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wines for the festive period

by Tom Cannavan, 12/04

The festive period is a time when many people buy and serve wines they might not normally drink during the rest of the year. Sparkling wines, sweet wines and fortified wines like Port and Madeira spring to mind.

This is wine-pages guide to our best buys in each of these categories, with an attempt to recommend something for every budget. Though of course independent merchants and specialists have a great selection, I've tried to include quite a bit from High Street retailers for ease of access.

The inexpensive selection will provide a really good quality sparkling, sweet and fortified wine for a spend of less than £20 - quite some challenge! The budget for the moderate slection is £50, whilst the most expensive trio of wines will cost a little over £75.

inexpensive     moderate     expensive

Sparkling



a) Ombra (Italy) Prosecco NV
b) Bisol (Italy) Prosecco "Jeio" NV
c) Majestic (Italy) Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobiadene Extra Dry
Three prosecco's to choose from, each being a good example of the Prosecco style at its frivolous, crisp and delicious best. You might use these as the base for a Bellini frozen cocktail (with about two-thirds peach juice and liquidised peach pulp), but these are brilliant aperitif wines filled with gentle effervesence, and lively, crisp apple and sherbetty fruit.
Taittinger (France) "Prélude" Grand Cru Champagne NV
I know Taittinger for their light, elegant, vivacious style of Champagne, which is beautifully made but a contrast to the richer, more biscuitty style of other houses. Prélude is a new cuvée, a 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend from the vineyards of Aviz and Le Mesnil, Bouzy and Ambonnay. It has a light golden colour and beautifully composed nose, where sour apple and floral notes are underpinned by a little earthiness and spice. On the palate it is rich, with a mouthfilling mousse, and though there is plenty of bite form racy lime and tangerine fruit, there's a breadth of slightly more tropical, heavier fruit and an earthy, mellow quality that fills-out in the finish. There's a lovely mineral acidity here, and the balance to suggest this could cellar very nicely.
Champagne Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1996
It is one year on since I recommended this wine as my Wine of the Month, and it is filling-out and mellowing beautifully all the time. It is one of the best young vintage Veuve-Clicquots I have ever tasted, and is up there with the 1988-1990 triumverate of great wines. It is already beautifully toasty, rich and nutty on the nose, that richness developing on top of crisp, cool lemon and peachy fruit. The mousse is rich and persists in the mouth, with lots of body and richness and a creamy quality. All the time there's a tang of grapefruit acidity that teases and cleanses the palate. This has fantastic length too, and is an absolutely brilliant Champagne that should cellar effortlessly for 10 years and more. Retail price is £39.99, but with festive deals around, you might get it cheaper:

Sweet


St. Gisbertus (Germany) Beerenauslese 2003
The 2002 vintage was a Wine of the Month on wine-pages, and St Gisbertus have turned in another little cracker from the warm 2003 in the Rheinhessen. Made mainly from Ortega and Optima, this has a very elegant botrytis nose with notes of orange and honey, barley sugar and deep-set apricot and fig. On the palate it is delightfully fresh, with plenty of fruit, a lovely shimmering sweetness, and fine but gentle citrus acidity to balance. This actually has decent length too, and is a wine I'd be happy to sip with - or instead of - dessert. Only £2.99 per 50cl, Aldi
de Bortoli (Australia) Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2002
An Australian classic, de Bortoli's 2002 is a really good example of their full-on, luscious Sauternes-style wine. There is an extra layer of toast and butterscotch that adds a sumptuous edge to the nose, with unctuous, creamy scents of tropical fruit and honey. A lemony note keeps things sharply focused. On the palate it coats the mouth with thick, full texture and a sweet marmalade quality. There really is magical richness here, with a cut of tangerine acidity giving balance and length. Great stuff. £12.99 per 37.5cl
Heidi Schröck (Austria) Ruster Ausbruch 2002
This fascinating Botrytised sweet wine comes from Austrian winemaker of the year 2003 , Heidi Schröck. her "Elysium" dessert wine was awarded 98 points by Robert Parker. The colour of this rich wine is a medium-deep gold, and the nose is just a deep well of honey and barely sugar, with a hint of toast and spice, and of unctuous nectarine fruit. On the palate there is an absolute flood of honeyed orange and thick, fantastically sweet nectarine and fleshy, ripe peach. This stays very, very fresh despite the weight of rich, viscose fruit, with little hint of the figgy darkness of some Botrytis wines, but a lovely shimmering quality of acidity and a hint of toast adding a broad complexity to the endless finish. Fabulous wine, and outstanding. £26.95 per 37.5cl

Fortified


Dow's (Portugal) Midnight Port
There's a lot of rather rough ruby and tawny Port about, but Dow's - at less than £7 for a whole bottle - has a bit of class for the money, and isn't too spirity. It is a careful blend of young Ports that has a rich, dark colour and a fruitcake nose, filled with raisins and spice. On the palate there is plenty of cherry fruit and sweetness, with a hint of chocolate and a soft, sweet finish that just betrays a little alcohol. Very decent stuff given the low price. £6.99 for a full bottle
Warre's (Portugal) "Otima" 10-year-old Tawny Port
10-year-old tawny is one of my favourite Port styles; a blend of old wines averaging 10 years, that has aged in wood. This is Warre's version aimed at a lighter style for those who do not like the darker, heavier qualities of Port. The colour is quite a deep tawny with a hint of rose-hip. On the nose this is superbly mellow and chocolaty, with caramel and a fudge-like richness, but also hints of sweet strawberry fruit. On the palate this is really quite fresh, with more of that zippy raspberry and strawberry fruit that is sweet and ripe, overlaid on a base of dark, figgy and toffeed richness. Good acidity adds to the sense of freshness. £9.99 per 50cl
Barbeito (Madeira) Single Harvest 1996
I visited Barbeito a couple of years ago, one of the smaller, but most progressive Madeira houses. This special selection of just three casks of barrel-aged wines resulted in only 3,000 bottles. The colour is a lovely barley-sugar gold (Barbeito do not use caramel to colour their wines) and the nose has an incredible walnut, honey and Seville orange melange of aromas, with dried fruits and sweet vanilla adding to the complexity. On the palate it is luscious and beautifully balanced: it has terrific sweetness, and delicate fruit suggesting unctuous pear and peach, but a back-stop of racy orange acidity and all sorts of tobacco-tinged, dry, walnut and smoky, sultry tones. This is a brilliant wine by any standards and a must try. Outstanding. Around £16 per 50cl