This is the time of year we tend to treat ourselves to the in-between wines. Not just the reds and still whites we drink all the time, but bottles plucked from all points along the strength, carbonation and sweetness spectra. Some of the best current offerings are listed below, grouped by the occasion that demands them.
There are few greater bargains in the world of wine than unbranded sherry. These are wines aged for decades in barrels in Jerez and still cost less than a decent one year-Australian Chardonnay - and much less than a port of the same age.
Berrys Fine Dry Oloroso (£6.75 Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1 and Basingstoke 0870 900 4301)
This dark, nutty wine from Barbadillo of Sanlucar is certainly an antique and is so dry that it would buck up the appetite at the same time as comforting the chilly.
12-year-old Solera Especial Amontillado (Half bottles £6.99 from major Marks & Spencer stores)
Anyone buying this for the easy sweetness of a commercial sherry labelled Amontillado would get a shock. This example from a 50-year-old Williams and Humbert Solera (12 is presumably the average age of the wine) is pale, taut and excitingly bone-dry.
Amontillado Pastrana, Hildalgo (£17.95 Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1 and Basingstoke 0870 900 4301)
Lovely rich start and then bone-dry finish providing the same sort of jolt as a Sercial madeira. Perfect for Christmas morning - or indeed any morning after.
Dry fizz is of course quintessentially celebratory and widely served as an aperitif, but there are also champagnes so big and intellectual that they are really better served at a special meal - see below. Deals on champagne abound but be wary of bottles on sale for less than about £14.
Amyot NV Champagne (£14.99 or £8.99 a half, 37.5cl, The Winery of London W9 020 7286 6475)
This mainly-Pinot blend from the Aube is certainly not short of character, though will be too heavy and toasty for some. Not fine but nutty and interesting. You could drink it with food too.
Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs (£15.95 The Wine Society of Stevenage 01438 740222, £16.99 larger Waitrose stores)
This grand cru champagne comes from the co-op in a very fine village on the Côte des Blancs, Champagne's Chardonnay heartland. It may not be as dense as neighbour Salon but it is well made, appetising champagne, a vivacious counterpart to the Amyot style.
Laurent Perrier NV Champagne (£16.95 Lea & Sandeman of London SW10, W8, NW3 and SW13 020 7244 0522 as part of a mixed case)
One of the best deals around as this is serious stuff. Or you could buy an unmixed case of Laurent Perrier 1993 which works out at £24.95 a bottle. Both these wines will continue to improve in bottle for several years.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 1994 (£16.95 Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1 and Basingstoke 0870 900 4301)
English wine's pride and joy. This Sussex wine operation has just been sold by its American owners but wines like this rich, full, complete copy of a mature NV champagne won them serious recognition. I prefer this to the leaner 1993 Blanc de Blancs.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs 1982 (£90 Waitrose Direct 0800 188881)
This is probably the only 1982 champagne you can find for this price and is just gorgeous today. Most de luxe champagnes at this sort of price need time to show their best but this is an unusually reasonable price for full maturity. Not a penny has gone into fancy packaging, just lovely wine that demands to be drunk.
Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1964 (£495 Harrods of London SW1 020 7730 1234)
Perhaps of minority interest but a quite stunning, relatively recently disgorged bottle straight from Moët et Chandon's own cellars to drink with even strongly flavoured food. It stood up manfully to poached pigeon and date sauce.
With sweet things
Our sugar intake surely reaches an all-year high over the holidays, so why worry about a bit of residual sugar in the wine? Remember that, because of its counterbalancing acidity, the wine should be sweeter than the food served with it.
The Pioneers Raisined Muscat 2001 Miranda Wines (£4.49 or £3.49 if you buy two from Majestic)
Australia can offer scores of great stickie wines, notably Rutherglen's tooth-rotting Muscat, but this is surely the best value (and will be followed by many an imitator and a price hike). Muscat of Alexandria grapes are picked, then dried like an Italian passito before being pressed. Pale, extremely tangy golden syrup.
