck à l’orange or with other high-acid dark-fruit reductions – but I love duck with a northern Rhône Syrah (ideally Côte Rôtie) which is still young enough to have some of that silk-juice, scented black fruit with a citrus edge: there’s a complex interplay with the savoury sweet fattiness of duck.
If you are getting into roast goose, northern Italian Nebbiolos from Barbaresco and Barolo, when youthfully tannic and grippy, go well with fattier meats, so give them a try; but when they’re fully mature they have an ethereal, graceful tobacco-scented balsamic quality which would be superb with more delicate dishes, and would match any game cooked with fungi, whether field mushrooms or more exotic ceps, chanterelles and morels.
Of course, there’s no ‘right’ answer – with our individual recommendations that follow there are wines that will work just as well with other dishes. But the game’s great fun and intensely rewarding: just use your imagination and the chances are that your guests will appreciate your efforts.