Eating Out: Buy now while excuse lasts

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The Independent Culture
COMING right up: New Year's Eve with a vengeance. New Year's Eve on steroids. The one-and-only, long-awaited Millennium. If you haven't already done your buying for the big occasion, put down that turkey sandwich and read on.

Research by various retail organisations indicates that over half of celebrants will be celebrating at someone's home, rather than at a restaurant. The low- key approach was confirmed in an NOP survey which found, as of 11 December, that 60 per cent of revellers hadn't made plans yet and only 7 per cent regarded the event as "very exciting".

I'm on the side of the 7 per cent. But that doesn't mean I plan to see in the New Year with a boiled egg, a cup of tea, and an early night. I expect to experience some degree of intoxication. And I know, in principle if not in detail, the sort of drink that will induce it: something expensive. You should follow suit - whatever the word expensive means to you. When you look back on the big M in 20 years' time, you should envy your former self for the glorious tinctures that coursed down your throat. On this occasion, trade up or you're letting yourself down.

I've decided to give recommendations in two price categories with two reds and two whites in each. All can be purchased without recourse to mail order. And since all will improve with age, why not buy one to drink now and one to keep?

pounds 10 AND ENVIRONS: Whites begin with Montes Alpha Chardonnay 1998 (around pounds 10 from Majestic, Wm Morrison, Harvey Nichols and elsewhere), a richly oaky, gorgeously full-flavoured cocktail of fruit from prime sites all over Chile. NB, it's on offer at Majestic at pounds 8.99. Then another New Worlder, Laguna Ranch Chardonnay 1996 (pounds 10.99, 85 Tesco stores), a generously oaked Sonoma wine in which butterscotch richness balances with lovely citrus. Bonterra Sangiovese 1998 (pounds 11.99, Oddbins), compulsively slurpable, each slurp rewarded with intense, sour-black-cherry fruit; huge concentration; ample finish. Chateau Reynella Basket Pressed Shiraz 1996, McLaren Vale (pounds 11.99, Waitrose and elsewhere), with exquisitely deep, complex flavours of spice and ripe berries; decanting (necessary) will wake it up in time for dinner.

pounds 15 TO pounds 20: Petaluma Chardonnay 1997, Piccadilly (pounds 14.99, Oddbins and Waitrose), one of the best examples of the grape I have tasted from Australia, a perfect assembly of opulent elements - peach and tropical fruit flavours, buttery oak - which somehow manages to be subtle and delicate in spite of its power. I'd love to taste this alongside Meursault 1994, Chateau de Meursault (pounds 17.99, Safeway, Unwins and Waitrose), equally opulent but in classic nutty style. For reds, I go first to Chateau Haut-Batailley 1996, Pauillac (pounds 19.99, Oddbins), from a selection that represents one of the few Bordeaux buys in the High Street at a sensible price. Light, structured, excellent. And too young, of course, but decant and give it time to grow in the glass. La Rioja Alta 1989, Gran Reserva (pounds 19.99, Majestic and Waitrose), by contrast, is mature, warmly oaky Rioja from a great producer, with complex balance found too rarely nowadays from this region. Utter delight.

FINALLY: three Champagne choices, all recommended in previous editions. Cheapest: Pol Roger 1990 (around pounds 35, Sainsbury's, Bottoms Up, Majestic, Oddbins), fantastically creamy and voluptuous. Majestic will let you have it for pounds 26.99 if you buy two. Middle-price: Bollinger 1990 (around pounds 42, widely available), one of the greatest wines of this great vintage. Absolute top whack: Noble Cuvee de Lanson 1988 (pounds 55.99, Thresher, Wine Rack). This is nutty, mellow, fully mature; ultimate sensuous luxury. If, for whatever reason, I didn't buy that, I would have Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1990 (pounds 67.99 from Oddbins or pounds 55.99 from Majestic, if you buy two). But be warned, Champagne stocks may be dangerously low at this late stage.

On a personal note, in case you're wondering, my own revels centre on a hotel in Brighton with various children in attendance. The scope for Bacchanalian excess will thus be limited. But I am going to take along a bottle of Champagne - either Krug Grande Cuvee (around pounds 65-70, widely available), the best and costliest non-vintage on earth, or Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1990 (pounds 54.99, Bottoms Up and Wine Rack).

That's it for 1999, folks. But to greet the New Year, my fellow devotees of the Bloody Mary should buy a bottle of good vodka. Cut the stem off one red chilli and score it with a sharp knife. Peel two cloves of garlic. Blanch all in boiling water, dry them, and pop into the bottle. Screw on the cap. Keep in the freezer till next week, when all will be revealed. Happy New Year.

Auld Lang Syne: if you don't know the single malts made at the Ardbeg distillery, you're missing out. Ardbeg 17-Year-Old (around pounds 30, widely available) is one of Islay's greatest hits. It is salty, malty, massively peaty, sweetly oaky and smoky. Earlier distillations (Ardbeg 1975 and Ardbeg 1978) are available from Oddbins for pounds 44.99 and pounds 36.39 respectively (and from specialist merchants as well). Whisky specialist Jim Murray calls anything before 1976 `a masterpiece'. Hint, hint.