"Drinkcember” is back. Kenyans love a good reason to come together, drink and make merry, often with their favourite dishes spread across the table, their aromas wafting through their homes and into the neighbourhood.
Chapati, mukimo, pilau and kuku kienyeji, with a side of choice traditional greens, characterise the annual Kenyan festive menu.
But what wines will you serve with these dishes? It can be a bit difficult to decide which perfect bottle to buy, especially when most documented pairings are not specific to the taste of Kenya.
Can a South African wine pair well with mutura? Does the wine you enjoy determine the dish, or the other way around?
Top wine sommeliers pick their favourite bottles to serve with Kenyan dishes.
Victoria Mulu-Munywoki, Wine Consultant and Sommelière, Cellar 254
Is there any particular chronology of wine service at a party?
Start your guests off with sparkling wine like Champagne. The science behind it is that bubbles tickle taste buds and at the same time, acidity in dry sparkling wine makes the mouth water and increases appetite. You don’t want to be slaving away cooking from the early hours of the morning, only to have your guests tell you they are too full to eat, as could be the case with other kinds of alcohol.
Sparkling wine is also very versatile. It is a perfect welcome drink and can be served throughout the day across various meals. If you’re having guests over for brunch, serve them mimosas — a pretty cocktail made with champagne, orange juice and garnished with a cherry.
Follow up with a white wine to pair with your first course and red wine for your main course. Wrap up the party with Port, and if anyone does not quite fancy Port, serve them Cognac or Armagnac — both French brandies made from grapes.
Ten best wines for Christmas?
Make them 12. Christmas has to be the one time of the year that you can indulge, right? I would splurge on fine bubbles: Champagne for me. I would go for Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, or indeed a bubbly from a smaller champagne house, like Pol Roger.
If on a budget, a fantastic Prosecco will do. It has to be one with individuality and character, preferably Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco, also known as ConVal. By choosing a ConVal, you’ve halved your budget yet maintain a fantastic taste profile.
What defines a ‘Prosecco with character’?
Prosecco with character is one with distinct and defined fruit, balanced acidity with the fruit and alcohol, brioche and mineral notes as well as a long finish. Terroir is very important; the people, place and climate. The Conegliano Valdobbiadene area produces the best Prosecco with the aforementioned flavour profile.
A Reserva Cava also makes for a suitable alternative to champagne. With the three options there is no excuse to start Christmas without a glass of fizz.
What about white wine?
I recommend a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, one that is pungent, austere and with intense defined flavours of green and tropical fruit.
I also like to entertain with an oaked Burgundy like a Montrachet or similar styles of Chardonnay. The softer texture on the palate is pleasing for guests that do not enjoy dry wines or those that suffer from hyperacidity. When Chardonnay has been aged in oak, acidity is softened and the oak imparts sweet spice notes like vanilla and toast, which tricks the senses into thinking wine is sweeter.
Another great wine to have at your Christmas dinner table is a dry Riesling, especially from the Alsace region, in this case Hugel or Trimbach Grand Cru which are steely complex wines with notes of honey, floral, citrus and stone fruit backed by a good mineral finish, all the hallmarks of an excellent white wine.
Which reds do you recommend?
I highly recommend Bordeaux blends. A Bordeaux blend will have Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Blends are always great because it’s a bit like when you’re cooking; you'll play around with the ingredients to bring out distinct flavours in the same way a wine blend does. Seek out a Pauillac or Margaux if you want to impress.
Other reputable blends I would recommend are the Rhone-Style red wines which pair well with a wide array of our traditional African meals. Additionally, the red wines to love are high altitude Malbecs particularly the Catena Adrianna Malbec. It is one of the most elegant expression of this varietal and hugely satisfying for novices and oenophiles alike.
What other bottle would you recommend?
Always have a good Cabernet Franc handy. It’s an undiscovered gem.
Moreover, I would recommend a fantastic bottle of Port. From the Ruby to Tawny, to vintage styles (10 or 20-year-old), port is great and wraps up a party well.
Irrespective of the brand, Port is obligatory at every home. It is fortified wine that both cocktail and whisky lovers enjoy immensely. You also don’t need to take very much of it; about 100 or 150ml will do.
You can also drink tawny port slightly chilled to enjoy it better, particularly here in Kenya where the weather is quite warm.
Let’s talk food pairings now, especially in Kenyan homes over the festive season.
