How to choose the best cheese and wine this Christmas
It’s the best bit of every party (right?!), but how to pick the right products? We got the lowdown on pairings, favourites, and festive essentials from four lovely local suppliers.
Our happy place? A crisp glass of wine, a huge board of cheese, and nothing to do but pig out. It’s the Christmas experience! And as we hurtle towards this year’s party season, when friends and family shall gather for a boozy, fromage-y feast (hey, gotta make up for last year), our thoughts are turning to the million pound question: which products to buy.
Time to seek advice from our local cheese-eating, wine-drinking experts. Here’s what they had to say:
Daniel Smith, Barbury Hill, Oxon
I started Barbury Hill as a one-stop-shop for local artisan producers, after getting frustrated at how much of a faff finding the really good stuff could be. So it’s no surprise that, for me, the answer is always going to be something British, and something artisanal. When you buy independent, you have a better understanding of the product: where it’s come from, how it’s been made. It’s for this exact reason that just last week I was out in Herefordshire, juggling (or at least, er, attempting to juggle) apples in an orchard, seeing the story behind the product. Obviously not everyone can up stakes to an orchard in Herefordshire just to buy some apples, which is why buying through trusted retailers makes a big difference.
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty selection, I think any self-respecting cheese board needs a soft cheese, a hard cheese, and a blue. We’ve got one particular producer, Fen Farm in Suffolk, who make a raw brie called Baron Bigod, which I’d say is probably one of the best cheeses made in the UK. I’d even say — any French readers, look away now — that it’s better than the French stuff! So that’s definitely my soft of choice. For the hard cheese I’d have to pick Godminster organic cheddar from Somerset that’s new on our site, which is lovely. And for the blue, I can’t recommend a Bath Blue enough.
And English wine for all that cheese? Well, it’s Christmas, so it’s got to be a sparkling. One of our most popular producers, Langham Wine Estate in Dorset, last year beat many leading Champagne houses to top prize at a major wine and spirits competition, so I’d recommend a bottle of their sparkling.
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Lynne Levin, Levin Wines, Chalfont St. Giles
My husband David started Levin Wines over forty years ago, simply because he couldn’t find half bottles of wine to sell in his hotels. Just from that you can see our dedication to the stuff! As an Australian I’ve always loved wine, and that certainly hasn’t changed with moving to Buckinghamshire. As well as producing our own wines, we sell other great independent wines through Great Wine Estates, so I know what to look for.
If you’re after a really good wine, it’s important to go small-scale. Think about it: a vine only has so many resources and nutrients available, so if a business is straining to get the largest quantity of product possible, you’ll end up with a diluted flavour. This is why we keep our Levin Wines entirely organic. It also makes a big difference if grapes are hand-picked like ours because it means that only the best grapes go into the wine — unlike machine-picked grapes, which pick everything: grapes, bugs, the lot!
When tasting a particular type of wine, you want to think about the varietal characteristics. So if you’re trying a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, you want to get some nice crisp acidity, and a lovely balance of citrus characters. Colour is another good tell: the colour will indicate whether it has been made well, and that it hasn’t had a chance to oxidise.
When it comes to Christmas, our signature cuvées work perfectly with a classic menu. Our Mister L Sauvignon Blanc goes brilliantly with roast turkey, and our Madame L Gamay goes well with a spiced honey-glazed baked ham. In fact, the Madame L also rolls on well for a bit of after-dinner Stilton. For a starter, I’d actually recommend a rosé — like our Levin Gamay Rosé — to have with smoked salmon. I know a lot of people see rosé as a summer wine, but I think, when you have a properly made rosé, it’s lovely in the winter, and so good with smoked salmon.
Lisa Goodchild, The Cotswold Cheese Co., Burford
My husband and I bought The Cotswold Cheese Co. in 2010, soon expanding into Burford as well as online. The whole team is cheese-mad — you have to be in this line of work!
When examining potential cheeses to stock, we always check that they’re artisanal and handmade, because that’s how you know the quality has been the priority. If you’re tasting a cheese for the first time, there’s several things to take into account: the flavour and balance of it, the texture, and (shallow as you may think it…) the appearance. No one wants to eat a cheese that looks awful — it’s as simple as that. But of course the flavour is the most important element. Actually, a good consistency of flavour across several batches of the same cheese will tell you a lot about the treatment of the cows — another thing we feel strongly about, and that’s helped by buying from small producers.
When it comes to cheese to seek out, I absolutely love the Witheridge Hay cheese from the Nettlebed Creamery near Henley. It’s aged in hay, which provides a really amazing, grassy note like nothing else. We also get a lot of attention towards the Blue Monday cheese, made by Blur’s Alex James — he’s local to us with a farm in Kingham, and it’s a genuinely excellent, medium blue.
For Christmas it’s fun to go a little luxe, so I always recommend our truffle brie, or for maximum festive notes we sell Blu 61, which is steeped in wine and studded with cranberries. Christmas in a mouthful! Then when you’re looking for accompaniments, I say skip the standard crackers and go for a panforte — a kind of chewy, nutty Italian fruitcake. It’s a stunning combo. And you can’t go wrong with a bit of charcuterie; we like basically everything made by Saltpig Curing, another local Cotswolds business.
Holly Morgan, Daws Hill Vineyard, near High Wycombe
Daws Hill Vineyard was planted by my dad as a retirement project after moving back to Bucks from the Loire valley — it was a way of taking a bit of France with him. We’re unusual in that we’re tiny (only 5,000 vines, which despite how it may sound is indeed tiny), but we have a full winery onsite. That in itself is a bit of a giveaway that we’re sticklers for a properly excellent wine: we have to control the whole process!
Advising how to pick the perfect wine is tricky, as I always say it’s a bit like appreciating abstract art: totally subjective. But I’m also really passionate about sparkling wine that’s made in the traditional process. No, not squelching barefoot in togas: by this I mean a two-stage fermentation, involving a long aging in the bottle, to produce the ‘fizz’ of carbon dioxide. Cheaper wines (like Prosecco) are made in pressurized tanks and go into the bottle already fizzy, which is why I find their flavour to be a bit less textured. All of our wine is made with the traditional process, and I think it’s much better for it.
I would also say it’s really worth seeking out English wines. As a country we’re now producing some genuinely world-class wines, particularly sparkling — beating Champagnes left, right, and centre in the competitions. And at the Christmas table, a glass of English bubbly with your turkey is never a bad idea! Then for the cheese course, our Daws Hill white wines go extremely well with something creamy. We use Bucks-based The Deli at No. 5 for all our cheese and wine pairings, but I can particularly recommend anything made by the Nettlebed Creamery and The Marlow Cheese Company. They’re a dream on a Christmas cheese board, especially with a glass of Daws Hill sparkling…