Waitrose Solera Jerezana Rich Cream (£5.59 Waitrose)
You can tell how old this sherry is by the greenish tinge to its tawny. This is lively, tangy and raisiny with both age and life! Congratulations to Diego Romero for producing a perfect wine to drink with Christmas cake or Christmas pudding.
Moscato d'Asti 1999 La Morandina (£9.99/£6.95 a half The Winery of London W9 020 7286 6475)
This featherlight (5.5 per cent alcohol) style of wine is a godsend. It refreshes with its gentle sparkle yet is sweet enough even for plum pudding (though it is better with fruity desserts). Lemon sherbet in the best possible form.
Coteaux de l'Aubance, Les Trois Demoiselles 1997 Domaine Richou (£13.25 per 50cl Haynes Hanson & Clark of London SW1 and Stow-on-the-Wold 020 7259 0102)
Pure Loire Chenin Blanc that is bursting with life and richness.
Coteaux du Layon, Clos des Bonnes Blanches 1999 Domaine Ogereau (£14.65 for 50cl Caves de Pyrène of Artington, Surrey 01483 538820)
Almonds, apricots, and extreme richness. An enormous wine that manages to be beautifully well balanced. A knockout. (Waitrose ask £18.99 for 50cl of a Bonnes Blanches from debut winemakers Agnès and René Mosse).
Escherndorfer Lump Riesling Beerenauslese 2000 Horst Sauer (£30.99 for 50cl Noel Young Wines of Trumpington 01223 844744)
Very exciting, razor-sharp nectar with some lime flavour and great depth. From one of the best growers in Germany's Franken region, it comes in one of those funny flask bottles that fit into no wine rack. No matter; it is already lovely.
Grande Cuvée Trockenbeerenauslese No 10 1998 Alois Kracher (£25.99 a half Noel Young Wines of Trumpington 01223 844744)
The 1998s are some of this genius's finest sweet wines from the Neusiedlersee in eastern Austria. Sixty per cent Chardonnay, 40 per cent Welschriesling and 100 per cent noble rot plus new oak equal a tooth-rotter with seven per cent alcohol and 330g/l residual sugar. The number 10 means it's the vintage's sweet bombshell.
After the meal
In theory, we sit by the fireside after the meal, minimising any additional pressure on our digestive systems with gentle sips of a fortified wine, traditionally port.
Dow's Crusted Port 1997 (£12.99 most Waitrose)
This thick, sweet heart-thumper may be too exciting for after a copious meal. Decant it as a treat after cold turkey.
Smith Woodhouse 1990 Bottle Matured Port (£15 Nicholas Corke Fine Wines of Holbeach 01406 365654)
Pruny nose with a certain flowery elegance and some maturity already. Decant this wine bottled at four years old (a real Late Bottled Vintage) and drink it any time over the next four years.
Taylor's 10-Year-Old Tawny Port (£14.99 Majestic, £16.49 Sainsburys, £16.99 Safeway)
Vigorous and not too sweet.
Henriques & Henriques 15-Year-Old Bual Madeira (£24.77 Edward Sheldon of Shipston on Stour 01608 661409, £26 Selfirdges of London W1 020 7629 1234)
Madeira is so useful because it remains vibrant in an opened bottle for weeks. This is one of the best value: smokey gunpowder whiffs on a gentle, reverberating palate. Much, much deeper-flavoured than the same firm's 10-year-old.
Wiese & Krohn Colheita Port 1965 (£49 Inspired Wines of Cleobury 01299 270064)
Colheita ports are made from a single vintage aged in wood and can be enjoyed as soon as they are bottled. This example, bottled this year, delights with treacle toffee, orange peel, very sweet, full and fat - just the present for an old crone (the word Wiese does not appear on the bottle).
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1960 (£260 Berry Bros & Rudd of London SW1 and Basingstoke 0870 900 4301)
For a real thrill, blow £260 on a bottle of this pale red slice of pre-phylloxera history with a wild, gamey nose and layer after layer of licorice. Amazingly, there is still some tannin here. Although it is delightfully gentle there is a fiery sweetness too. Absolutely no hurry to drink this wonderfully old-fashioned bottle (marked Da Silva). It would make a very special present.
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