Tripe (matumbo) and offal is served in many homes over Christmas. A Marlborough Sauvignon blanc would pair well with matumbo, depending on how you cook it. Matumbo is greasy and you need something with acidity. Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with deep-fried or fatty food. The Bordeaux blend would also be suitable for tripe as it has the tannin and enough acidity to meld with the food.
Bordeaux blends are complex wines and will pair well with roast meat or mushroom dishes. Nyama choma or duck will also pair really well with a Bordeaux blend. If you don’t like blends, then 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon will do the trick.
For mashed meals like mukimo, I would recommend an oaked Chardonnay, because the textures will match. Mukimo will be creamy, dense and with a bit of sweetness, along with the buttery texture in the oaked chardonnay this will be a marriage made in heaven.
Coastal foods are aromatic and spicy, and that’s where a Riesling comes in. You want an off-dry Riesling. For Swahili dishes, especially if you prefer red wine, then lighter styles would be good.
A Cabernet Franc will hardly clash with these foods.
What would you recommend as a ‘safety wine’?
If all else fails, you can have your sparkling wines from the beginning of the meal to the end. You can chill all these wines to a temperature of about 16 to 18 degrees Celsius.
What wine will you be having this Christmas?
I will be having the Alto Cabernet Sauvignon. It is age-worthy yet ready to drink now, upon release, but will evolve over time. It is complex with smoky, chocolate, dark red fruit, cedar notes and firm tannins. It is rated among the top 10 investable wines in South Africa today.
I will also treat myself to the Guado Al Taso Bolgheri which is redolent, rich, elegant and supple. Reserva Cava is also on my list, if I tire of Champagne.
What bottle(s) have you already opened for Drinkcember, and how do you ensure that it is “Zero waste, great taste”?
In my profession, I have to taste a lot of different wines, sometimes simultaneously. I have opened a couple of bottles at the moment. One of the wines I have in my fridge is Quails Gate Riesling Ice-wine. I’ve also been experimenting on food pairing with Gaja Barbaresco. I am enjoying the Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve Chardonnay, and a Clos La Bergerie Savenniéres discovered in my recent travels.
How do I make sure they hold up?
If I can’t finish wine, I put argon gas in the leftover wine, pop a closure, then put the bottle in the fridge. The argon gas is in a portable spray bottle and it displaces all the oxygen in the bottle thus preserving wine.
What wine will you be gifting a friend this holiday?
I have shortlisted my ultimate top 12 wines for this Christmas. They are great wines from across the world. It’s also been a great year with so much to be grateful for.
I will therefore be gifting generously from a selection of the iconic Antinori Tignanello “Tig” or Guado al Tasso Bolgheri from Italy, Catena Zapata Adrianna Malbec or La Mascota Cabernet Franc from Argentina, Penfolds “Baby Grange” Bin 369 from Australia, Anna Codorniu Reserva Cava from Spain, Borie Manoux Margaux from France, Alto Cabernet Sauvignon or Rupert & Rothschild Baron Edmond from South Africa, Napa Cellars Chardonnay from USA, Quinto dos Murças Port from Portugal or the BEPIN D’ETO Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco.
It is tasteful to gift two bottles if they are packaged elegantly. You want to give a single collectors bottle or indeed a boxed case of great wine. Luxury is understated.
Are there any Kenyan wines on your list?
The Leleshwa Winemaker’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is a good shock for a lot of people who think we cannot produce good wine locally. The grapes are sourced from select parcels in the vineyard and as the name suggests, only hand selected optimum quality grapes are used in its production. I am proud of this locally produced wine.
Would it be advisable to buy a supermarket wine for guests?
Of course, yes! Supermarkets have evolved and have quite a good selection of wine. Satisfaction depends on what particular wine you are looking for as most endeavour to stock easily recognisable brands and varietals that are fast-movers.
Any Port brands you would recommend?
Graham’s, Sandeman and Quinta dos Murças are perfect.
How about if one likes a sweet white wine?
Get an aromatic, off-dry fruity style like a Vino Verde or Moscato instead. But please, avoid sugar-laden wine while entertaining as that will only serve to do is fill up your guests with not just alcohol, but unnecessary calories. Sweet still wines also coat the palate, and your guests won’t pick up many of the flavours in your food.
How would you encourage pacing your drinks as the day and night progresses, to avoid overindulgence?
