Eating & drinking: Just desserts

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The Independent Culture
THE TURKEY'S cleared, the crackers are cracked, the children have sloped off to play with their Nintendos. Around the table, yet again, the question is posed which has stumped philosophers from Heraclitus to Noel Gallagher: what should we drink next? Well, maybe that's an exaggeration. For some philosophers, it has to be port. And if that's the case, your buying options are numerous: the shops are stuffed with it. Just decide on your price and style, then go to a shop with a good selection and get their advice.

Except, of course, that most of us spend the run-up to Christmas playing Dodgems on the A666, and have no time for the leisured contemplation of such niceties. A problem? I still don't think so. Think LBV. Late Bottled Vintage is wine from a single year that has spent several years in wood before being bottled for early(ish) drinking, and in good hands it makes a fine alternative to Vintage or Single Quinta wines. Bad news: it does not reach the exalted heights. Good news: it's usually ready to drink when you buy it, and it won't turn your current account into a wasteland.

Here's a pair of likely choices: Taylor's and Graham's Late Bottled Vintage Port 1994 (around pounds 11, both widely available), generous examples from an excellent vintage. Best news of all: the Co-Op has the Graham's on offer at just pounds 8.79, a 20 per cent reduction which may be the Port bargain of the season. Buy two, one to drink and one to keep. If you're a fan of tawny port, look into Quinta Do Noval Colheita 1982 (pounds 8.99/37.5cl, Fortnum & Mason and Wimbledon Wine Cellars). A colheita is a tawny from a single year, and this one's poised and nicely raisiny.

But port is not the whole post-prandial Christmas story if you like dessert wines. Their variety is astonishing, and you don't have to spend pounds 150 for Chateau d'Yquem 1990 (Waitrose) to get something wonderful. Cranswick Estate Botrytis Semillon 1996, New South Wales (around pounds 9-10/37.5cl, Asda, Oddbins etc) supplies enough luscious marmalade flavours for six.

Generally, however, you will have to go to the independent merchants to ascend to the higher realms of stickiness. This is because the greatest sweet wines, for a number of interesting reasons (interesting to me, at least) are made in small quantities, which in turn means that their prices can make the blood run cold.

A comprehensive list of suitable indies does not exist, but here's a start. Berry Bros & Rudd (0207 396 9600), Adnams (01502 727222), Laytons (0207 388 5081) and Lay & Wheeler (01206 764446) are good on almost everything. Reid Wines (01761 452645), ditto, but especially strong on top-rung Alsace. Lea & Sandeman (0207 244 0522) are best in Tokaji and south-western France. Tanners (01743 232400) are particularly good on the Loire. Noel Young Wines (01223 844744) sells the extraordinary wines of Alois Kracher in Burgenland, Austria, among other many-splendoured things. Go into any of these places and tell them what you want. You will not regret it. And if you buy from Berry Bros, remember to pick up one of their cute 25cl bottles of Royal Tokaji 1993 4 Puttonyos (pounds 7.55) as a stocking filler.

In the meantime, please consider Erdener Pralat Riesling Auslese 1998. It costs pounds 26-28 from Berry Bros & Rudd, Adnams and Laytons. It is made by Ernie Loosen, one of the greatest winemakers in the Mosel (and the world). I tasted it after another Auslese of great distinction that had a full nine extra years of bottle age. The first was extraordinary, and I expected Dr L's to suffer because it is such a baby. It didn't. It blooms on the palate with a different kind of flower at every mouthful, and with honeysuckle and peach and a mineral-clad acidity which will keep it for at least another decade. One of the greatest wines I've drunk in recent memory.

If those energetic pursuits seem too much, seek out a bottle of Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso Muy Viejo (pounds 10.99, Waitrose and elsewhere). This is one of the most consistent sweet wines anywhere. I have never served it to anyone, even non-sherry lovers and non-sweetie lovers, without watching smiles all round the table. Which is, after all, what you really want for Christmas. Apart from the new Britney Spears single, of course.

WINE BOX

To drink now

Unwins has some great things on offer for Christmas, and here's a whole meal's worth. Start with an astonishingly complex Sancerre Les Romains 1997, Domaine Vacheron (pounds 17.99), barrel-fermented and worth every penny. Go on to Esporao Trincadeira 1997 (pounds 7.99/50cl), an Alentejo red with big, supple flavours; shame that it's not a bigger bottle, though. And finish with a gorgeous Loire sweetie, Coteaux du Layon Chaume, Chateau de la Guimoniere "Les Julines" 1997 (pounds 19.99/50cl), which should really be kept for another 10 years but can just about be approached now. Not a cheap threesome, but a good one.

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