Have a lot of water around, both still and sparkling. You can also have the option of fruit juices as an alternative.
The other way to pace your guests is by encouraging them to observe the etiquette of drinking wine, like the three-finger rule. Don’t pour more than three fingers from the base of the bulb to the centre. Also, use the right glasses and that will help pace your guests.
If possible, play waiter and be the one to top up their drinks, or find people to serve as the night continues.
Melissa Mwende, Wine Ambassador, De Vries Africa
If a person is hosting this Christmas season, what are the basic wine and food pairings guideline to follow?
I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘white wine and white meat’ and ‘red wine with red meat’. Those are clues; we don’t have to stick to them.
When wine and food come together, food is king. Food can have an effect on how the wine will taste like, but the wine can never have an effect on what the food will taste like. You can play around with your food, but not necessarily with your wine.
The second thing is flavour profiles. We don’t necessarily pair food with wine as the dish itself; we pair the specific flavours of the dish with those of the wine. Say, if you’re serving very spicy food, then you need to pair it with sweet wine to balance out the chilli.
Kenyans love barbecues over the holidays. How is it paired with wine?
Pair grilled chicken with a Pinot Noir; because the flavours work. The smokiness in the chicken’s flavour work well with the notes of a Pinot Noir.
What are the do’s and don’ts when it comes to flavour pairing?
There are flavours that are called wine friends and others that are its enemies. Wine friends are salt, fat and acid. For example, foods like pork, which are fatty, go very well with wine.
If you make mukimo and mix it with butter, it will go well with wine. Same applies to a salad and the dressing has a bit of lemon juice, you can also have it with wine.
Bad flavours for wine pairing include sugar. Desserts are normally a no-no for wine pairing, unless you have a dessert wine or port.
‘Umami’ is the flavour found in mushrooms and tomatoes. It is a wine enemy. To offset it, you can add other spices to dim the rich tomato taste before pairing it with wine.
And traditional vegetables?
Knowing Kenyans over Christmas, if we have a whole meal spread and you have to fill your plate, the vegetable portion will not be more than the meat portion. It’s the same case with ordering a wine for a group at a restaurant, where everyone in the group has ordered a different type of meat or food.
You look at the primary flavours in each of the foods and find a wine that balances all of them out.
With vegetables, it is easy to put them in the back seat. However, if you’re having a meal like ugali and sukumawiki, go for a very light wine, like a Pinot Grigio.
What wine should one serve if they want to wow everyone at the dinner table on Christmas Day?
On Christmas Day, there will obviously be nyama choma. So a Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot is a must-have. If I were to do it my way, I would have lots of mutura on the grill. This I would pair with a Pinotage.
Pinotage is a South African wine that goes well with their braai. The flavours in that wine are so good with grilled meats.
What kind of wine should be used to make sangria for the guests?
There are people that love their sangria so much they become critics. For them, it is exceptional if you use a decent Spanish wine. Most drinkers just want something sweet, so you can grab a box of whatever for that.
You don’t want to waste good wine by putting fruit in it. For instance, if I had a bottle of wine in my fridge for a week, and I can’t drink it as it is because it is not as good, I would make a sangria with it.
You favourites for Christmas?
I would highly recommend the Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Exclusive Bryt, the Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Reserve Blanc (2018) and their Reserve Rouge as well for red wine lovers, the Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (2013) and the Vergelegen Shiraz 2016. These will impress any guest at the dinner table!
What makes a wine light or bold?
People would assume white wine is lighter than red wine. It’s almost right, because red wine has tannin. Tannin is a flavour that comes from the grape skins, and is similar to black tea. You see how black tea dries out your mouth? That’s tannin, which gives wine its body and structure.
Ageing in oak gives wine body and character, especially for white wines. Another thing is “ageing in lees”. Lees is inactive yeast. In the winemaking, the juice of the grape combines with yeast to make alcohol.
Once the yeast does its job of eating up the sugars in the juice, it dies. If you want your wine to have complexity, you leave the lees in the cask to give it a bit more flavour.
When people say that their oaked Chardonnay has a buttery texture that is the direct effect of ageing in lees.
Wines that are paired with foods often have these characteristics; they have aged in lees, been in contact with oak and they were made with a bold grape. Two major examples of such grapes are the Cabernet Sauvignon for red and the Chardonnay for white.